If Donald Trump had been supported only by people who affirmatively liked him, his attack on American democracy would never have gotten as far as it did.
Instead, at almost every turn, Trump was helped by people who had little liking for him as a human being or politician, but assessed that he could be useful for purposes of their own. The latest example: the suddenly red-hot media campaign to endorse Trump’s fantasy that he was the victim of a “Russia hoax.”
The usual suspects in the pro-Trump media ecosystem will of course endorse and repeat everything Trump says, no matter how outlandish. But it’s not pro-Trumpers who are leading the latest round of Trump-Russia denialism. This newest round of excuse-making is being sounded from more respectable quarters, in many cases by people distinguished as Trump critics. With Trump out of office—at least for the time being—they now feel free to subordinate their past concerns about him to other private quarrels with the FBI or mainstream media institutions. On high-subscription Substacks, on popular podcasts, even from within prestige media institutions, people with scant illusions about Trump the man and president are nonetheless volunteering to help him execute one of his Big Lies.
The factual record on Trump-Russia has been set forth most authoritatively by the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, then chaired by Richard Burr, a Republican from North Carolina. I’ll reduce the complex details to a very few agreed upon by virtually everybody outside the core Trump-propaganda group.
- Dating back to at least 2006, Trump and his companies did tens of millions of dollars of business with Russian individuals and other buyers whose profiles raised the possibility of money laundering. More than one-fifth of all the condominiums sold by Trump over his career were purchased in all-cash transactions by shell companies, a 2018 BuzzFeed News investigation found.
- In 2013, Trump’s pursuit of Russian business intensified. That year, he staged the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Around that time, Trump opened discussions on the construction of a Trump Tower in Moscow, from which he hoped to earn “hundreds of millions of dollars, if the project advanced to completion,” in the words of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
- Trump continued to pursue the Tower deal for a year after he declared himself a candidate for president. “By early November 2015, Trump and a Russia-based developer signed a Letter of Intent laying out the main terms of a licensing deal,” the Senate Intelligence Committee found. Trump’s representatives directly lobbied aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin in January 2016. Yet repeatedly during the 2016 campaign, Trump falsely stated that he had no business with Russia—perhaps most notably in his second presidential debate against Hillary Clinton, in October 2016.
- Early in 2016, President Putin ordered an influence operation to “harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.” Again, that’s from the Senate Intelligence Committee report.
- The Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos “likely learned about the Russian active measures campaign as early as April 2016,” the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote. In May 2016, Papadopoulos indiscreetly talked with Alexander Downer, then the Australian high commissioner to the United Kingdom, about Russia’s plot to intervene in the U.S. election to hurt Clinton and help Trump. Downer described the conversation in a report to his government. By long-standing agreement, Australia shares intelligence with the U.S. government. It was Papadopoulos’s blurt to Downer that set in motion the FBI investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, a revelation authoritatively reported more than three years ago.
- In June 2016, the Trump campaign received a request for a meeting from a Russian lawyer offering harmful information on Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump Jr. and other senior Trump advisers accepted the meeting. The Trump team did not obtain the dirt they’d hoped for. But the very fact of the meeting confirmed to the Russian side the Trump campaign’s eagerness to accept Russian assistance. Shortly after, Trump delivered his “Russia, if you’re listening” invitation at his last press conference of the campaign.
- WikiLeaks released two big caches of hacked Democratic emails in July and October 2016. In the words of the Senate Intelligence Committee: “WikiLeaks actively sought, and played, a key role in the Russian intelligence campaign and very likely knew it was assisting a Russian intelligence influence effort.”
- Through its ally Roger Stone, the Trump campaign team assiduously tried to communicate with WikiLeaks. Before the second WikiLeaks release, “Trump and the Campaign believed that Stone had inside information and expressed satisfaction that Stone’s information suggested more releases would be forthcoming,” according to the Senate Intelligence Committee. In late summer and early fall 2016, Stone repeatedly predicted that WikiLeaks would publish an “October surprise” that would harm the Clinton campaign.
- At the same time as it welcomed Russian help, the Trump campaign denied and covered up Russian involvement: “The Trump Campaign publicly undermined the attribution of the hack-and-leak campaign to Russia and was indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks were furthering a Russian election interference effort,” the Intelligence Committee found.
- In March 2016, the Trump campaign accepted the unpaid services of Paul Manafort, deeply beholden to deeply shady Russian business and political figures. “On numerous occasions, Manafort sought to secretly share internal Campaign information” with a man the Intelligence Committee identified as a Russian intelligence officer. “Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services … represented a grave counterintelligence threat,” the committee found. Through 2016, the Russian state launched a massive Facebook disinformation program that aligned with the Trump campaign strategy.
