Democrats Funded the Steele Dossier that Fueled Russiagate
After months of obfuscation, the Washington Post reveals that the Clinton campaign and the DNC funded the infamous Steele dossier at the heart of Russiagate. Empty Wheel’s Marcy Wheeler and TRNN’s Aaron Mate discuss
AARON MATÉ: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. Over the course of the controversy known as Russia Gate, President Trump’s opponent have held up the so called Steele Dossier. That’s the alleged intelligence gathered by former British spy, Christopher Steele, that claims Trump was compromised by the Russians and coordinated with their alleged meddling in the US election. Among other things, the dossier claims the Russians have been able to blackmail Trump because they have a tape involving him and prostitutes urinating.
It’s long been known that Steele works for a private firm called Fusion GPS, which was initially hired by a Republican donor to uncover dirt on Trump, but now we know who else got involved and may have been solely responsible for paying for the dossier itself. The Washington Post reports that none other than the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee started paying for Steele’s research beginning in April 2016.
Joining me is Marcy Wheeler, an independent journalist whose blog is www.emptywheel.net. Welcome, Marcy. Just to set the scene here, you said for a while that you think that this Russia meddling story has legs, but you’ve also been skeptical from the beginning of Democrats holding up the Steele Dossier as evidence of that. What’s your comment now on the significance of this disclosure, that it was the Democrats themselves, Hillary Clinton’s campaign, through her … Through a law firm, were paying for the dossier?
MARCY WHEELER: Well, to be clear, my complaints about the dossier are twofold. One is, it actually doesn’t prove as much as people say, particularly not on the hack and leak. On that topic it’s always well behind the actual reporting that was going on last year. Also, the circumstances both of the dossier, of its payment and how it kept going after the election, but also how it got leaked, both of those, I think, raised enough questions about it that Democrats should have been a lot more cautious about gloaming onto it as their Great White Hope for a pee tape.
Now, we learnt, I mean, through this whole time, I’ve written probably 10 posts saying the Republicans and the Russians, who have been engaging in what I call law fair, they’re suing to get this information to come out. I’ve been saying they know who paid for this. They know where this is going to go so they know that exposing where it’s going to go is going to be really damning. Along the way, I was like, “Well, maybe it’s somebody who is actually more closely tied with the CIA than Hillary Clinton. Maybe it is actually the Intelligence community paying for it. Maybe it’s George Soros because George Soros is the big scare monger. Whatever.”
I never imagined it was just as simple as Hillary’s campaign and the DNC paying for it, which, in some ways, I mean, it is another own goal on the part of the Democrats, that they didn’t come out in December and say, “Hey, we paid for this and guess what. Every single political party pays for dirt with really sleazy tactics to get it. This is so normal. Don’t complain. Blah, blah, blah.” What … Democrats for the last day have been saying, “Oh, we’ve been saying all along it was paid by Democrats. We’ve been saying, “No, what they’ve been saying is it was paid for by a democratic donor, which is why I raised George Soros. What they didn’t say is that the party itself paid for it. I think that, that actually does introduce real problems in this story as we know it.
The most important of which is the FBI either knowing or unknowing, went from a political party and that’s not acceptable regardless of which party won or whether you want the person to win. We don’t know whether the FBI knew that was happening, but we know now that it happened. That’s pretty problematic.
We also know that-
AARON MATÉ: The Washington Post story says that the FBI hired Steele to continue his research after the election, but they stopped that after his name was publicly revealed.
MARCY WHEELER: Then, there was a New York Times story saying they really hadn’t found anything in the Russian investigation thus far. That’s, I think, when the FBI dropped any plans of continuing to work with Steele because the Corn story made it so obvious this was an oppo-research project, that I suspect it made it completely toxic for the FBI. It made their past work, however much they paid for it, made their past work with Steele toxic even though Steele is by all accounts a respected intelligence professional.
AARON MATÉ: Right, but is it not weird that a government intelligence agency hired someone who previously been doing oppo-research for a political campaign to then continue doing that research for a serious intelligence investigation?
MARCY WHEELER: Right, what we don’t know. I mean, the Washington Post and actually CNN in April or whenever the payment story first came out, had a more clear story saying that the FBI actually had paid Steele. It’s still unclear what money was exchanged between Steele and the FBI and for what. As I said, my guess is it’s going to be mostly travel expenses rather than time and services. Right?
It’s also unclear how much the FBI knew about who was actually paying for the dossier. Steele is reported to have gone to the FBI. The public reports on this, which I’m sure are all completely unreliable because most of them … One of the things that we now can do is go back and think of the spin on the stories that we’ve been getting for almost a year. That spin makes it clear that people recognize they had a problem. The efforts to legitimize this dossier in spite of the fact that it wasn’t all that useful for the story, I think was to fix the problems with this story.
