By Aaron Maté / The Nation
Donald Trump’s journey into and out of the Oval Office was shaped by xenophobia, conspiracy theories—and xenophobic conspiracy theories. Trump launched his political career by spreading the “birther” lie about President Obama, and then became Obama’s improbable successor with an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim presidential campaign. Upon losing the White House four years later, Trump, true to form, blamed his ouster on a vast election fraud conspiracy aided—according to flunkies Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell—by “communist money,” “Venezuelan” voting machines, as well as Chinese and Iranian hackers. The right-wing mob that attacked the Capitol to thwart the certification of Joe Biden’s victory last week was the apotheosis of Trump’s unhinged bigotry.
Trump’s deranged coda was fitting for another reason: During his time in office, Democratic Party operatives and their allies in the media challenged the legitimacy of Trump’s 2016 victory with a xenophobic conspiracy theory of their own. Russia, it was claimed, not only installed Trump in the White House, but did so as part of an elaborate plot with his campaign. While Russiagate did not incite the hatred, violence, and harm of Trump’s MAGA and “Stop the Steal” movement, it was not without its own dangerous consequences.
A “WELL-DEVELOPED CONSPIRACY OF COOPERATION”
The first Manchurian Candidate rumblings about Trump surfaced in the summer of 2016. But the pivotal incident, which morphed into all-consuming Russia mania, came exactly four years ago this month, just days before Trump’s inauguration. On January 10, 2017, BuzzFeed News published the “Steele dossier,” the collection of DNC-funded reports alleging a high-level conspiracy between Trump and Moscow. The catalyst had come four days earlier, when then–FBI Director Jim Comey personally briefed Trump on the dossier’s existence. Their meeting was then promptly leaked to the media, giving BuzzFeed the news hook to publish the Steele material in full.
Despite its outlandish assertions and partisan provenance, Steele’s work product somehow became a road map for Democratic leaders, media outlets, and, most egregiously, intelligence officials carrying out the Russia investigation.
According to Steele, Trump and the Kremlin engaged in a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation.” Russia had, Steele alleged, been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years,” dating back to the time when Trump was merely the host of The Apprentice. Russia, Steele claimed, handed Trump “a regular flow of intelligence,” including on “political rivals.” The conspiracy supposedly escalated during the 2016 campaign, when then–Trump lawyer Michael Cohen slipped into Prague for “secret discussions with Kremlin representatives and associated operators/hackers.”
This purported plot was not just based on mutual nefarious interests but, worse, outright coercion. To keep their asset in line, Steele alleged, the Russians had videotaped Trump hiring and watching prostitutes “perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show,” in a Moscow Ritz-Carlton hotel room. This “kompromat” meant that the leader of the free world was not only a traitor but also a blackmail victim of his Kremlin handlers.
STEELE’S PERFECT TIMING
If the Steele dossier’s far-fetched claims were not enough reason to dismiss it with ridicule, another obvious marker should have set off alarms. Reading the Steele dossier chronologically, a glaring pattern emerges: Steele has no advance knowledge of anything that later proved to be true, and, just as tellingly, many of his most explosive claims appear only after some approximate prediction has come out in public form.
Despite his supposed high-level sources inside the Kremlin, it was only after Wikileaks published the DNC e-mails in July 2016 that Steele first mentioned them. When Steele made the headline-consuming claim that “the TRUMP team had agreed to sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” in exchange for Russian help, he did so only after a meaningless Ukraine-related platform change at the RNC was reported (and mischaracterized) in The Washington Post. When Steele claimed that former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page was offered up to a 19 percent stake in the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft if he could get Trump to lift Western sanctions, it was only after the media had reported Page’s visit to Moscow.
In short, far from having access to high-level intelligence, Steele and his “sources” only had access to news outlets and their own imaginations. It is for this reason that Russiagate’s key figures and incidents make no appearance in Steele’s dossier. Absent are George Papadapolous and Joseph Mifsud, whose conversations triggered the FBI’s collusion probe. Also MIA is the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian nationals about potential “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The reason is obvious: These events did not get publicly reported until after Steele wrote his final, secret “intelligence report.”
“A REAL-LIFE JAMES BOND”
All of this was lost on the many credulous media outlets who served as de facto stenographers for Steele, his clients, and a series of unknown intelligence officials who, behind the safe mask of anonymity, assured the public of his credibility.
