The Steele Dossier is in the news again. Last week we learned that Igor Danchenko, described as “the dossier’s primary intelligence collector” by Erik Wemple, has been indicted for lying to the FBI. This has set off many accusations of wrongdoing by mainstream media. For example, Sarah Fischer writes at Axios:
A reckoning is hitting news organizations for years-old coverage of the 2017 Steele dossier, after the document’s primary source was charged with lying to the FBI.
Why it matters: It’s one of the most egregious journalistic errors in modern history, and the media’s response to its own mistakes has so far been tepid.
Outsized coverage of the unvetted document drove a media frenzy at the start of Donald Trump’s presidency that helped drive a narrative of collusion between former President Trump and Russia.
It also helped drive an even bigger wedge between former President Trump and the press at the very beginning of his presidency.
As far as egregious journalistic errors of modern history go, seems to me it pales in comparision to the coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails and George W. Bush’s alleged National Guard service. I’m sure some of you can think of more egregious journalistic errors of modern history.
And as I remember, there were plenty of other factors driving a wedge between Trump and the press at the very beginning of his presidency. That well had already been poisoned before Sean Spicer trotted out and lied about the crowds at Trump’s inauguration. See, for example, Partisan Crowds at Trump Rallies Menace and Frighten News Media, New York Times, October 14, 2016. I doubt the dossier made any difference.
But here is why I am confused.
First, I thought it was understood back in 2017 that the dossier consisted of raw and unvetted information that may or may not be true. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Further, there’s been a lot of reporting since 2017 that pretty much discredited the dossier. For example, Wemple wrote in August 2020,
The Mueller report, released in April 2019, failed to corroborate key dossier contentions. The report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, released in December 2019, destroyed it with venomous bureaucratese. The Intelligence Committee report relies extensively on Horowitz’s conclusions and lands in essentially the same neighborhood: The FBI, concludes the report, gave Steele’s reporting “unjustified credence” and failed to “adjust its approach to Steele’s reporting once one of Steele’s subsources provided information that raised serious concerns about the source descriptions in the Steele Dossier. The Committee further found that Steele’s reporting lacked rigor and transparency about the quality of the sourcing.” The FBI erred in relying on the dossier in seeking FISA surveillance authorization for Carter Page, a former Trump campaign operative.
I hadn’t noticed anyone taking the dossier seriously, or even talking about it much, for quite a while. I don’t believe Danchenko’s indictment is showing us anything new.
Second, allegedly the dossier was important because it was the chief reason Trump was being investigated for possible collusion with Russia. But I don’t believe that’s true, either. Right-wing media kept making that claim, but I was reading in other sources that the warrants obtained by investigators were based on other information, and that the dossier was just incidental. I wrote in 2018,
The Senate Judiciary Committee behaves as if the Steele Dossier is the lynchpin against all the anti-Trump allegations, and if it were discredited all would be resolved in Trump’s favor. But it seems to me the Steele Dossier is nearly irrelevant at this point. It wasn’t even the first clue of possible collusion that caught the FBI’s interest, as was once believed. We now know the first clue was Trump foreign policy adviser/coffee boy George Papadopoulos’s drunken bragging to an Australian ambassador that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. … Seems to me that if the Steele Dossier had never been written, we’d still be in about the same place regarding the several investigations.
So, if the Steele Dossier evaporates, that doesn’t exonerate Trump and doesn’t prove that the entire investigation was just a political stunt. It doesn’t change anything, really. Although if I were given to conspiracy theories, I might wonder if Igor Danchenko — under indictment, but not yet convicted — wasn’t working for the Trump campaign all along.
See also At last, Beltway introspection! by Betty Cracker at Balloon Juice. A hoot.
And if you’re still reading this, I do hope you check out my fundraiser to keep Mahablog online. I really do need some help.