It may be as simple as Steele, on his own because he knows people at FBI, went to FBI and said, “Dudes, I have this information.” It’s not even clear Steele knew who was paying his bills. Right? Fusion was paying his bills. I suspect they may have said, “We’re not going to tell you who the client is.”
AARON MATÉ: Right, because apparently Steele hired or paid Russians inside Russia for some of the information that he used, right?
MARCY WHEELER: Yeah, and that’s normal. I mean, Republicans want to make a stink out of the fact that money changed hands. If they want to make a stink about that then by all means, I invite them to shut down the CIA today because that is what happens intelligence and if they don’t want to pay money for intelligence, please shut down the CIA.
AARON MATÉ: Let’s talk a bit about the monster that this has grown into because as you say Democrats, instead of coming out and saying that, “We paid for this,” they’ve let this grow into one of key engines behind Russia Gate. Congressional Democrats have cited the Steele dossier often, talked about interviewing Steele and it’s fueled all types of innuendo and speculation. On that front, I want to go to one clip just to illustrate that from Rachel Maddow where last year, she was talking about US forces stationed in Eastern Europe near Russia. She suggested that because Russia might have a pee tape of President Trump that they were going to use that to get him to withdraw those forces. This is that clip.
Rachel: And this really is a thing that is happening. The outgoing President is very quietly leaving a whole bunch, leaving thousands of US troops on Russia’s doorstep on his way out the door. Here’s the question, is the new President going to take those troops out? After all the speculation, after all the worry, we are actually about to find out if Russia maybe has something on the new President? We’re about to find out if the new President of our country is going to do what Russia wants once he’s Commander and Chief of the US military, starting noon on Friday. What is he going to do with those deployments?
AARON MATÉ Now, perhaps not surprisingly, Trump has not withdrawn those US troops. I think he’s actually increased their numbers there. Marcy, again, this to me just represents what the Steele thing has become. Democrats have taken this so seriously to the point where you have a pundit there pondering whether it’s going to be the source of a troop withdrawal in Eastern Europe.
MARCY WHEELER: But we, since October, one, we have been increasingly waiting for new sanctions passed by Congress that Trump approved to go into place and Trump is not putting them into place. While you’re right that I think Maddow and everyone was very breathless about some of the things Trump might have done, yeah, would he give sanctions release, relief? Yeah, you bet. Is he not imposing sanctions that he signed? Yeah, in fact so we should raise questions about that. Was he going to withdraw troops from Eastern Europe? Probably not because that’s really hard to do with the military being what the military is.
I think the other thing that irks me is this whole obsession with the pee tape because Trump is impossible to embarrass. Right? You know the whole, “Grab them by the lady parts,” thing? Didn’t embarrass him so I don’t know why this pee thing, he actually, I think, paid prostitutes, the allegation is that he paid prostitutes to urinated on a bed that Obama had used. It wasn’t even that he got peed on or anything like that.
When the substance of the dossier and, frankly, the substance of a whole bunch of reporting that has been backed up by either public sources, or emails, or what have you is that Trump has had business ties and excessive debt with Russians going back a long time. I’m a lot more interested in talking about the structure of Trump’s condo payments, right, and the way in which his condos have long been used for money laundering by corrupt types from all over the world, but especially from Russians because that makes his reliance on Russians in a way that the pee tape is never going to influence his activities.
I think one of the things, one of the stupid problems with the dossier is the whole focus on the pee tape has distracted from what exists in the dossier and what exists that we’ve seen coming out of both the Senate Intelligence Committee, written investigation, and the Mueller investigation, which is that there is a ton of dependents on the part of Trump, and his brand, and his business on pretty dodgy Republican, sorry, pretty dodgy Russian businessmen even beyond looking at the way Manafort worked for free so he could share money with a corrupt Russian oligarch.
I think CIA is stupid for a lot of reasons. One of them is looking for a pee tape is not going to save America. It’s just not.
AARON MATÉ: That’s a good quote. “Looking for a pee tape is not going to save America.” Listen, two points here that I want to make. One, in terms of whether Trump has been doing Russia’s bidding because they might have compromising information on him or because he’s entangled with them, yes, it’s true he has not imposed those sanctions yet, but he’s taken all kinds of measures and I realize this is a tangent that we don’t necessarily want to go on.
I just want to say he’s appointed a series of anti-Russia hawks to keep posts including his ambassador to Ukraine and his ambassador to NATO. He’s improved, he’s approved a new member of NATO, Montenegro over Russian objections. He’s overseen the biggest war games in US History, I believe, or at least US History in Eastern Europe near Russia’s border. On top of all their disagreements over in places like Syria so I think there’s plenty of evidence going against this notion that Trump has been doing Russia’s bidding.
Now, in terms of the other news that just emerged recently, now, we also learn that Mueller, the special counsel, is now investigating John Podesta, the former chair of the Clinton campaign. John Podesta’s brother, Tony Podesta, because he has, his lobbying work also has a Russian tie. I’m wondering, Marcy, your thoughts on that.
