Opinion | White House

Steele's dossier: 'Clown show' or the greatest Russian coup?

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The known details of the so-called Steele dossier point to a peculiar ambiguity. To expert analysts, it always appeared to be low-quality political opposition research. Yet, it turned American against American, paralyzed our government - and may be the greatest Russian disinformation coup in history.

On Jan. 10, 2017, BuzzFeed published the dossier. Supposedly written by an ex-MI6 agent turned consultant, Christopher Steele, it charged, among other offenses, that President-elect Trump was a longtime Russian agent and a pervert to boot.

Trump's many opponents rushed to adopt the dossier as a road map to Putin-Trump collusion. 

At about the same time, the FBI was interrogating a 42-year-old Russian national working in Washington. The interviewee, Igor Danchenko, admitted to being Steele's primary source for the dossier. The "clueless" Danchenko confirmed that he had collected the dossier's "raw material" from talking with drinking buddies. For purposes of the dossier, Steele would transform Danchenko's "sources" into high-level Kremlin insiders.

Danchenko's admissions should have prompted the FBI to dump the dossier immediately. That the FBI proceeded to pursue the dossier's "road map" is the ultimate scandal of what conservatives would subsequently dismiss as "Russiagate."

As special counsel Robert Mueller and, later, Department of Justice inspector general Michael Horowitz moved their interminable investigations behind closed doors, Russiagate turned into a circus of anti-Trump leaks. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC "confirmed" various aspects of the dossier's fabulisms in the form of leaks from "current and former American officials" who wished to remain anonymous."

It was not until the 2019-2020 release of classified footnotes (including the Danchenko interview and Steele's depositions), as well as the FBI's refutation of a key New York Times leak and its own inability to verify much of the dossier, that the anti-Trump sensational leaks were debunked - but not before the Times and the Washington Post won Pulitzer prizes for their coverage. The Trump administration now waits for media "mea culpas" that will never come. Being wrong, apparently, does not mean having to say you're sorry.

This author was among the few voices contending from the beginning that the dossier was a fake. I entered this fray two days after BuzzFeed with an article, "The Trump Dossier Is Fake - And Here Are The Reasons Why." I followed with a series of articles that challenged Steele's "dossier."

Lacking special sources, I had to rely on simple smell tests: Do the events described in the dossier make any sense? Are Steele's sources credible? Was there a hidden agenda?

That the dossier purports to be a breathtaking peek into the highest echelons of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin constituted the most important warning signal. Steele claimed that his informants (aka, Danchenko's drinking pals) had first-hand knowledge of intra-Kremlin power struggles, that Putin ordered the Democratic National Committee hack and controlled a Hillary Clinton dossier, and that the head of Russia's national oil company offered a minor Trump associate a gargantuan bribe. To believe the dossier is to believe that Steele's network knew just about every significant detail of Kremlin life.

Liberal Russian commentator Yulia Latynina demolishes Steele's "sources," writing for those who do not know how Putin's Russia works: "Christopher Steele, the humble head of a small consulting company Orbis with a dozen employees, including cleaners, has 'sources' everywhere: in the Kremlin ... moreover, at the very top. After all, 'sources' of this kind in Russia ... have their own palaces, yachts, private jets. It is not entirely clear why these corrupt billionaires ... should reveal top-secrets to a consultant who had not visited Russia for 13 years."

Steele could not "buy" his sources with his $186,000 budget. They were either Danchenko's buddies, embellished by Steele, or they were Russian disinformation specialists. The FBI revelation that the Kremlin knew of Steele's opposition research means that Russian intelligence could handily have inserted disinformation into Danchenko's social circle for him to pass on to Steele.

Journalist, author and Russia historian David Satter is another voice who, early on, questioned the dossier. Satter also wrote two days after the BuzzFeed publication that the Steele dossier had all the signs of  Russian disinformation - "a carefully constructed attempt to disrupt American political life for years to come."

Satter, who was expelled from Russia because of his reporting there, immediately identified typical themes of Russian disinformation in the dossier - such as Putin's supposed desire to return to 19th-century  power status as an excuse for naked aggression, the Russian Federal Security Service's (FSB) "use of perversion kompromat, and the attribution of policy differences to personality conflicts."

Satter characterizes the Russian disinformation campaign in the dossier as a monumental success in turning American against American. The Kremlin, according to Satter, does not share the U.S. perception of differences between the 2016 political candidates; Putin did not care if Clinton or Trump won, because each had pluses and minuses for Russia. Tearing America apart was - and remains - the Holy Grail of Russian disinformation.

There is an impressive collection of Russia specialists in U.S. universities and think tanks; some have written impressive monographs on Russian disinformation. They would know that any dossier purportedly based on Russian sources must be suspect. Yet such voices have been silent.

The slack has been taken up by a few journalists, such as Gregg Jarrett of Fox News, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, Kimberley Strassel and Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal. With the flood of released documents, these skeptics have characterized the Trump-Russia investigation as a "clown show" (Taibbi) or suggested that Woody Allen should play Steele "for laughs" in the eventual movie (Strassel). 

Viewed from one angle, the Steele dossier indeed has all the elements of a comedy - but it achieved incredible results. As Satter writes: "The Trump-Russia affair did lasting damage to the U.S. For the first time, it became acceptable, even common, to accuse political opponents of treason. The media, Congress and the intelligence services have all undermined themselves by repeating wild and unsubstantiated charges provided for them by Russian intelligence."

In retrospect, the "clown show" dossier was put together ingeniously. First, the identity of the ultimate client was kept secret long enough for it not to ruin the show. Second, in Steele the Russians had someone with a modicum of respectability to gain access to American government and media; and, in the media and professional bureaucracy, they had an army of Trump-haters ready to believe anything.

For the Kremlin, it all meant a sorely wounded United States.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory.

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