David Corn, the veteran Mother Jones reporter who broke the Steele story in October 2016, approvingly cited an official’s assurance that Steele “has been a credible source with a proven record of providing reliable, sensitive, and important information to the US government.” In addition to making the dossier publicly known, Corn, it later emerged, even personally provided the FBI with a copy.
“Former C.I.A. officials described [Steele] as an expert on Russia who is well respected in the spy world,” The New York Times wrote on the day of the dossier’s release in January 2017. Steele, the Times added, is “considered a competent and reliable operative with extensive experience in Russia.” Steele, an NBC News headline declared, “Is a Real-Life James Bond.”
As they vouched for Steele’s tradecraft, anonymous officials also fed media contacts a false picture that Steele’s dossier had been factually checked out. “US investigators corroborate some aspects of the Russia dossier,” a CNN headline proclaimed in February 2017, weeks after the dossier’s publication. The FBI is “continuing to chase down stuff from the dossier, and, at its core, a lot of it is bearing out,” an unidentified “intelligence official” told The New Yorker later that month.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow was an early and particularly fervent believer in Steele’s sleuthing powers. Days before Trump’s inauguration, Maddow speculated that Putin might use the pee tape to blackmail Trump into withdrawing US forces near Russia’s border. Weeks later, after no such withdrawal materialized, and no underlying Trump-Russia conspiracy had been unearthed, Maddow assured her audience that “all the supporting details” in Steele’s reports “are checking out, even the really outrageous ones. A lot of them are starting to bear out under scrutiny. It seems like a new one each passing day.”
Guardian reporter Luke Harding, who served as Steele’s unofficial media spokesperson, repackaged the former spy’s assertions for his best-selling book, Collusion. “One associate described him as sober, cautious, highly regarded, professional and conservative,” Harding wrote. “‘He’s not the sort of person who will pass on gossip. If he puts something in a report, he believes there is sufficient credibility in it.’”
Even the revelation, in October 2017, that Steele’s “intelligence” had been paid for by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign did nothing to stop the media adulation.
In a glowing March 2018 profile of “the ex-spy [who] tried to warn the world about Trump’s ties to Russia,” Jane Mayer of The New Yorker assured readers that “a number of Steele’s major claims have been backed up by subsequent disclosures.”
The media’s faith in Steele became so profound that even his most outlandish assertion was not just indulged but actively embraced. During the April 2018 rollout for the first of his two Trump-era books, former FBI director Jim Comey told ABC News that it’s “possible” that the pee tape exists. Comey’s innuendo was enough for New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait to declare himself a “Peeliever.” Urging his readers to join the club, Chait wrote, “I used to doubt that this episode really happened. I now believe it probably did.” Comey, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg declared, “has started a long overdue national conversation about whether the pee tape is real.”
This overdue national conversation received its warmest reception in news media boardrooms, where editors devoted precious journalistic resources to the Pee-Tape Pied Piper. Shortly before setting off the Steele saga with its publication of his dossier, BuzzFeed sent a reporter to Prague in a bid to verify it. After it faced a defamation lawsuit from Russians named in the document, BuzzFeed reportedly paid a private firm $4.1 million to verify portions of its contents.
Racing to find a window in which the pee tape could have occurred, Bloomberg News pored over flight logs, while The Daily Beast scrutinized Trump’s time in Moscow. Their efforts, if not dispositive, were apparently persuasive. “Trump’s Pee-Tape Alibi Is Falling Apart,” Vanity Fair proclaimed. “It is another piece of evidence for the Peelievers,” an increasingly confident Jonathan Chait declared.
According to Greg Miller of The Washington Post, colleagues at the newspaper “literally spent weeks and months trying to run down” material in the dossier, including Cohen’s alleged visit to Prague to pay off Russian hackers. “We sent reporters through every hotel in Prague, through all over the place, just to try to figure out if he was ever there, and came away empty.”
Other reporters claimed to have more success. In April 2018, McClatchy reported that Mueller’s team “has evidence” that Cohen visited Prague in 2016, just as Steele alleged. In December of the same year, McClatchy doubled down by reporting that Cohen’s cell phone sent signals that connected with phone towers in Prague. Cohen ultimately denied the claim under oath, and the Mueller report concurred by noting that Cohen “never traveled to Prague.” More than two years later, McClatchy has since added a tepid editor’s note, rather than a retraction.
