|PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SEAN McCABE / VANITY FAIR|
Nearly a year after the existence of a document known as the Steele dossier became public, several of its most explosive claims -- notably that the Kremlin cultivated Donald Trump for years and that his presidential campaign systematically colluded with Moscow to cyber-sabotage Hillary Clinton in order to get him elected -- have become articles of faith, casting an ever darker shadow over a troubled presidency despite Trump's continued efforts to wish away the entire Russia scandal as fake news and a witch hunt.
The dossier is a series of memos written by Christopher Steele, a former British MI6 intelligence agent who was working for Fusion GPS, a Washington strategic intelligence firm hired by an unidentified Democratic client. It includes some factual inaccuracies, while its most salacious allegation -- that in 2013 Trump hired prostitutes to urinate on each other at a Moscow hotel and the Kremlin has videotaped evidence of the encounter -- has not been corroborated.
But revelations since Steele assembled the 35-page dossier substantially support many of the allegations his sources made.
Steele was taken so seriously by then-FBI Director James Comey that he considered putting him on retainer until Steele, spooked by the explosion of news stories about the dossier, went to ground in January 2017. Steele has been interviewed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's investigative team, and no credible source within or without the U.S. intelligence community has debunked those core allegations.
"Many of my former CIA colleagues have taken [the Steele] reports seriously since they were first published," writes John Sipher, a former senior officer in the CIA's National Clandestine Service at the Just Security website. "This is not because they are not fond of Trump (and many admittedly are not), but because they understand the potential plausibility of the reports' overall narrative based on their experienced understanding of both Russian methods and the nature of raw intelligence reporting."
The big takeaway from the dossier was and remains Steele's conclusion that
The Russians have been "cultivating, supporting and assisting" Trump for years and have compromising personal and financial information on him that could be used as blackmail.
A by-now infamous June 9, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower in New York has become a lynchpin of sorts in linking the dossier's core allegations to incriminating real-world events.
On June 3, 2016, as Trump was on the verge of clinching the Republican nomination, his elder son Donald Jr. received an email from a publicist representing Emin Agaralov, the son of a Russian oligarch and former Trump Sr. business partner close to Vladimir Putin, in which the campaign was offered "some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary . . . and would be very useful to your father."
Donald Jr. responded not by refusing the offer or alerting the FBI, but by replying, "If it's what you say I love it."
The likelihood that Trump knew of the meeting in advance and by implication approved of it is extremely good.
On June 6, Trump reportedly spoke by phone with Emin Agalarov. On June 7, he promised "big news" on Clinton's "crimes" in a forthcoming "major speech," which was scheduled for June 13 but he did not give because of the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub.
The June 9 meeting involved the Trump campaign brain trust -- Trump Jr.; son-in-law Jared Kushner, who had just taken over the campaign's digital operation, which was to be instrumental in helping the Russians pinpoint voters vulnerable to anti-Clinton fake news, and Paul Manafort, who would soon become campaign manager. Their guests included two Russians, one with close ties to the Putin regime and both with Russian intelligence agency ties.
What was discussed at the meeting is not publicly known, although Manafort took contemporaneous notes on his smart phone that he may have provided Mueller's team or were seized in a July 2017 raid on his suburban Washington home.
But on June 20, Steele quoted a source as saying that
"The Kremlin had been feeding Trump and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton."
Then on July 19, Steele wrote that a source he identified as an ethnic Russian close to the campaign
[A]dmitted that there was a well-developed conspiracy of cooperation between them and the Russian leadership.
Manafort was the key link in such contacts, Steele was told by the source.
After the meeting was first reported in July 2017, Trump Jr. claimed in a statement that turned out to have been dictated by his father that it had been about the adoption of Russian children by Americans.
One aspect of the Steele dossier adding to its credibility that has received little attention concerns a tentacle of Kremlin campaign designed to energize disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters against Clinton. That effort was subsequently confirmed by several news organizations who have reported the effort commenced in June 2016 after the primary season when Russian-Macedonian hackers posing as Americans targeted Sanders supporters with fake news stories stating that, among other things, she had murdered former Bill Clinton aide Vince Foster.
Manafort told then-Trump chief of staff Reince Priebus that the dossier was "garbage" in a phone call in January, and asserted it was motivated by Democratic activists and donors working with Ukrainian government officials who supported Clinton. That view has become an article of faith among Trump supporters.
A widely accepted alternative view among the sycophancy is that the alleged collusion is a "fictional narrative" to explain away Clinton's loss and the dossier was used by the Obama administration as a pretext to spy on Trump's campaign when the FBI applied for secret court applications for wiretap warrants.
Inconveniently for the sycophancy, that view is unsupportable. What is supportable is that Christopher Steele's dossier not only won't go away, it is assuming ever greater importance.
Click HERE for a comprehensive timeline of the Russia scandal.