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Opinion David Corn and the Steele dossier: Just checking the facts!

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

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

David Corn, the Washington bureau chief for Mother Jones, was reporting on the Steele dossier before it was known as “the dossier.” “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump” was the headline on a Corn scoop published Oct. 31, 2016. It read, in part, “[A] former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence tells Mother Jones that in recent months he provided the bureau with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist [Donald] Trump — and that the FBI requested more information from him.” (Disclosure: Erik Wemple’s wife, Stephanie Mencimer, is a staff writer at Mother Jones).

That former senior intelligence officer was Christopher Steele, the author of what would become known as the dossier, which was published by BuzzFeed News in January 2017. Though Corn disclosed in his Mother Jones report that it was unclear whether the FBI had verified any of the information in the memos, he went ahead and repeated significant claims:

Mother Jones has reviewed that report and other memos this former spy wrote. The first memo, based on the former intelligence officer’s conversations with Russian sources, noted, “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting [Trump] for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by [Russian President Vladimir Putin], has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.” It maintained that Trump “and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.” It claimed that Russian intelligence had “compromised” Trump during his visits to Moscow and could “blackmail him.” It also reported that Russian intelligence had compiled a dossier on Hillary Clinton based on “bugged conversations she had on various visits to Russia and intercepted phone calls.”

Asked about airing that sensitive yet unverified information so close to the presidential election, Corn told the Erik Wemple Blog via email, “I quoted a few lines from the memos to give a sense of what had been delivered to the FBI. But I did not cite the specifics (such as the salacious allegation involving Trump and urinating prostitutes in Moscow). As I have repeatedly said, I believed that even Trump deserved fairness.”

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Bolding added to facilitate pushback: How is a five-year Russian cultivation campaign not specific?

To vouch for the British former intel official, Corn relied on a “senior US government official not involved in this case but familiar with the former spy" — a formulation that this blog found wanting at the time: “You read that right: Mother Jones is trying to establish the reputational bona fides of an anonymous source by relying on the word of another anonymous source.”

As Corn’s story emphasized, Steele and his sources saw clear links between Trump and Russia. According to the dossier, there was a two-way street of intelligence-sharing, key roles for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Russian kompromat against Trump, and so on. Research firm Fusion GPS — co-founded by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch — commissioned the project with funds from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. After submitting his first report in June 2016, Steele told Simpson that he wanted to take it to the FBI. “Steele thought [the intelligence community] needed urgently to know — if it didn’t already — that the next possible U.S. president was potentially under the sway of Russia,” write Simpson and Fritsch in their book, “Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump.”

The timing of Corn’s story was no coincidence. In “Crime in Progress," the authors express contempt for the decision by then-FBI Director James B. Comey to publicly announce another look at the Clinton email investigation while remaining silent about what the bureau had been doing on the Trump campaign and Russia. “Comey’s bombshell prompted the Fusion partners to decide they needed to do what they could to expose the FBI’s probe of Trump and Russia. It was Hail Mary time," write Simpson and Fritsch.

That so-called Hail Mary meant working with Corn, whom the Fusion GPS co-founders describe as a “reporter who trusted Fusion and who just might have the aggressiveness to write a story this explosive in the final days of a presidential campaign.” (“Crime in Progress” suggests that Fusion GPS approached Corn about the story, whereas “Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on American and the Election of Donald Trump,” written by Corn and Michael Isikoff, indicates that Corn “checked in” with Fusion GPS around this time.)

Corn came through with the story, and did not stop there: After publishing his piece, he delivered a copy of the dossier to a friend of his — FBI General Counsel James Baker. It was a nice pickup for the FBI. The report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz confirms that Corn’s packet contained information from Steele that the bureau hadn’t yet received. Though Corn told the Hill’s John Solomon that he delivered the dossier after the presidential election, the Horowitz report indicates that the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team had secured it by Nov. 6, 2016, two days before the election. Corn told the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross that he’d misspoken to the Hill about the delivery date.

Timing matters here, considering that Fusion GPS — by its own admission — was looking to pressure the FBI on its Trump-Russia work. Steele himself had a sustained concern about how seriously the FBI was taking his memos, a dynamic that arose as early as summer 2016: "To Steele, this was an emergency that needed to be dealt with swiftly,” write Simpson and Fritsch. And in late November, Steele requested a hand-off of the dossier to David Kramer, an associate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). The idea, Simpson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, was to “to give [it] to Senator McCain so that Senator McCain can ask questions about it at the FBI, with the leadership of the FBI. That was essentially — all we sort of wanted was for the government to do its job and we were concerned about whether the information that we provided previously had ever, you know, risen to the leadership level of the FBI,” said Simpson during his August 2017 interview with the committee.

Sharing the dossier with Baker, says Corn, was part of his newsgathering process: “I provided a set of Steele memos to Baker, whom I knew socially, to see if I could get anyone in the FBI to confirm or debunk the allegations in the memo,” Corn tells the Erik Wemple Blog via email. In 2018 comments to the Hill, Corn said he was "merely doing what a journalist does: trying to get more information on a story I was pursuing.” He says he never heard back.

How can we possibly appraise just how authentic was Corn’s ambition to get a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on the dossier’s integrity? Easily. Though the FBI may not have responded directly to Corn, it did, in fact, undertake its very own confirm-or-debunk operation. As Horowitz noted, the agency created a spreadsheet to plot out the dossier’s claims and the evidence underlying them. It interviewed Steele and tracked down his “Primary Sub-source.” It compared claims in the dossier to publicly available information.

The FBI’s conclusion is abridged with lawyerly lethality in the Horowitz report: "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.”

So Corn finally got an answer to his confirm-or-debunk question. Did he pass along the verdict to his readers?

He did not. In a story headlined, “Inspector General’s Report Shows Trump’s “Spygate” Conspiracy Theory Was the Real Hoax," Corn focused on other findings of the Horowitz report — namely, that there was no spying on the Trump campaign and that the investigation into Trump and Russia wasn’t predicated on the dossier but rather on other intelligence. Corn did address the scandalous mishandling of the FISA applications concerning former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page: “The report does slap the FBI for ‘significant inaccuracies and omissions’ in applications it filed to obtain warrants to secretly monitor Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser who had traveled to Moscow and interacted with Russian officials during the campaign." But nowhere in the piece does Corn directly reference the criticism that Horowitz showered on Steele’s memos. And left unsaid is the “central and essential” role of the dossier in pushing those FISA applications.

When the dossier’s allegations were fresh and sexy and unvetted, in other words, they were suitable for inclusion in Mother Jones. Once they were vetted and found wanting, however, they lost their appeal. We asked Corn whether he could point the Erik Wemple Blog to a story where he laid out Horowitz’s damning conclusions about the dossier. His response:

No. My emphasis in the original story was not on the detailed claims of the dossier (which as you know I did not publish because they were unconfirmed) but rather on the fact that the FBI was investigating them. Consequently, chronicling those problems with the memos has not been my primary focus. My priority has been to deal with the much larger topic of Russia’s undisputed attack and Trump’s undisputed collaboration with Moscow’s cover-up. In my book cowritten with Michael Isikoff, Russian Roulette, we did report Steele himself did not believe all the allegations were accurate, and we provided a detailed account of Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow that showed it was not likely he had a romp with urinating prostitutes on that occasion.

Very articulate, very specious — and 100-percent hogwash. Why not make a “priority” of telling readers that the dossier at the heart of that long-ago pre-election story lies in tatters within an FBI spreadsheet?

Read more from this series by Erik Wemple:

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

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