In conjunction with the near-uniform journalistic credulity, top Democrats and former intelligence officials used their positions of authority and media stardom to burnish Steele’s public image. Representative Adam Schiff went so far as to read some of Steele’s claims into the Congressional Record. Schiff and his colleagues also invoked a standard of evidence that would not survive a court hearing but was widely embraced in the prolonged media campaign to promote Steele’s claim. Capturing prevailing Steele dossier epistemology, former director of the CIA John Brennan told Meet the Press, “Just because they were unverified does not mean they were not true.”
“Not a single revelation in the Steele dossier has been refuted,” Senator Dianne Feinstein likewise declared. Democratic Senator Mark Warner was more circumspect, explaining that none of the dossier’s allegations has been “proven nor, conversely, disproven.” Speaking to Maddow in May 2018, James Clapper shared his view “that more of it has been corroborated with ensuing developments and what we’ve learned.” Asked by Maddow if there is “anything in the dossier that has been disproven,” Clapper answered confidently—despite being out of office for more than a year, “No.”
While the media and political promotion of the Steele dossier was contemptible, its embrace by the FBI is an even bigger scandal. Rather than dismiss Steele’s work as a political hit job, the FBI used it as source material.
The FBI’s interest in Steele’s dossier was extensive. The bureau maintained a lengthy spreadsheet to document its efforts to corroborate Steele’s fanciful claims. And when agents first sought the now-infamous surveillance warrant on Carter Page in October 2016, they took their cues right from Steele’s pages.
The FBI told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) that it “believes that [Russia’s] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” the Trump campaign. Its source for this absurd “belief” was Steele, whom it described as “Source #1” and “credible.” In an act of circular reporting, the FBI also cited a Yahoo News article by journalist Michael Isikoff—who had also relied on Steele as a source. Although the FBI disclosed to the court that Steele was being paid to do opposition research, it did not disclose that Trump’s Democratic political opponents were footing the bill.
Remarkably, the FBI did not just rely on Steele’s information, but even shared its own information with him. At an October 2016 meeting in Rome, FBI officials disclosed to Steele highly sensitive and even classified material. A damning Justice Department investigation, overseen by Inspector General Michael Horowitz and released in December 2019, found that FBI agents gave Steele a “general overview” of Crossfire Hurricane, including its specific—and, at the time, secret—probes of Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn. The Washington Post reported in February 2018 that Steele “would later tell associates” that he gleaned from the meeting that that the FBI “was particularly interested in” George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign adviser who served as the predicate for the entire investigation. The Post noted that “Papadopoulos had not surfaced in Steele’s research”—unsurprisingly, because media outlets like the Post hadn’t written stories about him when Steele’s “research” was being invented.
According to the Horowitz report, the FBI was so eager to enlist Steele that it offered to pay him $15,000 “just for attending the October meeting” in Rome. It also pledged a “significantly” greater amount if he could collect information for the investigation.
This arrangement was canceled just a month later, after the FBI discovered that Steele was still speaking to the media. But that did not end the FBI’s reliance on him. The FBI continued to collect information from Steele via an intermediary, former DOJ official Bruce Ohr. Worse, it continued to cite the Steele dossier in subsequent applications to renew the surveillance of Carter Page, never informing the FISC about Steele’s conflicts of interest.
Even worse, the FBI continued to cite Steele even after establishing that his claims were baseless. According to the Horowitz report, Steele’s so-called “Primary Sub-source,” Igor Danchenko, personally informed the FBI in January 2017 that “corroboration” for the Steele dossier’s claims was “zero.”
When Danchenko’s identity was revealed this July, it was clear why he rated his own information so poorly. Rather than being inside Russia with access to Kremlin sources, Danchenko was in fact a DC-based Russian expat with better access to Capitol Hill. Danchenko had formerly worked at the Brookings Institution, a prominent Beltway think tank. According to an investigation by The Wall Street Journal, one of Danchenko’s key sources turned out to be another Russian expat, public-relations executive Olga Galkina. Based in Cyprus, Galkina was credited with coming up with the claim about Cohen in Prague. A dispute with her employer, a web services company, apparently inspired Steele’s claim that one of its properties, Webzilla, was implicated in the alleged Russian hacking of the DNC.
Even after learning all of this, the FBI went back to the FISC and obtained two more renewals of Foreign Intelligence Investigation Act authorizations to spy on Page. In its submissions, the FBI mentioned that it had spoken to Danchenko but left out the inconvenient discovery that his corroboration was “zero.”
