From the Devin Nunes Intelligence Agency, we have theory 14 why Donald Trump should be immune from the rule of law. Remember, Nunes is the House intelligence committee chair who got involved with Mike Flynn’s effort to surveil and disrupt the Russia investigation in the first days and weeks of the Trump presidency. Nunes was bounced from running the House Russia probe in part because of that. But now he’s back, largely in the form of mounting a counter-probe, a probe into alleged bias in the probe itself. To that end, he has subpoenaed a man named David Kramer, who played a role in Sen. John McCain’s bringing a copy of the Steele ‘dossier’ to then-FBI Director James Comey in late 2016. (Comey already had a copy.) This is all prologue to a new, or newly refined theory: the Steele dossier was not a perhaps imperfect guide to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. It was the interference itself.
Byron York approvingly lays out the theory in a new column here in The Washington Examiner.
There is a growing belief among some congressional investigators that the Russians who provided information to Steele were using Steele to disrupt the American election as much as the Russians who distributed hacked Democratic Party emails. In some investigators’ views, they are the two sides of the Trump-Russia project, both aimed at sowing chaos and discord in the American political system.
Let’s begin with some caveats.
This is not an inherently nonsensical idea. Indeed, it’s possible. In a more limited form, it’s been suggested before – not that the whole dossier is a disinformation effort but that some of the Russians Steele spoke to may have fed him misinformation. Again, that is not inherently nonsensical. In this limited sense it may even be probable. The broader point is that we shouldn’t assume the Russian interference campaign was entirely ‘logical’ and linear. It could have worked on multiple fronts to create chaos and confusion. Indeed, we know that its operatives were simultaneously pushing racist and xenophobic memes while also creating ersatz Black Lives Matter-inspired front groups on the other side of the equation. They were backing Trump; they were also pushing Jill Stein.
My point is that we shouldn’t think that because Russia wanted to elect Donald Trump that they couldn’t simultaneously be involved in undermining Trump.
But there are numerous reasons to doubt this new theory. First and foremost is that it comes from Devin Nunes and House ‘investigators’ working on his behalf. But let’s get to more specifics. First, Steele is known as a 1st tier spy with deep experience in Russia and contacts with Russians. Could he have been duped? Certainly. But this wasn’t some random guy with no area experience. Quite the opposite. So it’s possible but we should be skeptical.
Next, when counter-intelligence agents at the FBI first got hold of Steele’s materials this is basically the first trap they would have run. Is this legit or is it disinformation? Either from Russia or some other country? They have lots of avenues to probe that question. There’s simply working to confirm claims in the dossier. There’s human and signals intelligence. It’s probably the first question they would have looked at. And it’s pretty clear they did not think this was the case.
Could they have been duped? Of course. Intelligence agencies are literally in the business of duping other intelligence agencies. But it’s not likely.
And this unlikeliness is where we get back to point one – the belief of “some congressional investigators.” This is rather transparently the Republican investigators working with and for Devin Nunes. So what this requires of us is to believe that the ‘congressional investigators’ have a better take on this than either Steele or the counter-intelligence agents at the FBI. Nunes’ staffers have figured this out even though they’re doing the investigating at least one step of remove, even though they almost certainly have less area knowledge than Steele and the FBI agents on the case and even though they clearly have a deep investment in discrediting the Russia probe itself. (I might have added that they have less experience with intelligence work; but that’s not necessarily the case. Some of these staffers are ex-spies or intelligence analysts.) When you line it all up like this, with all the moving pieces exposed, you can pretty easily dismiss this as a crock. Could the Russians have loaded up Steele with a lot of disinformation? Sure, these ‘congressional investigators’ thinking it tells us basically nothing.
Now let’s round back to the even bigger overarching point: it doesn’t matter.
Congressional Republicans have increasingly focused in on the Steele dossier as the lynchpin undergirding the entire Russia probe. Discredit its origins or invalidate its claims and the whole Russia probe falls apart. But that’s clearly not true.
The Steele dossier may have played a role at the outset of the investigation. But nothing Mueller’s team is doing now relies on Steele’s work, unless it’s been independently validated. We don’t know which things have been. But it’s clear that various claims either have been validated or have lead to other findings which validate the broad outlines. But Don Jr’s meeting with that Russian lawyer in June 2016 wasn’t in there. George Papadapoulos’s hijinx aren’t in there. The dossier doesn’t even include most of the evidence we now have that multiple Trump family members or associates were at least meeting with Russian officials looking for dirt on Hillary Clinton.
We know those things mainly because of the investigations. There’s no evidence or reason to believe the Steele Dossier was the product of disinformation from Russian intelligence. But even if it were, it would count more as irony than any discrediting smoking gun since it played a part in triggering investigations which uncovered numerous instances of Trump family members and associates trying to work with Russian intelligence officials and cut outs to defeat Hillary Clinton. We don’t need the Steele dossier for those. We have emails, testimony, wire intercepts, admissions.
It just doesn’t matter and it’s not even true. From January forward Chairman Nunes has worked doggedly not to oversee the executive branch but rather to obstruct investigations into the executive branch – both congressional investigations and the criminal investigation itself.