The lobbying initiative failed. On Jan. 11, 2017, one day after BuzzFeed published the dossier, the Journal identified its compiler: “Christopher Steele, Ex-British Intelligence Officer, Said to Have Prepared Dossier on Trump.”
That was the right call, of course: Now that the dossier was in public circulation, so was a natural curiosity about who had sewn it together.
As this series has explored, the dossier enjoyed a sunny heyday in the public square, thanks in large part to credulous reporting coming out of MSNBC and CNN. Those who relied on these two outlets might well have concluded that the Steele memos were thoroughgoing examples of foreign intelligence — and that the Trump campaign’s conspiracy with the Russians was curdling into proven fact.
But more rigorous work would upend all notions that the dossier was packed with true and substantial revelations. The Mueller report, released in April 2019, failed to corroborate key dossier contentions. The report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, released in December 2019, destroyed it with venomous bureaucratese. The Intelligence Committee report relies extensively on Horowitz’s conclusions and lands in essentially the same neighborhood: The FBI, concludes the report, gave Steele’s reporting “unjustified credence” and failed to “adjust its approach to Steele’s reporting once one of Steele’s subsources provided information that raised serious concerns about the source descriptions in the Steele Dossier. The Committee further found that Steele’s reporting lacked rigor and transparency about the quality of the sourcing.” The FBI erred in relying on the dossier in seeking FISA surveillance authorization for Carter Page, a former Trump campaign operative.
Holes in the now-infamous dossier, however, don’t preoccupy the Senate report, which documents contacts between Trump aides and Russians. A damning takeaway relates to the activities of Paul Manafort, who served for a time as the chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign. Manafort had ties with Konstantin Kilimnik, a man that the report identifies as a “Russian intelligence officer.” “On numerous occasions,” notes the report, “Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information with Kilimnik. The Committee was unable to reliably determine why Manafort shared sensitive internal polling data or Campaign strategy with Kilimnik or with whom Kilimnik further shared that information.”
The Mueller report, which features extensive discussion of Manafort’s relationship with Kilimnik, noted that the FBI assessed that Kilimnik had “ties” to Russian intelligence.The Senate Intelligence Committee report notes that it “obtained some information suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the [Russian intelligence’s] hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election.” Information following that passage is redacted.
The rot from Manafort spills all over the Senate document. It notes, for instance, that “Manafort worked with Kilimnik starting in 2016 on narratives that sought to undermine evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.” Now that’s patriotism for you.
There’s a great deal more in the document, and there’d better be: The committee spent three years on the project. The mere heft of the report acts as a rebuttal to the various attacks on mainstream media organizations for their sprawling investigations into “Russiagate” through most of Trump’s first term. The New York Times and The Washington Post, for instance, received Pulitzer Prizes in 2018 for their investigative work in chasing down various strands of the Russia story — something that Fox News host Sean Hannity found scandalous. “The Washington Post, the New York Times — believe it or not, they actually won Pulitzer Prizes for their lying coverage of the Russia collusion hoax. That is a disgusting disgrace and a dishonor to every person that deserved a real Pulitzer Prize,” roared the host in March 2019.
Russia-coverage shaming spiked upon the issuance of the Mueller report, which failed to establish that the Trump campaign had criminally conspired with the Russians. The Senate Intelligence Committee report also fell short of this documentary threshold, a point that the White House seized upon: “This never-ending, baseless conspiracy theory peddled by radical liberals and their partners in the media demonstrates how incapable they are at accepting the will of the American people and the results of the 2016 election,” said a statement issued from the White House on Tuesday. “They should stop wasting taxpayer dollars with partisan witch hunts and actually work to accomplish things for this country.”
Hannity, Trump and their ilk, however, are up against a towering stack of paper. The Senate Intelligence Committee report numbers nearly 1,000 pages of detail on all the ways that the so-called Russia collusion hoax was a bona fide story. Just because the activities in that plume didn’t qualify as criminal conspiracy doesn’t render them un-newsworthy.
And like most important stories, Russia-Trump is a complicated one. On one hand, there was a load of investigative stories — including the Pulitzer entries of the Times and The Post — that found corroboration in the reports of Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee. On the other hand, there was credulous and irresponsible dossier boosterism, as practiced by certain outlets — a disgraceful chapter for which there has been little public reckoning.
Yes: Those two circumstances can live alongside each other at the same time. Whether contemporary America can digest them, in all their complexity, is another matter.