The April 2019 release of the Mueller report, which found no Trump-Russia conspiracy, dealt a major blow to Steele’s credibility. It also put an end to the breathless media promotion of his fanciful claims. The release of the Horowitz report in December 2019 was even more damaging. The revelation that the FBI misled the FISC about Steele’s claims has triggered high-level calls for reform and a $75 million lawsuit from Carter Page. The Justice Department has also invalidated the final two Page warrants, citing “material misstatements” by the FBI.
While the Steele affair has triggered at least some government-level contrition and nominal reforms, the same cannot be said about the prominent media and political figures who promoted his ludicrous claims with equal credulity. A small number of corporate media voices, notably Erik Wemple of The Washington Post, have criticized the journalists who served as Steele’s stenographers. But Wemple’s columns are one of the few signs of accountability emanating from the media outlets who misled audiences into believing in the fictitious Trump-Russia plot.
LESSONS FROM THE FARCE
If there is no honest self-reflection to be had from the elite figures who spread Steele’s inventions, perhaps there can still be some lessons drawn for those subjected to the farce. For many liberals, Russiagate offered a comforting explanation for Trump’s improbable, painful victory. If Steele’s spy thriller could be proven true, then the Trumpian nightmare would surely come to an end. This was not only a welcome belief for anyone opposed to Trump but almost a requirement: Day after day, anti-Trump audiences were flooded with constant innuendo about Trump’s treasonous behavior and the false hope that Mueller was a step closer to proving it. To question Steele’s claims and other tenets of Russiagate orthodoxy was, for a long period, an act of heresy to the “Resistance.”
Much like a riveting novel or television show, the Steele story also gave many liberals relief from the daily pain of having such a buffoonish, hateful figure in the Oval Office. But even with Trump now nearly gone, the conditions that gave rise to him, and the dangerous tendencies he represented, remain very present. As do the corporate apologists within the Democratic Party that created an opening for his rise. To ultimately defeat Trumpism, at least some of those who embraced him as a rebuff to the “swamp” will have to be reached.
One place to begin might be by recognizing in ourselves similar qualities to those we’ve deplored in our political opponents. As dismaying as it has been to see MAGA supporters latch on to Trump’s election fraud lies, even to the point of violently attacking the Capitol, perhaps we can develop some insight into their mindset when we consider our own malleability. Trump voters heard liberals incessantly claim that Russia had duped the country into electing their candidate—a Kremlin asset compromised by a salacious videotape, financial leverage, and other unknown kompromat. Even in response to the Trump-fueled assault on Congress, a number of liberal voices, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, immediately brought it back to Putin.
Steele himself personally believed that the aim of his work was to help undo the election. Fusion GPS, Steele told a London court in August 2018, was hired “to obtain information necessary” on “the potential impact of Russian involvement on the legal validity of the outcome of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.” Based on this, Steele explained, the Clinton campaign “could consider steps they would be legally entitled to take to challenge the validity of the outcome of that election.”
Ultimately, Steele’s absurdities, and the overall Russiagate campaign that it fueled, did nothing to undermine Trump. If anything, Trump was handed the enduring gift of a conspiracy-crazed opposition—and, on the core collusion allegation that Steele fueled, his own ultimate exoneration. Just as dangerously, the widespread belief that Trump was a Russian puppet had major geopolitical implications: it helped stigmatize diplomacy with the world’s other top nuclear power, and incentivized liberal adherents to ignore the multiple, hawkish real-world Trump policies that escalated tensions with it. Far more Americans heard of Trump’s fictitious conspiracy with the Kremlin than they did, for example, of him undermining two crucial nuclear weapons treaties, the INF and New START, over Russian objections.
When we now see MAGA followers consumed by their own election conspiracy theories, it behooves us to remember that, while there is no equivalence to the “Stop the Steal” mob violence, many liberals were misled in their own way for Trump’s entire four years. Beyond our mutual proclivity for embracing comforting delusions, we might acknowledge that we share something else with Trump supporters: party elites, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have turned to deranged, xenophobic fantasies rather than taking responsibility for their own election failures. For both party leaderships and their allied media outlets, Russiagate and its “stop the steal” successor have been highly profitable. On top of the immediate financial rewards and ratings boost, both “scandals” offer an even deeper institutional payoff: They distract the public from systemic dysfunctions in favor of fantastical conspiracy theories.
If the Steele dossier has any lasting role in defeating what Trump represents, it would be to trigger some honest reflection about whose interests it served. And whose it hurt.
Aaron Maté is a contributor to The Nation and the host of Pushback, airing on The Grayzone.