[UPDATED, with additional reporting, clarifications and corrections on elements of the so-called Steele Dossier and John Durham indictment.]
I bet I’m not the only journalist with Don Henley’s iconic 1982 hit, Dirty Laundry, swirling in their head this week, as the fortunes of former MI6 agent Christopher Steele and his so-called dossier disintegrate.
There’s that killer chorus:
Kick 'em when they're up
Kick 'em when they're down
Kick 'em when they're stiff
Kick 'em all around
It’s been Steele’s turn for some time now. The veracity of his “intelligence reports” on Donald Trump and Russia has been eroded by a steady stream of revelations over the past several months. But a truly staggering blow came Friday when The Washington Post admitted to having been misled by Steele’s sourcing. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee, in office only since May, ordered the removal of large chunks of Post stories from 2017 and 2019 that had identified a Belarusian-born U.S. businessman, Sergei Millian, as the source of the infamous “pee tape” allegation. According to a Steele source, Trump had been secretly recorded by Russian cameras in a Moscow hotel room watching prostitutes rain “golden showers” on a bed used by the Obamas. National security officials were alarmed by the prospect of the Kremlin holding blackmail material over Trump’s head.
“A dozen other Post stories that made the same assertion were also corrected and amended,” the paper’s veteran media reporter, Paul Farhi, wrote. Farhi called the action “highly unusual in the news industry”—an understatement. “No such case comes immediately or specifically to mind, at least no historical case that stirred lasting controversy,” W. Joseph Campbell, a professor and journalism historian at American University, told him.
The story of the “pee tape” has now been traced vaguely to a longtime Democratic operative—identified only as “PR Executive-1” in the Durham indictment but later confirmed to be D.C. communications executive and Clinton associate Charles Dolan, Jr—who visited the Moscow hotel with another person in June 2016 and learned from a “staffer member” there that “Trump had stayed in the Presidential Suite,” according to the indictment. But “the staff member did not mention any sexual or salacious activity,” it said. So where did it come from? Steele cited a “Source D” saying “TRUMP’S (perverted) conduct in Moscow included hiring the suite of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where he knew President and Mrs OBAMA (whom he hated) had stayed on one of their official trips to Russia, and defiling the bed where they had slept by employing prostitutes to perform a 'golden showers' (urination) show in front of him.” Steele claimed that the account was “confirmed” by a “Source E,” but it’s all very hazy, including in the Durham indictment.
Trump always vehemently denied the story, but he had such a long history of lying that no one believed him. Plus, it fit the overall narrative, much of it self-inflicted— and truthful—that Trump had been wooing the Kremlin for decades, and vice versa. The credibility of the “pee tape” allegation soon came under fire, along with other elements of Steele’s reporting, but other sourcing stood up, until it came crashing down with the Post’s corrections on Friday.
You can read Farhi’s recap in its entirety here.
It hardly needs saying that the Post’s action was greeted with sneering joy by Trump’s increasingly militant supporters, a number of whom had already taken to hurling death threats against reporters, plus local elections officials and even congressional Republicans who voted in favor of Biden’s infrastructure bill. The MAGA crowd insists that the obliteration of the Steele dossier invalidates the entire case against Russiagate.
But others not of this MAGA world say the correction was long overdue.
The highly regarded former New York Times investigative reporter and author Barry Meier has been one of them. In a book and a stream of tweets over the past several months, Meier has slammed both Fusion GPS, the private investigative firm that hired Steele, as well as journalists who have uncritically accepted the work of the firm and other for-hire corporate detectives.
I confess I joined in the initial pee-tape glee myself. Then again, I was taking my cues from U.S. intelligence, whose Jan. 2017 report accusing Moscow of a broad campaign to help Trump beat Clinton in the election contained a two-page annex with “compromising and salacious personal information” on him taken from the Steele dossier. FBI Director James Comey told the president-elect that his only purpose in passing along the unconfirmed accusation was to warn him that the information was out there and could be used against him.
“The two-page summary, first reported by CNN, was presented as an appendix to the intelligence agencies’ report on Russian hacking efforts during the election,” unnamed officials told the Times. “The material was not corroborated, and The New York Times has not been able to confirm the claims,” the paper noted. But virtually all of the major media blew through the caution signs, with circulation and viewer ratings exploding with every new revelation, particularly after former FBI Director Robert Mueller III was appointed special counsel to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian influence operations.
All Sides Now
Attacks on the Russiagate coverage came early from some prominent corners of the left, too, notably from natsec courts-watcher Marcy Wheeler, who in a Jan.11, 2017 blog headlined, “The Democrats Newfound Love for Russian Intelligence Product,” wrote: “as a number of people have noted, there are errors in this report, down to the spelling of Alfa Bank. That’s not itself discrediting, but it should caution people not to take this as finished intelligence.” She added, “For what it’s worth, I find some of it very credible….I’m not entirely sure what to make of this dossier yet. It is more interesting to me as an artifact — as something that Hillary had but chose not to leak…— than as a source of information, but I do think some of the information in the dossier might, with far more vetting, turn out to be somewhat accurate.”
Last January, the weekly Nation magazine, whose articles debunking elements of the “collusion” narrative provoked a staff uproar in the summer of 2017, also published a piece by contributor Aaron Maté saying that the magazine’s skepticism about the Steele dossier was warranted.
“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,” Maté wrote. “...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 predication has come out in public form.”
