|PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SEAN McCABE / VANITY FAIR|
Has there ever been a major American political scandal that came with its own roadmap?
The Teapot Dome was long hiding in plain view, while the dots in Watergate, from third-rate burglary to Richard Nixon's constitutional perfidy, remained unconnected for two years. But in the case of the Russia scandal, there was the Steele dossier, a series of blockbuster memos that not only laid out the collusion between Moscow and Donald Trump's presidential campaign in detail, but did so practically as it was unfolding and Trump and his sycophancy were beginning their long campaign to vilify, misrepresent and try to bury it.
That campaign to characterize the dossier as a phony product of Democratic hired guns trying to shame Trump has been unrelenting. And so the dossier has never really been out of the news, most recently as part of the House Republican effort to divert and distract during impeachment hearings. (Then there is Trump lawn ornament William Barr. The attorney general is reportedly privately saying that he disagrees with his own inspector general on one of the key findings in an upcoming report — that the FBI had enough information in July 2016 to justify launching an investigation into members of the Trump campaign.)
Devin Nunes, who led the at times hallucinogenic but desperate effort to defend the indefensible as ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Community, has tried to counter especially incriminating Ukraine scandal testimony by bringing up the dossier, as if to say -- and it's exactly what he was saying -- "yeah, but that Steele dossier. That Steele dossier was part of the plot to keep Trump from being elected in 2016."
The dossier is now very much back in the news because of the timely publication of Crime in Progress: Inside the Steele Dossier and the Fusion GPS Investigation of Donald Trump by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch.
Simpson and Fritsch, former Wall Street Journal investigative reporters and co-founders of the private-investigative firm Fusion GPS, hired former British MI6 spy Christopher Steele to research Trump's ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign, and despite the fact that it's most salacious finding -- the fabled pee tape -- has never surfaced, they affirm that the 17 memos that made up the 35-page dossier were substantially accurate.
"A spy whose sources get it 70 percent right is considered to be one of the best," Simpson and Fritsch write in noting that in his very first report in June, 2016, Steele warned that Russian election meddling was "endorsed by [Vladimir] Putin" and "supported and directed" by him to "sow discord and disunity with the United States itself but more especially within the Transatlantic alliance. . . . Putin wasn't merely seeking to create a crisis of confidence in democratic elections. He was actively pulling strings to destroy Hillary Clinton and elect Donald Trump."
Although the FBI's investigation into Trump campaign officials commenced in July 2016, it took the U.S. intelligence community as a whole six months to conclude that Putin was helping the upstart Republican candidate, while in September 2019 U.S. officials confirmed that the CIA had a spy deep inside the Kremlin who was providing information confirming Steele's reporting. All of which should effectively debunk the notion that the dossier contains disinformation fed to Steele by Russian intelligence. One official who isn't convinced is Russia expert Fiona Hill, late of the National Security Council, who warned that the dossier was a "rabbit hole" during her testimony before House impeachment investigators.
Many journalists were skeptical of the dossier and some, in my view, downright jealous even if most of them have come around.
Crime in Progress raises yet more questions about Robert Mueller's investigation. While praising Mueller for his documentation of more than 14o contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians and returning 34 indictments, including six in Trump's inner circle, they criticize the special counsel for failing to heed the main lesson of Watergate -- to follow the money.
They note there is no indication in Mueller's final report (the unwhitewashed version) that he looked at Trump's taxes and debts, his curious relationship with Deutsche Bank and long history of financing real estate projects with foreign cash, often of Russian origin, which is precisely where Putin's long suspected leverage in the form of "dirt" on Trump most likely occurred.
Simpson and Fritsch believe that one effect of the dossier has been to trap Trump in an alternate universe.
"To undermine the well-established fact that Russia corrupted the 2016 vote to help him win, Mr. Trump and his allies have tried to build a fiction that pins those crimes on Ukraine," they write in a New York Times op-ed. "In doing so, he has confirmed our darkest fears. The president's bid to solicit foreign help to impugn a domestic political rival in 2019 should wipe away any doubts about his willingness to do the same with Russian help in 2016."
This "balancing act" has been hiding in plain view.
The president's proxies, notably Rudy Giuliani, have sought to tar Joe Biden and son while reinventing what happened in 2016 to switch the blame for the election meddling that Mueller documented from Moscow to Kiev.
Despite the claims of Nunes and other "deep state" conspiracy acolytes, none of Steele's intelligence came from Ukrainian sources. Where Ukraine does come into play is with former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, who was brought on board the campaign despite -- or more likely because of -- his long history of advising a pro-Moscow Ukrainian president and lobbying for Oleg Deripaska and other mobbed-up Russian oligarchs close to Putin who wanted a piece of the action in Ukraine.
Okay, so Steele mostly got it right.
But given the deeply divisive time in which a monster rules and we struggle, the real impact of his dossier will be as an invaluable document when the definitive histories of Donald Trump as candidate and president are written.