Don't Be Distracted by the Trump Dossier Fuss

(Bloomberg View) -- The Washington Post published a big story on Tuesday evening, saying that Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee financed research for the "Steele dossier" — a much-discussed report prepared by a former British intelligence operative that outlined possible connections between Donald Trump, his presidential campaign, and Russia.

The Post revealed that Marc Elias, a lawyer with the Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington investigative firm, in April of 2016, to conduct the research. Fusion, in turn, paid Christopher Steele, the ex-MI6 guy, to tap into his network of Russia hands to dig for dirt on Trump.

The Post story also answered some questions for President Trump, who tweeted last Saturday night that he wanted to know who paid for the dossier:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Officials behind the now discredited "Dossier" plead the Fifth. Justice Department and/or FBI should immediately release who paid for it.
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

It's an odd media moment. As interesting as the Post's article might be, anyone who's paid close attention over the last year knew all along that Democrats had paid for the opposition research that turned into the Steele dossier. That fact was part of articles published last October by Mother Jones, then later by CNN, the New York Times and Vanity Fair.

Which is why the provenance and funding of the Steele dossier, while interesting to those of us caught up in Trumplandia minutiae, doesn't really matter much beyond its role in the never-ending brawl between Trump's critics and his fans. What does matter — the question of the Trump campaign's participation in Russia's efforts to influence the election — is still up for grabs.

Trump has locked on to the new reports to suggest that a federal investigation of ties to the Kremlin is a manufactured event, financed by Democrats. He's using them as a diversion from fundamental questions the Justice Department's special counsel, Robert Mueller is trying to answer: What were the extent of Trump's financial ties to Russia, what financial involvement did other Trump family members have, and what did Trump and his campaign possibly do to enlist Russia's help getting the president elected?

Both the Post and Trump could have simply relied on Google if they wanted to know the origins of the dossier, some early details about how it was funded, and how the report got into the open.

On Oct. 31, 2016 — about a week before Election Day — David Corn, a journalist with Mother Jones magazine, published an article offering the first public hint about Steele's research:

A former senior intelligence officer for a Western country who specialized in Russian counterintelligence tells Mother Jones that in recent months he provided the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] with memos, based on his recent interactions with Russian sources, contending the Russian government has for years tried to co-opt and assist Trump — and that the FBI requested more information from him."

Without naming Fusion GPS or Steele, Corn's article also noted that the bills for Fusion's "opposition research" on Trump and Russia were originally paid for by "a Republican client" disenchanted with Trump. At some point, Corn wrote, the Republican pulled the plug and a "client allied with Democrats" began footing the bill. In June, 2016, after the Democrat stepped in, Fusion retained Steele, according to Corn's article.

Steele conveyed to Corn that "there was an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit." That information alarmed Steele enough to convince him to independently contact an FBI acquaintance in July, 2016, so he could to tell the agency what he had.

In January of this year, CNN reported that a "former British diplomat" had alerted Republican Senator John McCain last November about the dossier's findings. McCain gave former FBI Director James Comey a copy of the dossier during a private meeting in December. (The FBI, of course, already had the document — Steele had delivered it to the agency earlier.)

The FBI then alerted President Barack Obama and Trump about the dossier in early January, according to CNN. CNN, "citing several officials with knowledge," said the FBI briefing emphasized findings that "Moscow intended to harm Clinton's candidacy and help Trump's."

CNN's report arrived on the same day that BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier in its entirety, including unverified salacious gossip about Trump. "The documents have circulated for months and acquired a kind of legendary status among journalists, lawmakers, and intelligence officials who have seen them," BuzzFeed said. The news site also said that the dossier was "prepared for political opponents of Trump."

A series of other news reports followed, and Steele’s identity was first revealed by the Wall Street Journal in January. The Journal incorrectly reported that the Steele dossier "was prepared under contract to both Republican and Democratic adversaries of Mr. Trump."

