Washington’s liberal establishment suddenly is running from the Democratic Party’s Russia dossier, which for months was fodder for Democrats to hurl charges against President Trump and his campaign.
A new liberal narrative has arisen since Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, launched a probe to find out who funded the salacious, unverified dossier and how the FBI used it against Trump people.
Mr. Nunes, California Republican, flushed out in federal court that the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded the dossier, moving money to a law firm and then to the opposition research firm Fusion GPS. Fusion then paid British ex-spy Christopher Steele, who in turn paid his Kremlin sources.
Next, the committee learned that the FBI has been unable to confirm any of the dossier’s core Trump-Russia collusion charges 17 months after it began receiving Mr. Steele’s memos.
Since then, liberals have been demoting the dossier.
Last week, The New York Times published a report asserting the dossier never triggered the collusion probe now being conducted by three congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller.
Instead, the Times said, the probe was sparked by former Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos bragging in a London bar that he had heard Russia had thousands of Clinton emails.
This report contradicted a lengthy story the Times ran in April 2017. That story said another Trump volunteer, Carter Page, was “a catalyst” for the probe by giving a public speech in Moscow in July 2016. The story did not mention any other Trump campaign figure.
Mr. Page’s trip was noted by Mr. Steele, who made bribery charges against the energy investor in the dossier. Mr. Page has denied meeting with Kremlin figures identified by Mr. Steele, and there is no public evidence to support the bribery charge.
Congressional sources speculated that FBI supporters are pushing the Papadopoulos narrative to draw attention from the bureau’s reliance on the dossier.
Downplaying the dossier now seems to be a liberal talking point.
Rep. Jim Himes, Connecticut Democrat and a House intelligence committee member, said Wednesday on CNN: “There may very well be errors in the dossier. It is not finished intelligence. It is a collection of information that would not pass muster with the CIA or the FBI. But there are still very many open questions about some of the allegations in that dossier.
“But the point is, of course, the FBI did not rely exclusively on that dossier in order to open the investigation.” Mr. Himes said.
CNN has been one of the dossier’s biggest journalistic boosters, writing that some of its charges have been verified but not providing exact details of who, when and where.
Mr. Himes’ downplaying stands in contrast to how several of his colleagues embraced the document, especially at a March 2017 House intelligence hearing.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, read its charges into the record and praised Mr. Steele.
Another Democrat seemed to endorsed the salacious dossier charge that Mr. Trump met with prostitutes at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in 2013.
Rep. Joaquin Castro, Texas Democrat, vouched for Mr. Steele.
“The reputation of the author, Christopher Steele, is a former accomplished British intelligence officer with a career built on following Russia is important,” Mr. Castro said. “This is not someone who doesn’t know how to run a source and not someone without contacts. The allegations it raises about President Trump’s campaign aides’ connections to Russians, when overlaid with known established facts and timelines from the 2016 campaign, are very revealing.”
He added: “The dossier definitely seems right on these points. A quid pro quo relationship seems to exist between the Trump campaign and [President Vladimir] Putin’s Russia.”
Congressional sources say that, rather than a single trigger, there was likely a confluence of events that prompted the FBI to the start its counterintelligence probe in late July 2016.
One event would be the fact that on July 22 Wikileaks began releasing thousands of Democrat Party emails. The dump came about a month after the DNC said it has been hacked by the Russians.
Simpson and Fritsch
Here is what is known about the dossier’s role:
• Mr. Steele has said he briefed the FBI in early July 2016. At that time, he had written memos alleging a grand conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow to interfere in the election. He has said he continued to communicate with the FBI, sending the bureau memos that ultimately made up the dossier’s full 35 pages.
• The FBI used the dossier to select and interview witnesses. The House intel committee has obtained “numerous” 302s, the FBI summary of interviews form, related to the dossier, Mr. Nunes said. Witnesses have told The Washington Times that the dossier formed an outline from which FBI agents have asked questions.
• CNN reported that dossier information was included in a eavesdropping warrant for Mr. Page.
Whether the dossier sparked or fueled the investigation, clearly it played a major investigative role.
Days after The New York Times’ Papadopoulos story appeared, the Times gave space for Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, former Wall Street Journal journalists who founded Fusion GPS in 2011, to write an op-ed castigating the Nunes investigation.
Like the Times story and Democrats, they downplayed their own investigative work.