- At crucial moments in the 2016 election, Trump publicly took positions that broke with past Republican policy and served no apparent domestic political purpose, but that supported Putin’s foreign-policy goals: scoffing at NATO support for Estonia, denigrating allies such as Germany, and endorsing Britain’s exit from the European Union.
- Throughout the 2016 election and after, people close to Trump got themselves into serious legal and political trouble by lying to the public, to Congress, and even to the FBI about their Russian connections.
All of these are facts that would be agreed upon even by the latter-day “Russia hoax” revisionists and, for that matter, anybody this side of Breitbart or One America News Network.
The confirmed Trump-Russia record leaves many mysteries and uncertainties unresolved. Even now, the U.S. public still does not have a full and final picture of his business dealings with Russia before and even during his presidency.
The confirmed record may not add up to a criminal conspiracy either, not as that concept is defined by U.S. law. Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team stated that they could not prove any such conspiracy. But the confirmed record suggests an impressive record of cooperation toward a common aim—even if the terms of the cooperation were not directly communicated by one party to the other.
Since Donald Trump declared for president in 2015, it’s seldom been possible to get to the bottom of one scandal before Trump distracts attention with a bigger and worse scandal. For more than a year, the United States has been convulsed by Trump’s frontal assault on election integrity and the peaceful transfer of power. He has, one by one, eliminated from politics Republicans who upheld the rule of law, and urged their replacement by stooges who repeat his Big Lie. Republican candidates for office talk more and more explicitly about taking power by violence if necessary. These dark threats have understandably overwhelmed the effort to fill in the blanks of the Trump-Russia scandal of yesteryear.
Christopher Steele was a former British intelligence officer working for a firm that was hired first by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to collect opposition research on Trump’s Russia connections. As his dossier circulated behind the scenes, experts on Russian disinformation warned of its dubious reliability. But it found an audience anyway within parts of the U.S. government and U.S. law enforcement, and in January 2017, BuzzFeed published it.
That decision was strenuously criticized by many. As our David Graham wrote then, “the reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain … It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not.” The veteran Russia correspondent David Satter warned in National Review that the dossier’s more lurid allegations reminded him of “the work of the ‘novelists’ in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) whose job it is to come up with stories to discredit individuals without much regard for plausibility.” (Satter wrote the definitive account of FSB involvement in the 2000 apartment bombings that helped bring to power Vladimir Putin, and was booted from Russia in 2014 by the Putin regime for his reporting.)
The Steele dossier undertook to answer the question “What the hell is going on with Trump and Russia?” The Senate Intelligence Committee found that the FBI investigation gave the Steele dossier “unjustified credence.” But the disintegration of the dossier’s answers has not silenced the power of its question.
It was to silence that question that the outgoing Trump administration appointed a special counsel of its own to investigate its investigators. John Durham has now issued three indictments, all for lying to the FBI about various aspects of the Steele dossier. None of these indictments vindicates Trump’s claims in any way. It remains fact that Russian hackers and spies helped his campaign. It remains fact that the Trump campaign welcomed the help. It remains fact that Trump’s campaign chairman sought to share proprietary campaign information with a person whom the Senate report identified as a “Russian intelligence officer.” It remains fact that Trump hoped to score a huge payday in Russia even as he ran for president. It remains fact that Trump and those around him lied, and lied, and lied again about their connections to Russia.
Outright pro-Trump people remain deeply invested in those lies. But Trump’s media effort has often relied heavily on people who are not pro-him, but anti-anti-him. And the secret to successful anti-anti-Trumping has always been to fasten onto side issues and “whatabouts.”
Anti-anti-Trump journalists want to use the Steele controversy to score points off politicians and media institutions that they dislike. But as media malpractice goes, credulous reliance upon the Steele dossier is just a speck compared with—for example—the willingness of the top-rated shows on Fox News to promote the fantasy that the Democratic Party hacked itself, then murdered a staffer named Seth Rich to cover up the self-hack. (Some versions of this false claim include suggesting that Rich himself committed the crime.) Fox News ultimately settled with Rich’s family for an undisclosed sum even as the Fox host who had done most to promote the false story insisted on his radio show that he had retracted nothing. The story was crazy and cruel. But the story protected Trump, and that was proof enough for a media organization much more powerful than any of those that accepted the Steele dossier.
Not every journalist has to work on every story. Smaller abuses and lesser failures also demand attention alongside the greater abuses and larger failures. But if you choose, as a journalist or a consumer of journalism, to focus on smaller issues, you need to retain your perspective about what is bigger and what is smaller.
So by all means, follow the trail on Steele. But be mindful that much of that trail was prepared by people who want to misdirect and mislead. Take care how far you step along that trail. Be alert to how the twists of the trail block your view of the surrounding landscape. Otherwise, you may discover too late that you have also been misdirected and misled, and that in setting out to explore a small truth, you have become a participant in the selling of a greater lie.