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Opinion ‘So this is all about collusion’: An inventory of media remarks on the Steele dossier

Here’s a guide to how elements of the Steele dossier match up with the Mueller report. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

Tenth in a series on the media’s handling of the Steele dossier. Read the rest of the series here.

In a report released on Dec. 9, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz delivered a severe critique of the dossier compiled in 2016 by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. Published in January 2017 by BuzzFeed to considerable controversy, the dossier contained claims that the Trump campaign had used “moles” in the Democratic National Committee, that Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to advance a collusion scheme, that pension disbursements to Russian emigres in the United States facilitated intelligence transmissions and that there was a lewd video of Donald Trump in a Moscow hotel room.

The Horowitz verdict:

The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.

In light of such findings, the Erik Wemple Blog surfaced a number of sunny remarks about the dossier by journalists and others. We asked folks whether they’d amend their assessments of the dossier. The array below is by no means an exhaustive list of such commentary. Here’s a rundown of the results:

MSNBC host Nicolle Wallace

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Original quote: “To date, none of it has been disproven and whole, big parts of it are holding up.” (Dec. 24, 2018)

Context: Wallace was talking with former U.S. attorney Chuck Rosenberg about a Lawfare piece titled, “The Steele Dossier: A Retrospective.”

Comment: “The segment was based on Chuck Rosenberg’s careful and incredibly specific corroboration of sections of the dossier using public court documents and filings from the Mueller investigation. We stand by Chuck’s thoughtful and careful analysis around which the piece is built and the segment itself.”

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow

Original quote: “So, a lot of this [Steele] had dead to rights. A lot of this stuff that seemed nuts we all read this when it was published in January since then has been reported out and proven.” (Oct. 5, 2017)

Context: The Erik Wemple Blog discussed Maddow’s changing approach to the dossier in greater detail here.

Comment: Maddow declined to comment on the record.

CNN host Alisyn Camerota

Original quote: “Your intel community has corroborated all the details” — in a Dec. 8, 2017, interview with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)

Comment: Declined to comment on the record.

CNN host John Berman

Original quote: “Many of the meetings that the dossier discusses were corroborated, of course” — from a Jan. 10, 2018, interview with Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah).

Comment: Declined to comment on the record.

CNN correspondent Manu Raju

Original quote: “Of course, we now know that the DNC did pay for this Steele dossier drafted by that British agent, Christopher Steele, containing allegations of coordination and the like with Trump and Russia. Some of those have been corroborated. Some of those have not been substantiated in that dossier.” (Dec. 18, 2017, on CNN)

Comment: Raju referred the inquiry to CNN’s public relations department, which issued this statement: “CNN stands by our reporting. Our approach to the dossier has been consistent since day one. CNN only reported details when they were corroborated, part of a government filing, or publicly discussed by officials or those mentioned.”

Former State Department official Jonathan Winer

Original quote: “I would say an awful lot of material in the dossier has been corroborated by events and information that we have come to see since. Other parts are still unknown whether they’re going to be corroborated or not. Major elements of the dossier — I don’t know any that have been disproven.” (July 23, 2018, on CNN)

Context: As a State Department official, Winer had shared a two-page summary of the dossier with a colleague after meeting with Steele.

Comment: Winer did not return a request for comment.

New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer

Original quote #1: From her New Yorker profile of Steele, published March 5, 2018:

It’s too early to make a final judgment about how much of Steele’s dossier will be proved wrong, but a number of Steele’s major claims have been backed up by subsequent disclosures. His allegation that the Kremlin favored Trump in 2016 and was offering his campaign dirt on Hillary has been borne out. So has his claim that the Kremlin and WikiLeaks were working together to release the D.N.C.’s emails. Key elements of Steele’s memos on Carter Page have held up, too, including the claim that Page had secret meetings in Moscow with Rosneft and Kremlin officials. Steele may have named the wrong oil-company official, but, according to recent congressional disclosures, he was correct that a top Rosneft executive talked to Page about a payoff. According to the Democrats’ report, when Page was asked if a Rosneft executive had offered him a “potential sale of a significant percentage of Rosneft,” Page said, “He may have briefly mentioned it.”

Original quote #2: “I was there, too, as a reporter and I remember thinking, it sounded wild. It was very hard to believe the story. And a lot of people didn’t believe Christopher Steele’s dossier either when it first came out. But the remarkable thing is, over time, there has been more and more sort of corroboration that has come out over it.” (March 7, 2018, on CNN)

Context: The Horowitz report said this about Carter Page and the dossier: “We determined that prior to and during the pendency of the FISAs the FBI was unable to corroborate any of the specific substantive allegations against Carter Page contained in the election reporting and relied on in the FISA applications, and was only able to confirm the accuracy of a limited number of circumstantial facts, most of which were in the public domain, such as the dates that Page traveled to Russia, the timing of events, and the occupational positions of individuals referenced in the reports.”

Comment: “Steele’s a convenient political piñata but he was prescient in warning anyone who would listen that Russian state actors were attempting to interfere in the 2016 presidential election specifically in favor of Trump, and in an effort to undermine NATO and lift anti-Russian sanctions,” writes Mayer in an email. “The New Yorker’s coverage carefully quoted naysayers about Steele as well as defenders, and identified whatever flaws were known in the dossier 18 months ago, as well as its strengths. Since then a number of the details in the dossier have either been denied, or are yet to be confirmed, as Horowitz’s report reflects, but several of Steele’s major concerns, including that the FBI was employing a double standard by publicizing its investigation of Hillary Clinton while concealing its investigation of the Trump campaign from voters, have been borne out. So overall, it’s a complex and nuanced picture, more suitable to long-form journalism than television talk shows.”

