Democrats have marked the first year of the House’s investigation into Russian election meddling by promoting conspiracy tales in the Christopher Steele dossier and leaking to the press more than two dozen stories, some of which Republicans contend were way off base.
Led by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, Democrats on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence publicly kicked off the investigation on March 20, 2017, by reading a number of unverified Steele charges into the record. No line of inquiry was off limits, including Mr. Steele’s story about President Trump and prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013.
Mr. Steele wrote of an “extensive conspiracy” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. Mr. Trump has called the former British spy’s dossier a collection of fiction. In an April court filing, Mr. Steele backed off his strongest claims and talked only of “possible coordination.”
Since March 20, as testimony about suspected collusion went into the recesses of the U.S. Capitol’s sensitive compartmented information facility (SCIF), Democrats began a pattern of leaking to favored media, sometimes as a witness was still testifying.
After a recent leak, Rep. Lee M. Zeldin, New York Republican, tweeted: “Holy cow. The leaks coming from Dems on HouseIntelComm are out of control! Witnesses come in for hours of testimony at a time & then Dems instantly leak their version of 1 question & that’s that. Do rules, confidentiality & process matter at all anymore?”
Mr. Trump and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders have bluntly accused Mr. Schiff of spoon-feeding the press confidential anti-Trump material. Mr. Trump told The Wall Street Journal in January that when Mr. Schiff leaves a committee interview, a news report on the testimony quickly follows.
Mr. Schiff denies he is leaking.
“They owe me an apology, but frankly it would be a wasted errand to ask for one,” Mr. Schiff said on CNN. “And if Sarah Huckabee Sanders is going to have to give out apologies to everyone that he has criticized unfairly, she would be doing nothing else all day.”
After Mr. Trump called him a “total phony,” and “leakin’ monster,” Mr. Schiff tweeted back: “Wait a minute, Mr. President. Am I a phony or sleazy, a monster or little? Surely you know the key to a good playground nickname is consistency. I thought you were supposed to be good at this.”
A review of committee press coverage shows that more than two dozen leaks appear to be Democrat-generated. At least five were inaccurate, two decidedly wrong.
Republicans appear to have leaked a smattering of testimony stories favorable to Mr. Trump. Democrats have accused Republicans of leaking private text messages between Sen. Mark R. Warner, Virginia Democrat, and Adam Waldman, a Washington lawyer attempting to negotiate a meeting with Mr. Steele.
Five Democrat leaks that Republicans say missed the mark:
• CNN reported that emails from presidential son Donald Trump Jr., who was testifying that day, show he received a tipoff from WikiLeaks days before the anti-secrecy group dispensed more stolen Democratic Party emails. The story stayed active a full day before CNN corrected it to say the tipoff came after the public release.
Mr. Trump Jr.’s attorney strongly implied that Democrats purposely injected an inaccurate leak into the Trump-Russia debate.
• CNN and other news sites reported erroneous Democratic versions of data on Russian-bought Facebook advertising. Democrats leaked in October to CNN that the ads targeted Michigan, Wisconsin and other swing states. The message was clear: Russians made the difference in handing Mr. Trump two pivotal states to win 270 electoral votes.
But the Washington Examiner looked at numbers and messages and concluded that the ads designed to stir unrest were written awkwardly. Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, issued numbers that showed deep-blue Maryland received more Facebook ads than Wisconsin, with 262 and 55 respectively. No Wisconsin ad mentioned Mr. Trump.
• The Daily Beast reported that Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, refused to deny a charge from Democrats that he collaborated with the White House on his blockbuster memo. It detailed abuses by the FBI in obtaining a wiretap on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
The committee later released a transcript of the business meeting that showed Mr. Nunes had vigorously denied that he worked with White House. The conservative news website The Federalist wrote: “Once again, reporters got burned by believing anonymous Democrats [on the House committee].”
• The New York Times ballyhooed a leak that said White House communications director Hope Hicks admitted to telling “white lies” during nine hours of testimony. Her admission was in answer to a Democrat’s question about whether she had ever been untruthful, even to the point of telling white lies. She said sometimes, such as in telling a caller that Mr. Trump was not in when he was.