“We don’t believe the Steele dossier was the trigger for the F.B.I.’s investigation into Russian meddling,” they wrote. “As we told the Senate Judiciary Committee in August, our sources said the dossier was taken so seriously because it corroborated [what] the bureau had received from other sources, including one inside the Trump camp.
“The intelligence committees have known for months that credible allegations of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia were pouring in from independent sources during the campaign.”
Congressional sources say if these reports about collusion have been corroborated, as Messrs. Simpson and Fritsch wrote, why are Republicans and even Democrats saying today that there is no confirmed cases of collusion?
Messrs. Simpson and Fritsch also wrote: “What came back shocked us. Mr. Steele’s sources in Russia (who were not paid) reported on an extensive — and now confirmed — effort by the Kremlin to help elect Mr. Trump president. Mr. Steele saw this as a crime in progress and decided he needed to report it to the F.B.I.”
But Mr. Steele’s reports on Russia activities often followed publicly known events which he used to weave conspiracies.
As to the assertion that Mr. Steele did not pay his Kremlin sources, former acting CIA director Michael J. Morell said this at conference by Cipher Brief in March 2017: “I have subsequently learned that he used intermediaries. And then I asked myself, ‘Why did these guys provide this information, what was their motivation?’ And I subsequently learned that he paid them. That the intermediaries paid the sources, and the intermediaries got the money from Chris. And that kind of worries me a little bit because if you’re paying somebody, particularly former FSB officers, they are going to tell you truth and innuendo and rumor, and they’re going to call you up and say, ‘Hey, let’s have another meeting, I have more information for you.’ I think you’ve got to take all that into consideration when you consider the dossier.”
‘Disingenuous’ or ‘oblivious’
Fusion hired Mr. Steele at about the same time the DNC reported it had been hacked by Russian operatives.
Messrs. Simpson and Fritsch said their orders to Mr. Steele were simple: “Yes, we hired Mr. Steele, a highly respected Russia expert. But we did so without informing him whom we were working for and gave him no specific marching orders beyond this basic question: Why did Mr. Trump repeatedly seek to do deals in a notoriously corrupt police state that most serious investors shun?”
Mr. Steele provided a different version in a filing in a London court where he is being sued for libel. He said he was hired by Fusion specifically “to prepare a series of confidential memoranda based on intelligence concerning Russian efforts to influence the U.S. presidential election process and links between Russia and Donald Trump.”
Concerning Messrs. Simpson’s and Fritsch’s assertion that investors “shun” Moscow, today there are nearly 3,000 American companies doing business in Russia, according to the Association of Accredited Public Policy Advocate to the European Union.
Mr. Trump has looked at a limited number of deals in Russia but never reached agreement to build a franchise hotel, as have other international chains. He has built no hotels in Russia. His only significant deal in Russia was to stage the Miss Universe pageant near Moscow in 2013.
The Simpson-Fritsch op-ed does not address complaints from Mr. Trump and his associates that the dossier contains far-fetched felony accusations that have damaged their reputations and depleted their finances.
For example, Mr. Steele charged that Trump volunteer Mr. Page discussed bribes with Kremlin figures on a public trip to Moscow. Mr. Steele also charged that Mr. Page and former campaign manager Paul Manafort orchestrated with Russian intelligence the hacking of DNC email servers.
Mr. Page has said all the charges are fiction. There is no public evidence that Mr. Manafort organized the hacking.
Mr. Steele also charged that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, traveled to Prague in August 2016 to engineer a hacking coverup with aides to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Cohen has said the charge is ridiculous. He’s never been to Prague and was in Southern California visiting his son that month.
Mr. Cohen told The Washington Times that he is mentioned 15 times in the dossier, more than any other Trump figure.
“The authors of this op-ed are either being disingenuous or are completely oblivious to reality,” Mr. Cohen said, “as there are more than 3,000 U.S.-based companies doing legitimate business in Russia, some of whom were the largest financial contributors to the Obama campaign.
“Fusion GPS is, at best, a third-rate intelligence firm who produced a document based upon information provided by a foreign agent that came from unverified and unsubstantiated sources. My name is mentioned 15 times in this lie-filled dossier, to which I have testified for over 14 hours to the intel committees [in] both the House and Senate stating there is not an ounce of truth to the allegation.”
The dossier said Mr. Trump has maintained a long information-sharing relationship with Russian intelligence, a charge that also has not been confirmed publicly.