It’s not terribly impressive to destroy a straw man. It’s even less impressive when you attack a straw man and fail to destroy it.
That’s what David Ignatius failed to do in his recent Washington Post opinion article headlined “The truth about the FBI’s Russia probe.” He tells a story about the agency’s use of a Hillary Clinton-funded opposition research document known as a dossier that he says exonerates the FBI and makes its critics look bad.
The dossier has been driving news coverage of Russia since it was legitimized via a leak to major media a year ago. The dossier alleges treasonous collusion between Donald Trump and Russia. It includes salacious details. It was written by someone who journalists and intelligence officials said was a credible ex-spy. And it was allegedly used by the FBI, even though it was a Clinton campaign document. But more than a year after it became public, none of its significant claims have been verified.
In recent weeks, some journalists and other critics of President Trump have been downplaying its importance as a centerpiece of the FBI’s investigation. Others are trying to rehabilitate it and the shady opposition researchers who have run its messaging campaign. The most important recent talking point, for some reason, is that it wasn’t used to launch an investigation into Trump and his associates.
But that’s not the main problem with it. Sure, people who express concern about the FBI’s use of a Clinton-funded opposition research document known as the “Russia dossier” are worried about what the FBI was doing coordinating investigations with one presidential campaign against another presidential campaign. They’re worried that a dossier that has not had any specific thing of significance verified was taken seriously by the FBI.
But they’re mostly worried about whether it was weaponized by the FBI. While the FBI and Department of Justice have fought requests from congressional investigators for information tooth and nail, and the particulars of how they used the dossier remain unknown to most Americans, there are three primary areas of concern.
To Brief Congress?
Did the Obama administration brief Congress on the Clinton campaign’s unverified anti-Trump dossier in the heat of the presidential campaign? That is precisely what it seems like, if this September 2016 report from Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff is true.
He claims that U.S. officials briefed “senior members of Congress” about “the activities of Trump adviser Carter Page.” After “one of those briefings,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid demanded investigations into Page and “high-ranking sanctioned individuals” and said there were “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. These unverified allegations appear in the dossier written by Christopher Steele that alleges treasonous collusion with Russia. Did U.S. officials use this unverified dossier to brief Reid, of all people?
Notably, Andrew McCarthy writes that the dossier, “absent verification, would have been unworthy of presentation to Congress and the courts”:
Patently, although even Steele acknowledges that his claims were unverified, American intelligence officials were using them to brief congressional leaders — i.e., using them as if they were refined American intelligence reports. In circular reinforcement, the congressional leaders were then referring the unverified reports to the FBI and demanding further investigation.
Did the FBI use the dossier to help secure a wiretap on a Trump campaign affiliate?
This is the big question and the one congressional investigators have sought to answer. Steele is being sued in England for libel related to his dossier. In his defense effort, he has repeatedly said his reports are raw and unverified. While he wrote his reports as if he were quite confident, in court he sounds a completely different tune, admitting the information may be false.
If the unverified dossier, planned and funded by the Clinton campaign, was used to secure a wiretap against an American citizen, it would be a scandal. The FBI has turned over information about that to congressional committees but it hasn’t leaked, even from notoriously leaky House Democrats. Rep. Adam Schiff hasn’t come out and said he hasn’t seen anything disconcerting. The silence is noticeable. Still, perhaps the FBI did not use the shady, unverified dossier.
Did intelligence agencies use the dossier as part of a massive leak campaign?
The post-election weaponization of the dossier to undermine an incoming president is difficult to ignore. While there has been no independent verification of any significant portion of the dossier since BuzzFeed published it a year ago, CNN has reported that government officials say some of it has been verified, although they were unable to give examples.
The dossier includes some globally known information, so they could be saying such details (about Putin disliking Hillary Clinton, or about Carter Page going to Moscow) had been verified. In fact, that latter item is apparently the only thing former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe could cite as verified from the dossier. But Page going to Moscow to give a televised speech at the same place Barack Obama had gone to give a televised speech years earlier is not a state secret that Steele was the first to uncover, obviously. It should not count as verification.
While the Clinton campaign, through Fusion GPS, was briefing political reporters on the Russia narrative throughout the campaign, very few reporters bit on it. Isikoff did, as noted above. And Mother Jones‘ David Corn did on October 31. But the dossier gained new life after the election.
Shortly after her defeat, according to “Shattered,” a well-sourced book about the Clinton campaign written by sympathetic reporters, Clinton settled on a Russia excuse within 24 hours of her concession speech. “[Campaign manager Robby] Mook and Podesta assembled her communications team at the Brooklyn headquarters to engineer the case that the election wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. For a couple of hours, with Shake Shack containers littering the room, they went over the script they would pitch to the press and the public. Already, Russian hacking was the centerpiece of the argument.”
A “Russia” drumbeat grew, with Obama intelligence officials selectively leaking Russia details. In her book “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton writes: “The intelligence community took the dossier seriously enough that it briefed both President Obama and President-elect Trump on its contents before the inauguration.”
Well, if they took the dossier seriously, they shouldn’t have, obviously. But it is absolutely true that Obama’s intelligence chiefs briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on its contents. Almost immediately, the fact of that meeting was leaked to CNN. Like Clinton, the media argued that this happened because of how seriously everyone was taking a dossier that turns out to be, according to its own Clinton-funded author, not necessarily true. And more than a year since BuzzFeed published its contents, much of it has been debunked.
