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Opinion How Politico’s Natasha Bertrand bootstrapped dossier credulity into MSNBC gig

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) holds up a copy of the Steele dossier during a committee hearing on Dec. 11. (Win Mcnamee/AFP/Getty Images)

This post has been updated.

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

Russian election interference is back in the news. According to reports from last week, Congress received warnings from intelligence officials that the Kremlin favors the reelection of President Trump. Those sirens prompted a freak-out from Trump himself, who worried that his Democratic detractors would use the information against him.

Where there’s a report on Russian meddling, there’s an MSNBC segment waiting to be taped. Last Thursday night, MSNBC host Joy Reid — subbing for “All In” host Chris Hayes — turned to Politico national security reporter Natasha Bertrand with a question about whether Trump “wants” Russian meddling or whether he can’t accept that "foreign help is there.“ Bertrand responded: “We don’t have the reporting that suggests that the president has told aides, for example, that he really wants Russia to interfere because he thinks that it’s going to help him, right?”

No, we don’t have that reporting — though there’s no prohibition against fantasizing about it on national television. Such is the theme of Bertrand’s commentary during previous coverage of Russian interference, specifically the dossier of memos drawn up by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. With winks and nods from MSNBC hosts, Bertrand heaped credibility on the dossier — which was published in full by BuzzFeed News in January 2017 — in repeated television appearances. Her written work has appeared on Business Insider, the Atlantic and Politico, where she is now a national security reporter. Along the way, she bootstrapped her punditry into a contributor’s role on MSNBC.

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The boosterism dates back years. On Sept. 18, 2017, for example, Bertrand participated in a collective journalistic failure on the MSNBC airwaves. On “All In," Bertrand, who then worked for Business Insider, discussed an apparent scoop from CNN that Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman for Trump, had been “wiretapped” before and after the 2016 presidential election under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

To shower context on the apparent news, Bertrand remarked that securing a FISA warrant is “extremely difficult.” And she sandwiched the report with previous reporting that the feds had taken a similar action regarding former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page: “They also got a warrant for Carter Page, who if you remember in the infamous Trump-Russia Steele dossier, it said that Carter Page was actually working as a liaison, being managed by Paul Manafort as kind of a go-between. So these pieces are all starting to come together and it’s really alarming.”

Not so alarming, as it turned out. For one, CNN was wrong about the Manafort wiretapping story, as made clear in the report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. The network added a weaselly editor’s note to the Manafort story as a means of wishing away the bad news. For another, the Horowitz report made clear that the FBI made numerous omissions and errors in the FISA process and still secured authorizations. For yet another, the “pieces” didn’t particularly “come together": Though Steele’s 35-page dossier alleged that Page was in collusive cahoots with Manafort, the FBI concluded otherwise, according to the Horowitz report.

The Bertrand highlight reel features a great deal of thumb-on-scale speculation regarding the dossier. Some highlights:

  • Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller reportedly told Congress in November 2017 that on a trip to Moscow in 2013, an unidentified man offered to send “five women” to Trump’s hotel room, though the offer was rejected. The dossier contained an allegation that Russia had kompromat against Trump in the form of video footage of a perverted act in the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. Discussing the matter on “All In,” Bertrand said, “Well, one of the biggest things that I took away was how much it seems to corroborate the part of the dossier, the parts of the dossier that discuss how Russia uses things like this to gain kompromat over people that they want to blackmail in the future,” she said. “I mean, this idea that Russia actually offered up five prostitutes to Trump while he was in Moscow in 2013 really raises additional questions about, well, what may have happened in other instances when Trump was in Russia, for example?”
  • After details emerged regarding hush-money payments routed to women with whom Trump allegedly had affairs, Bertrand said in January 2018 on MSNBC: “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,” she told host Ari Melber.
  • In April 2018, McClatchy reported that then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had evidence that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had traveled to Prague in 2016, lending credence to a claim in the dossier about Cohen’s involvement in alleged Trump-Russia collusion. Bertrand’s analysis: “Well, it’s absolutely massive. I mean, this is a rumor that’s been swirling around Washington for months now,” Bertrand (working for the Atlantic at the time) told Hayes. “The idea was that Cohen had flown into Germany in early September of 2016 and then had made his way by a bus or by a train down to the Czech Republic down to Prague. It was never something that anyone has really been able to confirm. But now we know that Mueller has evidence that it did happen.”
  • Candidate Trump, in a famous moment from the campaign, urged the Russians to find Hillary Clinton’s missing emails. In a July 2018 edition of “All In,” Bertrand said: “What if Donald Trump actually knew beforehand that the Russians planned to do this and was kind of giving them a signal to proceed? Because former intelligence officials that I spoke to said that this might have been in fact a signal to the Russians to give them kind of political cover in order to hack into Clinton’s emails,” said Bertrand. “Another alternative explanation is that they could do this and use it as leverage later on and say that they were just acting on the president’s orders, essentially.”
  • In August 2018, the New York Times reported that Trump had hatched a plan to buy up embarrassing material compiled by the National Enquirer and its parent company. Bertrand observed on MSNBC:
The idea is that this is potentially the most blackmail-able president in United States history. I mean, the fact that the National Enquirer had decades of information about his affairs, about his children about even [first lady Melania Trump] speaks volumes about the president’s life and all of the kind of shady things he did throughout his career, many of which, most of which, perhaps all of which he actually never even faced real consequences for.
But I think that this substantiates two big claims in the dossier. The first, of course, is that Michael Cohen was the President’s fixer in all things related to Russia. So just as he was the fixer and all things related to burying stories about Trump’s extramarital affairs, he was also according to the dossier his fixer in burying the story of the Trump’s — of Trump campaign’s conspiracy with Russia to win the election.
He was alleged to have paid off the hackers and to kind of clean the whole thing up at the end of the election.

