The lessons of the Steele dossier

·Senior Editor
·6-min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Steele dossier, a collection of unverified intelligence that alleged deep levels of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russian government during the 2016 presidential campaign, has been the source of intense debate from the moment it was published in January 2017.

In the nearly five years since its release, many of the most explosive accusations compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele — including the alleged existence of a so-called pee tape — remained unverified or have been fully disproven. Over that same period, however, multiple substantive investigations have presented solid evidence to back up one of the dossier’s central claims — that the Russian government engaged in an aggressive effort to influence the election, and that the Trump campaign welcomed the assistance.

Earlier this month, however, a Russia analyst who was a primary source for the dossier was charged with five counts of lying to the FBI about where he got the information he passed on to Steele. That indictment came from special counsel John Durham, who was appointed by former Attorney General William Barr to determine whether the intelligence community broke any laws while investigating Trump-Russia connections.

Why there’s debate

The indictment has launched a new round of debate about the response to the dossier’s release and the continuing impact of its many shaky claims.

A number of prominent media outlets — including the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post — have published lengthy reevaluations of their own coverage of the dossier in the past few weeks. Many conservatives have argued this is merely an effort to save face from organizations that spent years promoting the report’s dodgy claims as a way to build suspicion against Trump. There have also been calls for a deeper examination into how much the intelligence community relied on the dossier in its broader investigations into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia.

While few will defend the substance of the dossier at this point, mainstream and left-leaning commentators have accused Trump’s defenders of trying to use its shortcomings to discredit all investigations into the former president’s behavior. Those inquiries, like the Mueller report and the bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, have found substantial evidence of impropriety that have nothing to do with Steele’s report.

What’s next

Durham’s inquiry into the Russia investigation is ongoing and it’s unclear whether it might produce more indictments or new information about the Steele dossier’s origins in the future.


Steele accomplished his goal of undermining Trump from the start of his presidency

“The purpose was to present the FBI with oppo-research that masqueraded as ‘intelligence,’ and it worked. Mrs. Clinton lost the election, but the Russia tale sabotaged an incoming President with relentless media assaults and a special counsel investigation.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

The Steele dossier is largely irrelevant to the question of Trump’s Russia ties

“Even if every single word in the Steele dossier was wrong, that would not change the fact that the Russians sought to manipulate the U.S. election using hacked material and a disinformation campaign. Nor would it change the fact that the Trump family welcomed this intervention.” — Anne Applebaum, The Atlantic

The real issue is how the intelligence community treated the dossier’s allegations

“Too good to check is an impulse that never serves journalists well, and it’s even worse when it is the policy of a law-enforcement agency wielding awesome powers. At best, the FBI allowed itself to get duped into playing along with a political hit against, first, a presidential candidate and, then, the duly elected president of the United States.” — Editorial, National Review

The media has a duty to acknowledge its failures in covering the dossier

“Addressing the shortcomings over the dossier doesn’t mean ignoring the corruption and democracy-shattering conduct that the Trump administration pushed for four years. But it would mean coming to terms with our conduct and whatever collateral damage these errors have caused to our reputation.” — Bill Grueskin, New York Times

The dossier was a distraction from the real scandal

“The Steele dossier is a sideshow. Like many raw intelligence reports, it was full of uncorroborated information — a lot of which doesn’t check out. But the Steele dossier did not launch the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, and discrediting it does not undermine the evidence that the Kremlin helped Trump win the election with his campaign’s eager encouragement and cooperation.” — Max Boot, Washington Post

The report’s most important accusation remains unproven

“Steele's findings on Russian election-meddling, which were ahead of the curve at the time, now seem more like prescient geopolitical observations rather than insider information. Plus, his final and most consequential takeaway — that Trump's campaign worked hand-in-hand with the Kremlin — was essentially debunked by special counsel Robert Mueller's sweeping investigation.” — Marshall Cohen, CNN

The media won’t ever truly hold itself accountable for its failures

“Those who perpetuated the Russia collusion deception — and this means editors and pundits, not only reporters — still hold premier jobs in political media. Many, in fact, have been rewarded with better gigs. … Journalism is ostensibly about transparency and truth, and yet not one of these sentinels of democracy has explained how they were supposedly fooled for years, exhibiting not a modicum of skepticism — one of the most vital components of good journalism.” — David Harsanyi, New York Post

Coverage of the dossier pushed conservative readers away from mainstream media

“The certain fallout of this is that going forward, many Republican candidates will run as much or more against the media as against their Democratic opponents. That’s likely to happen even if the main media organizations that amplified phony Steele dossier claims retract and apologize for large swaths of their reporting.” — Chris Reed, San Diego Union-Tribune

The dossier was a gift to those looking to discredit inquiries into Trump’s impropriety

“It was a clever ploy on the part of the Trump gang: Deny the unfounded — that Trump was caught on tape consorting with urinating prostitutes and that he conspired directly with Putin — to sidestep the damning reality that Trump and his aides betrayed the nation by both encouraging the Russian attack and trying to cover up Putin’s sinister intervention.” — David Corn, Mother Jones

Anything coming out of Durham’s investigation should be treated with suspicion

“[Durham was] tasked by Trump’s attorney general, Bill Barr, with investigating the Russian investigation itself to try to prove the whole thing was a hoax like Trump said all along, to try to prove that it was criminal to investigate the Russia matter.” — Rachel Maddow, MSNBC

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