- - Wednesday, January 11, 2017


Anything anyone can make up about Donald Trump goes. That’s the “moral” of the latest speculation about the sins of the Donald, his chief sin being that he defeated Hillary Clinton and the Democrats in November.

The story exciting Washington in the current news cycle is that the Russians have lurid and compromising information on Mr. Trump, waiting to blackmail him unless he dances to their tune. This has put the chattering class in full-panic mode, the panic being what to do with the tale. Responsible news organizations, mostly the newspapers, haven’t touched it because it can’t pass a smell test applied even by the bottom-feeders of what passes for journalism in many internet quarters.

The 35-page dossier of unverified gossip and leaks was prepared by London-based Orbis Business Intelligence Ltd., which collects information of various kinds for business clients seeking dirt on competitors. Earlier speculation identified the author as “a former British ambassador to Moscow,” but the actual author was finally identified late Wednesday by The Wall Street Journal.

A partner of Orbis, run to ground by The Journal, said he wouldn’t “confirm or deny” that Orbis had prepared the dossier. Such a denial is usually taken as confirmation. Christopher Steele, the partner who actually wrote the dossier, was “not available,” and a neighbor told the newspaper that he would “be away for a few days.” Authors of such blockbusters are usually eager to take credit, like ISIS boasting of another massacre of innocents, but sometimes hiding out is the better part of valor, or at least the better part of bother.

Well Mr. Steele might hide out somewhere, because the story, received with such delight Tuesday night by seekers of the thrilling and the melodramatic, began falling apart by morning.

Mr. Trump called the lurid accusations of misbehavior on a visit to Moscow many months ago “all fake news. It’s all phony stuff. It didn’t happen.” The Russian government said it had nothing to intimidate the president-elect with. These were only expected denials. The dossier, say several news executives who have read all 35 pages of it, contains lurid and unprovable allegations, which intelligence agencies call “raw files” of gossip, accusations and gossamer never intended for public consumption.

Andrew Wordsworth, founder of the London investigation firm, Raedas, and deeply conversant in Russian affairs, told The Journal that the dossier is “not convincing at all. It’s just way too good. If the head of the CIA were to declare he got information of this quality, you wouldn’t believe it.”

Several news organizations with a history of trying to get the goods on the Donald, whatever the “goods” may be, declined to publish anything. The New York Times said it wouldn’t publish the accounts because they were “totally unsubstantiated.” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the newspaper, said “we, like others, investigated the allegations and haven’t corroborated them, and we’re not in the business of publishing things we can’t stand by.”

CNN News, which has been trying for months to find the magic bullet to put Donald Trump out of business, said its reporters — “producers,” in the term the television networks borrowed from the movies — hadn’t corroborated anything in the dossier, either, but described the most lurid stuff. Only BuzzFeed, prominent among the bottom-feeders of “internet news,” published the dossier in full.

This is not a great hour in the history of journalism, but other hours like it are likely to follow. Many journalists, some more responsible than others, are determined to wield the club to smash the Trump pinata. When fiction is treated with the respect facts have always enjoyed, many demons and worms will spill out. Or not. Reader, beware.

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