Cohen was indeed alleged to have paid off the hackers — until that allegation fell apart, a process punctuated by the Horowitz report. The Cohen-Prague claims in the dossier were “not true,” according to Horowitz. Such findings filtered into a more global assessment of the dossier by the FBI: “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.”

Those conclusions may well have surprised anyone who relied on Bertrand’s reporting on MSNBC and elsewhere. In a Politico story about the inspector general’s interview with Steele in June 2019, Bertrand wrote: “The interview was contentious at first, the sources added, but investigators ultimately found Steele’s testimony credible and even surprising. The takeaway has irked some U.S. officials interviewed as part of the probe — they argue that it shouldn’t have taken a foreign national to convince the inspector general that the FBI acted properly in 2016.”

Well, actually, the inspector general wasn’t so convinced. Though Horowitz ultimately concluded that the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was properly launched, it bashed the FBI’s work in seeking FISA surveillance for Page, an effort that relied heavily on the dossier.

The speculative mess that Bertrand has left all over Nexis transcripts serves as an indictment of cable-news sensibilities. Incentives on prime-time MSNBC shows point precisely in the direction that Bertrand ventured on too many occasions — that is, toward believing the specifics of a document whose veracity she and others couldn’t begin to assess. Lefty hosts wanted to hear that the Michael Cohen stuff looked plausible, that the Russians had indeed been cultivating Trump, and that it was all coming together. So that’s what she said, and in March 2018, she was rewarded with an MSNBC contributor gig.

Her statements on MSNBC about the dossier left Bertrand in a bind vis-a-vis the Horowitz report. How to deal with a document that debunks your punditry? Attack!

In a Politico story headlined “Watchdog report a ‘roadmap’ for Russian spooks, intel vets say,” Bertrand questioned a decision by the Justice Department to leave vast portions of the document unredacted. “Experts," according to Bertrand, were sounding alarms about too much information, insisting that “the depiction of sources and vetting in the report could pose problems for the [United States’] information sharing relationships, and undermine the FBI’s recruitment efforts.”

Steven Aftergood, an expert on government disclosures with the Federation of American Scientists, told the Erik Wemple Blog that the inspector general’s report did indeed disclose more information than usual and declared that “this just smells bad.”

Consider, however, that Beltway reporters for decades have been fighting over-redaction from the national security bureaucracy. Here, Politico was all but clamoring for it. “I cannot fathom being a journalist and complaining that the government isn’t hiding more information,” says the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald.

The Erik Wemple Blog sent a copy of Bertrand’s dossier-related comments to MSNBC along with a question: Do you stand by this material? MSNBC declined to comment. Politico editor Carrie Budoff Brown issued this statement: "Natasha is an extremely well sourced journalist and her depth of knowledge on national security issues is outstanding.” (Bertrand’s MSNBC dossier-related comments cited above were made before she joined Politico in April 2019). Bertrand herself sent this statement via email: “I stand by everything I’ve said on air and reported.”

Bertrand sent an additional comment by email after this piece was published. “This is really low even for you Erik,” she wrote. “I got my msnbc gig through hard work reporting on a range of issues related to Mueller, not through “bootstrapping” the dossier. I hope it was worth the 3 retweets.”

Read recent entries in this series:

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

‘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