On Friday, the vigorously anti-woke critic Andrew Sullivan decried the mainstream media’s adherence to long-debunked narratives, from Russiagate to the Kyle Rittenhouse case.
“In case after case,” he wrote in The Weekly Dish, his immensely influential Substack column, “the US MSM just keeps getting it wrong.” Noting that one of Steele’s supposedly insider sources, Igor Danchenko, “has been indicted for lying to the FBI,” and that another, Sergei Millian, ”has also been exposed as potentially fake,” Sullivan knocked the Post for not going far enough to correct the record.
“As their own indispensable [media columnist] Erik Wemple notes, instead of a clear retraction, the Post has just added editors’ notes to previous stories, removed sections and a video, and altered headlines retroactively. This is a bizarre way of correcting the record,” Sullivan said.
But the dossier sourcing may still have a pulse.
Former senior FBI official Frank Figliuzzi calls Denchenko’s indictment by John Durham, appointed by Trump Attorney General Bill Barr to oversee a review of the Russia investigation, “disturbingly misleading.” He takes particular aim at Durham’s “claim that the Steele Dossier was the primary predicate for Crossfire Hurricane,” the FBI’s investigation into whether Trump campaign officials were colluding with the Kremlin’s campaign to help him and throw chaos into the 2016 election.
“That’s just plain wrong,” Figliuzzi, a former assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division told me in an email: “In fact, the DOJ IG report stated that the Carter Page FISA application would have been approved without the dossier. He seems to forget that Special Counsel Mueller indicted two dozen Russians for election interference, all by himself.”
Or that the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee described former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort "a grave counterintelligence threat" during the 2016 presidential campaign because of his dealings with Russian agents.
Marcy Wheeler also slammed Durham’s indictment, calling it ”the action of a prosecutor who is either throwing a tantrum, or someone who is uncertain of his own charges, and so is ensuring he gets multiple shots at proving an alleged lie by charging it in four different ways (perhaps hoping he can get Danchenko on his statement that he believed he spoke to Millian a couple of times).”
Figliuzzi likewise said the basis for Durham’s indictment of Danchenko “seems weak,” that Durham will have a hard time nailing down who said what to whom and why to the FBI in regard to the Steele dossier.
And so what? he asks. “What would the FBI have done differently, what outcome would have changed” by the FBI’s spending time and money talking to Danchenko or anyone else in the case?
“I am all for prosecuting anyone who lies to the FBI,” Figliuzzi told me, but the story that Durham wraps around the indictment is all wrong—just another deflection from that fact that Trump and his minions welcomed help from Russia in the 2016 campaign.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump famously said in a July 27, 2016, news conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
And so he was, remember: “On or around the same day,” Russia-based hackers started targeting the Clinton campaign, the Mueller investigation found. In October, Wikileaks published a devastating trove of emails among her lieutenants. Fox News and the rest of the MAGA media Wurlitzer jumped on the most embarrassing emails showing the Clinton team’s cozy relations with some major media reporters and its move to blunt Bernie Sanders’ popular insurgency, all of which dampened enthusiasm for her campaign.
That was just one knife in the polarization wedge that was cracking the nation into tribes that owned their own facts. The destruction is just about complete now, it seems, with over two-thirds of Republicans not only embracing the Big Lie that the election was stolen, but four in 10 saying violence may be necessary to right the alleged wrong.
Who can divest them of such dark, even psychotic fantasies? The mainstream media?
All of us who embrace truth-telling for a living have suffered a grievous new wound from the collapse of the Steele dossier. The Danchenko indictment was a “death blow” to its claims, argues Barry Meier—and more: “The charges against Danchenko may also force a reckoning that some journalists who embraced the dossier had hoped to avoid—an examination of their reporting about it and their ties to operatives for hire.” Perhaps worse, Sullivan says, the Steele affair has exposed “a reflexive overreach to make the news fit the broader political fight.
“This is humanly understandable,” he says. “It is professionally unacceptable. And someone has got to stop it.”
Of course. Who could disagree?
Who’s Sorry Now
I’m feeling some remorse about my own, however infinitesimal, role in pumping the Steele dossier, and brooding about some of my larger editorial choices over the past five years. Thanks to The Washington Post, the rest of the media who fed off the Steele dossier uncritically over the years may well follow suit, no matter how hot the conflagration grows. They certainly should.
But here’s the catch.
Who in the “conservative” media is going to stop giving oxygen to the extremists undermining our national security with false claims about vaccinations, mask mandates, critical race theory, “stolen” elections, the Jan. 6 insurrection and, let’s not forget, Democratic Party “satanists” and “pedophiles”? And so much more.
At least we correct and apologize for our errors, however belatedly, as in the Steele dossier case. Fox News and their ilk? Never gonna happen.
“I make my living on the evening news,” as Don Henley sang. “Just give me something, something I can use.”
We can do "The Innuendo", we can dance and sing
When it's said and done, we haven't told you a thing
We all know that crap is king
Give us dirty laundry!
An earlier version of this story misstated Christopher Steele’s first name and said that Trump allegedly watched prostitutes urinate on a Moscow hotel bed the Clintons had used. It was supposedly the Obama’s. It also wrongly attributed the origin of the '“pee tape” story to Charles Dolan, Jr. He had only learned that “Trump had stayed in the Presidential Suite” and reported nothing salacious, according to the Durham indictment.