• Democrats leaked that Ms. Hicks said two of her email accounts — one personal, the other a campaign address — had been hacked. Only one personal account, going back to Ms. Hicks’ college days, had been hacked. Republicans said Ms. Hick’s testimony was so inconsequential that Democrats were forced to leak petty asides.
Republicans note other piecemeal leaks designed to sully Mr. Trump. Democrats leaked that his personal assistant, Keith Schiller, testified that while Mr. Trump was in Moscow in 2013 for his Miss Universe contest that a Russian offered prostitutes. Mr. Schiller laughed it off. Democrats leaked this small excerpt to spin to reporters that there is credence to the Steele dossier’s section about prostitutes.
Democrats also routinely leak the schedules for upcoming witnesses. Their motive, Republicans say, is to make sure the media capture footage of the witnesses as they walk in and out of the panel’s secure hearing room.
Dossier, front and center
Committee Democrats early on set the tone for their inquisition.
While the Senate intelligence committee avoids most partisan squabbles, House Democrats went after Mr. Trump from the start. Their weapon: the unverified dossier complied by Mr. Steele, who was paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Mr. Schiff wholeheartedly endorsed the information and its author, Mr. Steele. He was joined by the panel’s most liberal wing: Rep. Eric Swalwell of California, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, Joaquin Castro of Texas and Andre Carson of Indiana.
A year later, the dossier’s core charges remain unconfirmed by the FBI. After scouring millions of pages of documents and interviewing scores of witnesses, Mr. Nunes has said there was no Russia-Trump collusion.
The final word will come from special counsel Robert Mueller, who continues to call Trump people to testify and wants to interview the president.
At the March 20 hearing, Mr. Steele was the witness in absentia as Democrats read his charges and tried to coax agreement from then-FBI Director James B. Comey and Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency.
Said Mr. Carson: “In fact, the dossier written by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele alleges that Trump agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue, which is effectively a priority for [Russian President] Vladimir Putin. There’s a lot in the dossier that is yet to be proven, but increasingly as we’ll hear throughout the day, allegations are checking out. And this one seems to be as accurate as they come.”
When Adm. Rogers said it is possible the Kremlin would trade favors for intelligence from foreigners, Mr. Castro concluded, “OK. Well, the dossier definitely seems right on these points. A quid pro quo relationship seems to exist between the Trump campaign and Putin’s Russia.”
Mr. Schiff embraced Mr. Steele’s narration of a trip to Moscow in July 2016 by Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page. Mr. Steele’s sources said Mr. Page met with two Kremlin figures who offered bribes for sanctions relief.
Mr. Page has denied under oath to Congress that he met the two men or discussed bribes.
Mr. Steele said Mr. Page was offered a brokerage fee of Russian oil giant Rosneft’s planned sale of a 19 percent stake to private investors.
Mr. Schiff credited Mr. Steele with predicting the 19 percent figure in an October memo in a sale that happened two months later: “Is it a coincidence that the Russian gas company, Rosneft, sold a 19 percent share after former British intelligence officer Steele was told by Russian sources that Carter Page was offered fees on a deal of just that size?”
But a check of the internet shows that Moscow announced the 19 percent figure the previous July. The 19 percent was public knowledge when Mr. Steele wrote his memo.
Months after the March 20 hearing, Democrats continued to pursue the Steele stories as they questioned witnesses, according to three testimony transcripts released at the request of the witness.
There is the far-fetched tale that Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, secretly traveled to Prague in August 2016 to meet with Putin aides and devise a cover-up for the hacking of Democratic Party computers.
Mr. Cohen has testified under oath that he never went to Prague or engaged in any cover-up of Russian hacking.
But Mr. Schiff and others have persisted. Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, who paid Mr. Steele, suggested in testimony that Mr. Cohen could have traveled to Prague on a yacht and a Russian plane.
After testimony, Democrats have sometimes accused Trump witnesses of lying, without specifics.
Ms. Speier accused former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo of lying after his testimony but gave no details. He filed a complaint with the House Committee on Ethics.