Over the course of the day I’ve been listening to news reports which say that the Fusion GPS testimony from co-owner Glenn Simpson belies the received narrative about the Steele dossier, or at least that argued by Republicans and Trump supporters. As Jake Tapper put it when speaking with CNN’s Jim Acosta today, Simpson’s account “contradicts president Trump and his supporters who argue that the dossier was a purely political document paid for by Democrats trying to hurt Trump.” Really though this is a testament to the power of disinformation when it is empowered by one of the country’s two political parties. Let’s put this more simply: this is a testament to what can happen when the GOP unites behind a campaign of willful disinformation at the country’s expense.
We shouldn’t take any party’s account at face value. But the testimony released today confirms what has always been clear. A business intelligence firm (contracted by a law firm which in turn was working for the Clinton campaign) hired a former British intelligence officer, with deep Russia experience, to look deeper at Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. What he found went well beyond fodder for political campaigns and made him worry that there was a genuine threat to US national security, either because Trump or people around him were conspiring with Russians or because Trump was or could be blackmailed. He took that information to the FBI. He had worked with the FBI before and they trusted his work.
The FBI’s response was basically, “Yeah, we know.” That overstates it a bit. But not much. The FBI was already getting tips and reports that something was afoot. Steele’s information just confirmed the seriousness of the situation. Indeed, as we now know, one key report it supported was that from the Australian Ambassador to the UK who had heard a Trump foreign policy advisor brag about dirt the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. Steele first reached out to an FBI contact in July. The FBI reached back out to him in September wanting to know more.
As we’ve long discussed, the so-called dossier is not and was not intended to be a final intelligence ‘product’. It’s raw intelligence. Everything is piled together. We shouldn’t assume that everything in it is accurate even if we believe it was compiled in good faith by a seasoned professional. But Steele here was clearly acting in some sense like a whistleblower. It’s not clear whether Steele told Simpson he was contacting the FBI at the time or soon after the fact. But if Simpson’s account is accurate, Steele was acting as a former intelligence officer of America’s closest ally.
This was all basically clear a year ago. What’s happened is that we’ve had a year tarnishing the reputation of a man who did right by the United States for no obvious reason other than his allegiance is to our closest ally and creating a comic, degenerate alternate reality in which the people who alerted us to the problems and those who first sought to understand them are the malefactors rather than the people who were at a minimum cozying up to a foreign power. It is actually quite like the cliched story of the whistleblower who speaks up and then becomes the scapegoat in the cover-up of the bad acts he was trying to bring to light. In fact that’s exactly what it is.
It is all of a piece with the counter-surveillance Mike Flynn started when he first got to the White House – trying to find out what investigators had learned about his activities. That spawned the ‘un-masking’ charade carried on by Devin Nunes, a notional member of Congress who has spent the last year betraying his oath on behalf of a faction within the Trump administration. It goes right up to last week when Senate Republicans issued their first criminal referral of the Trump-Russia probe – against Christopher Steele!
We don’t need to valorize Steele or assume his findings are all accurate. (As I noted in December, fundamentally it doesn’t even matter since the investigation doesn’t rise or fall on Steele’s credibility.) Perhaps he got things wrong. Perhaps he overreacted. But there’s really no scenario in which he’s the bad actor in this story. That’s comical. And yet, that’s where we are. Most of what is interesting in the Simpson testimony is interesting because it is so clearly out of whack with what Tapper accurately characterized as what is almost conventional wisdom now among many in Washington: “that the dossier was a purely political document paid for by Democrats trying to hurt Trump.”
In our current system, the concerted actions of one bad-acting political party coupled with the media imperative to enforce ‘balance’ even when it means false equivalence can be highly, highly distorting.