It’s not really clear what the utility is of Christopher Steele speaking out now, long after his dossier of unverified claims about Donald Trump and Russia colored Trump’s presidency — and especially with Trump now out of office. Steele had declined to speak publicly on the situation for most of five years, but he’s now the subject of a Hulu documentary, and ABC News has published an interview with Steele.

Or put more precisely, it’s not clear what the utility is of it beyond Steele trying to defend his good name with the heat now (largely) off.

But on one point, Steele’s effort to do so warrants a closer look. It’s in his defense against the idea that he was effectively serving as a vector for Russian disinformation about Trump. Specifically, this deals with the claims in his dossier of unverified and dubious intelligence that there might have been more to Trump-Russia collusion than special counsel Robert S. Mueller III ultimately found, along with more salacious suggestions that Russia might even have kompromat (or compromising material, including the “golden shower” tape) on Trump.

ABC pressed Steele on this topic for the first time. Here’s the relevant section from its report:

Skeptics of Steele's reporting, however, suggest he may have fallen victim to another trademark of Russian spy craft: disinformation. Speaking to congressional investigators in October 2019, Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official in the Trump administration and a longtime friend of Steele's, called Steele's dossier a “rabbit hole.”
"It's very likely that the Russians planted disinformation in and among other information that may have been truthful, because that's exactly, again, the way that they operate," Hill said.
Steele acknowledged that "there is a chance" the Russians intentionally tainted his reporting, but said he felt it was "very unlikely."
“Ultimately, any disinformation operation has an objective,” Steele said. “Seems to me pretty far-fetched that the Russians’ objective during the campaign of 2016 was to aide Hillary Clinton and to damage Donald Trump. And I just don’t think you can get past that.”

The argument is effectively this: Why would Russia deliver disinformation making Trump look bad when its goal — according to the consensus of U.S. intelligence — was for him to win?

It’s the kind of defense that makes sense, at least superficially. But it also attempts to distill the complex world of spycraft into something way too neat and tidy.

It’s true that when Steele was assembling his intelligence during the 2016 campaign, the name of the game for Russia was aiding Trump’s campaign. Having derogatory information come out during the campaign would have been counterproductive to that effort.

But also keep in mind that Russia didn’t want Trump elected because it loved him and wanted him to succeed as president; it’s because it viewed him as a means to an end — specifically, a more chaotic presidency that could destabilize the Western world. From our reporting back in 2018:

The even-bigger motivation wasn’t necessarily about Trump personally; it was about destabilizing the American system of government. “Russian efforts to influence the 2016 US presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow’s longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order,” begins the January 2017 report from the U.S. intelligence community. Trump, by virtue of his controversial style and tendency to destroy societal norms, simply became the most obvious conduit — arguably a near-perfect one, in fact.

To the extent this information seeped out before Nov. 8, 2016, yes, it would indeed have been counterproductive. But to the extent it seeped out at any point after that date, it would have served precisely its purpose: to raise concerns about the new American president in a way that would instantly drive a wedge through the American electorate.

Which is pretty much what it did when the dossier went public thanks to the BuzzFeed News decision to publish it shortly before Trump was inaugurated. Suddenly, many Americans had reason to believe not just that Trump colluded with Russia but that he was perhaps beholden to it as well, thanks to compromising information. (Whether Russia had it or not, the idea that it would at least pursue such compromising information was hardly shocking, as a bipartisan Senate report in 2020 laid out.)

Having such information circulating before the election would indeed have been risky, given that it might be released and could damage that initial aim of installing Trump. But also consider how thinly sourced so much of the dossier is. It’s basically a recitation of rumors with little to nothing in the way of substantiation.

It’s the kind of stuff that reputable news outlets wouldn’t really touch without extensive investigations to corroborate it — and they in fact declined to do so when the dossier circulated before the election. It came out after the election only because of a highly unorthodox decision to publish it (with BuzzFeed merely stating it was “unverified” and referring to only minor factual errors).

There’s another not-mutually-exclusive explanation here, as examined by the New York Times in 2019. And that’s that the claims in Steele’s dossier might “be the result of a high-stakes game of telephone, in which rumors and hearsay were passed from source to source.” It seems possible that there was indeed some disinformation simmering beneath the surface, and that a highly trained spy like Steele would have gotten a whiff of it even if its release hadn’t been officially sanctioned by the Kremlin at that point.

There are a whole lot of dynamics and what-ifs involved in all of this, but having this information out there about Trump served Russia’s purposes 100 percent, especially when it was ultimately released into the mainstream. That’s not so much a judgment of the decision to publish the dossier as it is a statement of fact. And perhaps we should account for the possibility that this was indeed part of a disinformation campaign that ultimately succeeded. (Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz in declassified footnotes from a 2019 report lent legitimacy to such claims.)

Steele waves this off as if it’s inconceivable that such information would circulate at the time, given Russia’s initial objectives. But as the same 2019 Times report noted, there was indeed utility in placing “a few land mines under Mr. Trump’s presidency as well.” And given that those land mines were ultimately placed at the opportune time, we still can’t so readily rule out the idea that Steele in fact served the purpose those claims suggest.

He has all kinds of reasons to argue against that, given it’s arguably the most defining question of his career. Now that he’s talking, hopefully we can get a fuller accounting of that possibility.