BuzzFeed explained its decision at the time by noting that “BuzzFeed News is publishing the full document so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.” I explained why I disagreed the same day. First, I noted that it was unfair to Trump, or any public figure, to respond to allegations that might be entirely scurrilous, and which the reporters, by their own admission, had not verified. Moreover, it was an abdication of journalistic responsibility. I wrote:
The reporter’s job is not to simply dump as much information as possible into the public domain, though that can at times be useful too, as some of WikiLeaks’ revelations have shown. It is to gather information, sift through it, and determine what is true and what is not. The point of a professional journalist corps is to have people whose job it is to do that work on behalf of society, and who can cultivate sources and expertise to help them adjudicate it. A pluralistic press corps is necessary to avoid monolithic thinking among reporters, but transparent transmission of misinformation is no more helpful or clarifying than no information at all.
Now, it’s clear how the release played out. It didn’t matter that no one had verified many of the claims in the dossier—or that, in retrospect, no one could verify large portions of it. While most responsible news organizations approached the document warily, sidestepping the most lurid and unsupported claims, the allegations had already been injected into the discourse. Outlets that wouldn’t have published them in their original form (including some outlets that had reviewed the dossier and decided against publishing it) began to cover the claims as a meta-story—Here’s a thing people are talking about—which of course only drove people to talk about them more. Improbably, pee tape became a part of the national lexicon. There’s plenty of blame to spread around the press for hyping the dossier, but its publication was the original sin.
Read: The trouble with publishing the Steele dossier
The dossier did not, contra Trump, launch the investigations into the president and his team. The FBI had already been probing the Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos’s contacts with Russians by the time BuzzFeed pressed Publish. Carter Page, another Trump adviser, had been under government scrutiny for years. And Trump fired FBI Director James Comey of his own accord well after the dossier was made public, drawing investigators’ scrutiny. The legal process seems to have worked effectively. But public expectations for what the legal process would produce were jacked way up and then, perhaps inevitably, disappointed.
That’s unfortunate and dangerous, because what’s already known about Trump’s behavior is, as I wrote before Barr’s summary emerged, very bad. There’s an arsenal of smoking guns in plain sight. Regardless of what Barr and Mueller concluded, there’s extensive evidence of Trump aides colluding with Russia. Since January 2017, the country has seen the firing of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI (and Vice President Mike Pence) about contacts with the Russians; Trump pressuring Comey to drop an investigation into Flynn, then firing him; the revelation of the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting; Trump’s attempt to mislead the public about that meeting; the news that Trump lied about his attempts to build a tower in Moscow; Roger Stone’s alleged communications with WikiLeaks; and the entire Stormy Daniels matter, including the president’s implication in a violation of campaign-finance law.