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Opinion The Steele dossier just sustained another body blow. What do CNN and MSNBC have to say?

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

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

So you thought you’d heard the last word on the Russian dossier, did you?

Nope: Freshly declassified footnotes from a 2019 Justice Department report cast further doubt on one of the central documents of Russiagate — a collection of memos compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and published by BuzzFeed in January 2017. The dossier contained extravagant allegations about presidential candidate Donald Trump and was treated to deference in some precincts of the mainstream media.

In December 2017, for example, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow spoke in admiring tones about the “deep cover sources” deployed by Steele.

Well, Steele’s main source might take issue with Maddow’s description, according to recently released material: “When interviewed by the FBI, the Primary Sub‐source stated that he/she did not view his/her contacts as a network of sources, but rather as friends with whom he/she has conversations about current events and government relations.”

That tidbit comes from a batch of footnotes to a December 2019 report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz that were declassified this month in two tranches, one from the Justice Department and one from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The 400-plus-page document pounded the FBI for its handling of applications under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to wiretap former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, a process that Horowitz wrote was marred by “17 significant errors or omissions.” That said, the report concluded that the dossier did not spark the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia and that the investigation — named Crossfire Hurricane — was properly launched.

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The FISA applications were powered in part by claims in Steele’s dossier, research funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. As the FBI sought independent confirmation of the Steele claims, it found holes, according to 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.”

The declassified footnotes lend texture to that grim assessment. They have been unsheathed at the urging of Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), two critics of the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. Even a cursory look at the footnotes makes clear why they pushed for sunlight.

For one, the material contains a critical insight regarding the Steele dossier’s allegations regarding Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney who is now serving a federal prison sentence. According to the dossier, Cohen had traveled to Prague around August 2016 to meet with Russians for collusive purposes. “Speaking to a compatriot and friend on 19 October 2016, a Kremlin insider provided further details of reported clandestine meeting/s between Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP’s lawyer Michael COHEN and Kremlin representatives,” the document said.

In December, the Horowitz report noted that the FBI had concluded that the Cohen-Prague claims of the dossier were “not true.”

Newly declassified footnote 350 addresses claims in the dossier regarding Cohen. Have a look at a key part of it:

[W]e identified reporting the Crossfire Hurricane team received from [REDACTED] indicating the potential for Russian disinformation influencing Steele’s election reporting. A January 12, 2017, report relayed information from [REDACTED] outlining an inaccuracy in a limited subset of Steele’s reporting about the activities of Michael Cohen. The [REDACTED] stated that it did not have high confidence in this subset of Steele’s reporting and assessed that the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations. A second report from the same [REDACTED] five days later stated that a person named in the limited subset of Steele’s reporting had denied representations in the reporting and the [REDACTED] assessed that the person’s denials were truthful.

The footnote doesn’t specify which Cohen activities are at play here, though it may well bear on significant dossier reporting by the McClatchy newspaper chain. In two earthshaking stories from April and December 2018, McClatchy reported that former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had evidence that Cohen was in Prague in 2016 and that Cohen’s mobile phone “sent signals ricocheting off cell towers in the Prague area in late summer 2016.” McClatchy stood by its reporting after the Mueller report, and then the Horowitz report, raised questions about the veracity of those articles, which were written by Greg Gordon and Peter Stone. “It is important to emphasize that our stories cited evidence — not proof — that Michael Cohen may have made a secret trip to Prague in the late summer of 2016,” reads the opening of a long statement the reporters provided to this blog in December.

The reporters sent a fresh statement to the Erik Wemple Blog on Friday: “We will stand by the information that we reported concerning Michael Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague unless clear evidence demonstrates that it is false.”

We asked McClatchy if this latest disclosure has prompted a reexamination of the reporting. Apparently so! “We are taking a close look at this new information and will update or correct our story based on its merits. Until then, we continue to stand by our reporting,” said a statement from McClatchy.

A footnote to this footnote episode: In January 2018, long before the Mueller report was released, then-New York Times reporter Scott Shane asked in a panel discussion, “If Michael Cohen did not go to Prague . . . if that’s not true, who made it up?” Shane, who retired from the Times last year, went on to say the tale was “probably concocted by Russian intelligence,” citing the level of detail in the dossier’s claims.

Horowitz’s report revealed that the FBI “assessed the possibility that Russia was funneling disinformation to Steele, and the possibility that disinformation was included in his election reports.”

Remember the dossier’s famous allegations that the Russians had kompromat against Trump because of illicit alleged activities in a Russian hotel? A declassified footnote elaborates on the provenance of that story: According to an intelligence community report, a source who spanned Trump’s circles and Russia said that it was false and resulted from Russian intelligence “infiltrat[ing] a source into the network.”

Another footnote, citing a U.S. intelligence report, reveals that two people affiliated with Russian intelligence were aware of Steele’s information-gathering efforts in 2016. An FBI official said, however, that he “had no information as of June 2017 that Steele’s election reporting source network had been penetrated or compromised.” A New York Times story notes the strange adjacencies involved in Steele’s pursuits — getting too close to Russian intelligence created a risk of misinformation, but Steele also sought to know what Russian intelligence was “doing with regard to the Trump campaign.”

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Steele told Fusion GPS, the research firm that commissioned his work, that at least 70 percent of the claims in the dossier are accurate. An obvious question arises from that assertion: Which ones? The Erik Wemple Blog asked Fusion GPS’s Glenn Simpson to comment on the possibility of Russian disinformation. He replied with an excerpt from his 2017 Senate Judiciary Committee testimony, in which he outlined how Steele viewed these perils: “I’ve worked on this issue all my life and when you’re trained in Russian intelligence matters, the fundamental problem of your profession is disinformation. It’s the number one issue,” said Simpson, paraphrasing Steele.

Multiple Trump scandals have come along since the dossier was front-page news. The declassified footnotes haven’t preoccupied the coronavirus-obsessed mainstream media, although there have been reports by the likes of CBS News, the Associated Press, the New York Times and CNN. Conservative media organs including Fox News, the Daily Caller and Washington Examiner have covered the developments.

We’ll pause to consider the CNN account, which carries the headline, “GOP seizes on newly declassified material to raise further questions about Steele dossier.” The article’s first sentence reads, “Senate Republicans are touting newly declassified information that suggests Russian disinformation, in two instances, may have been passed onto ex-British intelligence agent Christopher Steele when he compiled an opposition research dossier on Donald Trump and Russia in 2016.”

Factual? Yes. Slanted? Yes, that too. Republicans are “touting” the footnotes in part because media outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and others “touted” the dossier with flimsy corroboration in the early months of the Trump presidency. (The chatter is the focus of previous installments in this series.) One CNN anchor, for instance, went so far as to assert in December 2017 that the U.S. intelligence community has “corroborated all the details” of the dossier.

The CNN footnote story abridges the findings of the Horowitz report this way: “Steele’s report played no role in the opening of the FBI investigation, according to Horowitz, and he found that the most salacious allegations weren’t proven.” That’s a convenient formulation, considering that the Horowitz report said the FBI determined that the dossier was a mix of uncorroborated, inaccurate/inconsistent and publicly available information.

The Erik Wemple Blog asked CNN and MSNBC whether they have reviewed their coverage of the dossier. We will update with any response. Until then, we’ll continue to “tout” the journalistic breakdowns surrounding the dossier.

Read more:

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