So what in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks were U.S. officials doing briefing it and leaking that they briefed it?
This brings us back to Ignatius’ piece. An interlocutor asks him if he’s in any way concerned about the Justice Department’s handling of the dossier, expressing concern the investigation was a bit tainted. Ignatius says it’s a fair question:
What’s true here, and what’s false? A careful look at the evidence rebuts the claim that the FBI was misused by Steele and that the bureau’s operations are in disarray. The FBI isn’t perfect, and text messages show that some officials favored Clinton (just as others supported Trump). But Republicans delude themselves in claiming that the Russia probe is a partisan concoction. Trump operatives have admitted in plea agreements that they lied to the FBI about their contacts with Russia.
Oh dear. First off, Ignatius does not carefully look at the evidence. He doesn’t even mention the vast, vast, vast majority of it. But note that dismissive reference to some officials favoring Clinton while others supported Trump. This might be a good point if agents expressing strong bias weren’t involved in investigating either Clinton or Trump, much less both. But they were. Note that Ignatius doesn’t mention FBI agents talking about the dossier being an “insurance policy” because the country can’t “take the risk” of a Trump presidency. The people running the Trump investigation said that. This should not be waved away as Ignatius does with not even a moment’s pause.
As for that last line, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic write-up of the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos. Neither are charged with any wrongdoing with regard to treasonous collusion with Russia, mind you. They were rung up on process crimes. And Ignatius is involved in one of those guilty pleas!
See, a senior intelligence official had leaked — to Ignatius, as it happens — that Flynn had possibly violated the Logan Act by talking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The Logan Act is a blatantly unconstitutional law that hasn’t been used in prosecutions in hundreds of years. It’s a joke that no one takes seriously, apart from people involved in a pre-inauguration delegitimization effort. It’s also a crime to leak the contents of a FISA intercept, although no one seems to care about that.
It also turned out Flynn was having diplomatic conversations encouraging Russians not to overreact to President Obama’s anti-Russia campaign after the election. He was fired for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about some aspect of that conversation, so his conviction isn’t completely surprising. As for Papadopoulos, his crime was to tell the FBI he hadn’t joined the campaign at the time he spoke with a Russian. The FBI thinks he should have said he had joined even though it hadn’t been publicly announced but agreed to. If these guilty pleas pointed to a criminal conspiracy, it would be one thing. But at least at this point, we have no reason to think that.
Ignatius then quotes FBI Director Christopher Wray telling a House Committee that everything is awesome at the agency. A senior official at a large police department also says everything is kosher, although he declines to give his name. And some “bureau veterans,” also nameless, naturally, say there’s nothing to see there. Well, case closed! Good enough for me!
“What about Republican claims that Steele spawned what Trump calls a ‘witch hunt’?” Ignatius asks. This is the straw man. The concern is about misuse of the Steele dossier, not exclusive use of the dossier. Ignatius mistakenly says Fusion GPS was paid by “Clinton supporters.” It’s kind of been downplayed at many media outlets, but it was the Hillary Clinton campaign itself, along with the Democratic National Committee, that paid for the Russia operation, hiding their funding via a law firm. But Ignatius says there’s nothing to worry about because while Steele did totally contact the FBI with his Clinton-funded dirt, the FBI only got serious after it obtained its own independent information.
The only “independent information” that anyone is citing, however, including Ignatius in this piece, is literally a drunken chat an Aussie had with twenty-something Trump advisor Papadopoulos. At the time that Hillary’s 30,000 deleted emails were in the news, Papadopoulos was told that Russians had her emails and he told the Aussie that he’d been told this. The Aussie told the FBI after hacked Democratic emails were published in July. This was also around the time that former FBI director James Comey had decided to let Clinton skate for mishandling classified information, for what it’s worth.
Oddly, Ignatius says the FBI requested a meeting with Steele and gave him Papadopoulos’ name. One wonders if the FBI was aware that Steele was a Clinton campaign opposition researcher when they shared information with him. Here’s Ignatius’ takeaway:
What does this narrative tell us? Far from a yarn concocted by Steele, the FBI probe was driven by its own independent reporting about Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty last October to lying about his Russia contacts. The bottom line: There may be something in tatters at the center of this investigation, but it isn’t the FBI.
A question for Republicans in Congress who have been so quick to trash FBI officials and defend Trump: Does this concern you at all?
Wait, what? The reports are that U.S. officials briefed Congress about Page, that a wiretap against him was secured, and that a dossier about him was taken so seriously by intelligence agencies that they had to leak to CNN that they were telling Trump about it. If you think that the FBI got a warrant to spy, in the middle of a a presidential campaign, on U.S. citizen and Trump affiliate Carter Page because of hearsay about Papadopoulos and not that this dossier said Page was a traitor, I don’t really know what to say.
Ignatius’ interlocutor asked him if he’s in any way concerned about the Justice Department’s handling of the dossier, expressing concern the investigation was a bit tainted. Ignatius said it was a fair question. It was. It deserves a real answer.
What should concern all Americans, regardless of their feelings about Trump, is a journalistic class that believes its job is to support, defend, and protect the FBI when it is credibly accused of using a Clinton-funded, Democratic-funded opposition research document its own author won’t stand behind.