The New York Times reported in January that a Republican donor first contacted Fusion in September, 2015, to conduct opposition research on Trump. The paper said that the Republican donor’s interest waned last spring after it became clear that Trump would win the nomination. But "Democratic supporters of Hillary Clinton were very interested" in the research and began funding it, the Times said. It also said that Steele’s work for Fusion started after the Democrats began paying, and that Steele never knew the identity of Fusion’s client.

A comprehensive Vanity Fair feature in March about the Steele dossier pointed out that Fusion’s opposition research on Trump was initially funded by a Republican before the Democratic donors opened their wallets. It, too, pointed out that Fusion retained Steele only after the Democrats arrived.

As all this played out, Trump strong-armed Comey, the person who first briefed him about the Steele dossier. Comey said Trump pressured him to go easy on a target who'd been swept into an FBI probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Trump fired Comey in May.

Trump has dismissed the Steele dossier — which essentially explored whether the Kremlin could blackmail Trump with compromising information and whether Russia tried to tilt the 2016 election in Trump's favor — as “fake news” and a “complete fraud.” He has also regularly characterized federal probes of his business history and possible links to Russia as “witch hunts.”

The FBI had been examining some Trump operatives for Russia ties before the Steele dossier was ever drafted. And U.S. intelligence agencies had issued a public assessment in the fall of 2016 asserting that Russia tried to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Yet the Steele dossier became a punching bag for Trump supporters seeking to discredit broader Russian probes.

In July, a Wall Street Journal columnist revived the question of who paid for the Steele dossier while ignoring all the earlier reporting about Fusion’s intersections with Republicans.

Last week, Trump raised the possibility that an unusual troika might have jointly paid for the creation of the Steele Dossier:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
Workers of firm involved with the discredited and Fake Dossier take the 5th. Who paid for it, Russia, the FBI or the Dems (or all)?
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter

The Washington Post piece that landed on Tuesday night had specifics in it that were new and useful: A lawyer representing both the Clinton campaign and the DNC bankrolled Fusion’s opposition research, though apparently without the knowledge of either Clinton or the DNC.

But the broader outlines of the Post’s reporting weren't new. The story also didn’t have any links or references to competitors’ earlier work on the Steele dossier, other than to note that BuzzFeed published the full document.

A post-mortem that the Post published on Wednesday morning, the day after its first Steele story, incorrectly cited CNN as the first outlet to report the existence of the dossier (it was Mother Jones). The post-mortem also credited the Post with making it clear that Steele was only retained to do research after Fusion got funding from Democrats. But this wasn’t new information – Mother Jones disclosed it a year ago, and other news organizations followed suit. None of Mother Jones’s reporting is acknowledged in the original Post story or the post-mortem.  (After this column was published, the Post corrected its post-mortem to note that Mother Jones was the first publication to report the existence of the dossier and was also the first to report that funding for it was exclusively Democratic.) 

Correcting the record is good, and not only as an exercise of journalistic good manners. Had the Post teed up its narrative more completely, it might have given readers a better understanding of where the Steele dossier resides amid the complex and convoluted accounts of Trump’s links to Russia.

The Post’s piece – inevitably, given the way the Trump news cycle can explode – also sparked rounds of social-media debates that weren’t fully baked. Trump supporters credited the Post’s "scoop" with showing that yes, indeed, the entire Russia investigation was set in motion and kept aloft by Clinton and the DNC making payments to a former British spy. A more thorough chronology and more generous linking by the Post might have added depth to those conversations.

After all, paying for opposition research during political campaigns has been a bipartisan sport for decades. The Steele dossier is just another product of that hothouse.

Incomplete reporting also gives astute propagandists fodder for their own mythmaking. And somebody on Pennsylvania Avenue decided to take that Post story and run with it:

Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump
"Clinton campaign & DNC paid for research that led to the anti-Trump Fake News Dossier. The victim here is the President." @FoxNews
Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter


This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Gadfly and Bloomberg View. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."

To contact the author of this story: Timothy L. O'Brien at

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