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius

Original quote: “As incestuous as these relationships might seem, they don’t impugn the accuracy of the main thrust of the information that Steele gathered, much of which has since been confirmed.” (From a September 2018 column titled “The GOP’s spin on the Russia probe doesn’t add up.”)

Comment: “I’m still working through the IG report and doing some reporting, trying to decide what, if anything, is still credible in the Steele dossier,” writes Ignatius in an email.

Former federal prosecutor Paul Butler

Original quote: “Almost everything that’s been investigated in that dossier has been corroborated. The Steele dossier says that Michael Cohen was the go between the Russian — the Russians and the Trump campaign. So this is all about collusion. If Michael Cohen has information about that, that could lead to the end of the Trump presidency.” (July 9, 2018, on MSNBC)

Comment: No response to a request for comment.

NBC News/MSNBC analyst Howard Fineman

Original quote: “I mean, I think we can conclude even from the Steele dossier and other places that Donald Trump has some sort of deep almost sort of animal sense of danger and how to avoid it or how to work around it.” (May 11, 2018, on MSNBC)

Comment: Fineman sent an extensive reply to the Erik Wemple Blog:

— The Horowitz Report is a devastating critique of the Steele Dossier. Horowitz makes clear that, not only should the dossier not have been central to the launching of a FISA investigation, but that it was weak campaign oppo even by the low standards of campaign oppo. In a way, at least initially, the press deserves more credit for steering clear of it than the feds! Remember, it took Ben Smith and BuzzFeed to put it out there in January 2017, after the dossier had been essentially bootstrapped into a semblance of credibility by the fact that the feds already had used it!
-- I think I said "EVEN from the Steele dossier..." to keep a smidge of distance from it, though I could be wrong about that. . Yet at that time (spring of 2018) the dossier was at the height of its reputation, wasn't it, because of Mueller?
-- Everyone in our biz, though, did have a general sense that the Steele dossier had to be handled carefully at best. That it was a for-hire job was a cause for caution; its very format -- chatty, meandering, sensational claims clothed in vague sourcing -- made you wonder. BUT, again, for much of its public existence, the dossier got credibility from the very fact that the feds seemed to think it was a real road map. I came to accept it on that basis.
-- I now regret citing the Steele for any proposition, even one as mild as the fact that Trump had a mob guy's skill for getting others to do the dirtiest work for him.
-- In retrospect -- and after much more digging -- it’s clear that the whole emergence and effect of the dossier should be a warning to us all: bad oppo + zealous feds = bad journalism, erosion of the rule of law and threats to civil liberties.

CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd

Original quote: “That takes you back to the infamous Steele dossier … that information collected by a former British intelligence officer about some of the allegations about the president’s activities in Moscow with women there. If that turns out to be true — and I think we have information that suggests the FBI has corroborated some of that — I could see a national security implication.” (March 26, 2018, on CNN)

Comment: Awaiting a reply.

Politico reporter Daniel Lippman

Original quote: “They also had corroborating information that a person like Carter Page was a target of Russian intelligence. And so the dossier was not a huge factor in everything. It was just a supporting piece and so the Russia inquiry goes ahead full steam and we’re going to see the Paul Manafort trial coming up.” (March 18, 2018, on CNN)

Context: The Horowitz report found that the FBI’s receipt of the dossier “played a central and essential role in the decision by FBI OGC to support the request for FISA surveillance targeting Carter Page, as well as the Department’s ultimate decision to seek the FISA order.” (p. 359)

Comment: “I wasn’t a Russia investigations reporter and I didn’t do much original reporting on this,” wrote Lippman in an email. “As far as what I told CNN, they were a long time ago and while I don’t recall my exact frame of mind at they time, this NYT story is a point of reference for my comments.”

Journalist Jacob Weisberg

Original quote: “I think people have been very skeptical of some of the claims in the dossier about Trump allegedly consorting with prostitutes in Russia and his response to that is, ‘Are you kidding me? I would never do that.’ Well, I mean, with the count is growing higher and higher of porn actresses, one claims that he offered her money to have sex with him. So, you know, the whole — the whole picture starts to be more plausible, the picture that’s painted in the dossier.” (Jan. 16, 2018, on MSNBC)

Comment: Attempts to secure a comment from Weisberg have been unsuccessful.

Journalist Natasha Bertrand

Original quote: “That’s exactly right. I think that this whole story, what happens from it is that it makes it much more plausible that Trump did go to Russia and he did have these kinds of sexual escapades with prostitutes. I mean, Stormy Daniels was talking to magazines about this as early as 2011. And as we know, Trump has been traveling to Moscow for quite some time and it just makes it all the more plausible that what the dossier says he did actually did occur.” (Jan. 19, 2018, on MSNBC)

Context: Bertrand — then with the the Atlantic, now with Politico — was responding to a replay of Weisberg’s comment above.

Comments: Bertrand did not respond to requests for comment.

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

Come clean, CNN

Dear CNN: What parts of the Steele dossier were corroborated?

‘Yeah, I briefly chased the pee tape’ — New York Times reporter talks Steele dossier, Horowitz report and more

A much-cited defense of the Steele dossier has a problem

Rachel Maddow rooted for the Steele dossier to be true. Then it fell apart.

CNN lands an interview with its own contributor

‘Disinformation’ claim ‘galls’ dossier author Christopher Steele

Horowitz report confirms John Solomon’s scoop on FBI ‘spreadsheet’ regarding Steele dossier

‘The story stands’: McClatchy won’t back off its Michael Cohen-Prague reporting