MARCY WHEELER: I am happy for Robert Mueller to investigate all of the corrupt influence peddlers in DC. What happened is we know that Paul Manafort set up this quasi-non profit to pitch corrupt Ukrainian elections in the United States as fair. Frankly, the people trying to pitch Poroshenko’s election do the same thing so this is not something that has changed Ukrainian, the people that have been corrupt for some time, but that particular generation of corruption, Manafort paid this non-profit to go and pitch it as clean and democratic.
Tony Podesta, John Podesta’s brother, was one of the influence peddlers, that sleazy influence peddlers, that was involved in that. That was actually the source of a reported FISA order on Paul Manafort before he got involved with the Trump campaign. I said, when that report came out, that it was then very likely that Tony Podesta was also wire tapped because they were so closely involved there.
Great! I’m happy to have that. Actually one of the things … As you look at Mueller’s investigation, one of the things that does, I mean, partly because of the dossier and partly for a bunch of other reasons, the Republicans are, again, turning to try and discredit the Mueller investigation by going after Tony Podesta based on real evidence, as far as we can tell, Mueller is making it clear that this is not a partisan investigation. He is happy to go after all of the influence peddlers who were doing basically Russia’s bidding.
One of the biggest ironies, I think, of the Tony Podesta news is some of the people, II think it was Daily Beast had some of the fliers that they were using in lobbying on the Hill. There were quotes from people who are very close to Putin. These are the people that John Podesta and Hillary Clinton have been accusing of having attacked … I think accusing rightly, of having attacked Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the last year. It’s ironic that Tony Podesta back in 2012 was using these Russians in paid influence peddling on the Hill who would four years later go on to really screw over his brother as he was trying to get Hillary Clinton elected president. That, I think, is one of the lessons we can take away. I mean, I don’t care who you like, Trump, Hillary, our politics is so sleazy that you can have one Podesta brother working with the Russians in 2012 and another Podesta brother being really seriously attacked by those same Russians in 2016. We somehow can’t seem to get ourselves out of that pickle.
AARON MATÉ: Well, we agree on that part about the mutual sleaziness on all sides. In terms of this question of Trump’s entanglement with Russia, I’ve yet to still see any evidence that he has any more of a shady business relationship with Russians versus a shady business relationship with people from all over the world. The focus on Russian business ties is being uniquely untoward. Doesn’t make sense to me.
MARCY WHEELER: Well, actually the dossier, there’s actually a line in the dossier that says, yeah, the Trump people are really happy to have all this focus on Russia because Trump’s really sleazy ties are with China. I get that. I buy that.
The question is, did, yes, did Russians hack the Democrats? Yes, they did. Did they hack some Republicans? Yes, they did. But did they focus primarily on Hillary? Yes, because they don’t like Hillary. They haven’t liked Hillary since 2011 or even before that. Okay, good-
AARON MATÉ: Did the agencies cut, did the US intelligence agencies, some of them claim the Russians hacked Hillary? Yes, they did, but we still don’t have evidence of that. I interrupt, sorry, but I just wanted to make that clear.
MARCY WHEELER: Well, you have these third parties like Facebook saying that they saw the Russian involvement in real time too.
AARON MATÉ: No. No, Marcy, no. Come on. They saw Russian troll farms spend $100,000 on ads, most of them after the election.
MARCY WHEELER: No. What faith I can tell you because I got an, I had information in real time, that Silicon Valley were seeing Russian infrastructure responding to the hack of the DNC. I can tell you that. What we are talking about, Google and Facebook are basically, they’re basically their own nation states at this point. Their intelligence infrastructure at a global level rivals pretty much anybody but the NSA’s-
AARON MATÉ: Marcy, what does that mean?
MARCY WHEELER: … Seeing this-
AARON MATÉ: Marcy, what does that mean, Russian infrastructure responding to the hacks in real time? What does that mean?
MARCY WHEELER: It means that they were seeing Russian’s responding in real time to the infrastructure. I mean it’s the same kind of data that, I mean it’s the same kind of data that the NSA looks at. It’s the same kind of data that the NSA says, “We know something happened in Moscow,” because they’ve got sensors in Moscow. That’s not what Facebook has, but they and Google, and Microsoft do have global infrastructure and they can see how certain things are moving around the globe.
People think Facebook’s comment is just about Guccifer opening up a Facebook account or these trolls that they discovered after the election, Uh uh, I can tell you that in summer of last year they were talking about seeing, responding … This is the tech companies in general, it’s not Facebook. They were talking about seeing Russians respond.
AARON MATÉ: So they were seeing, so when the hack happened or as the emails were being released? What were they responding to?
MARCY WHEELER: I’m not going to say much more because I don’t want to get anybody, I’m not going to say much more, but let me just say that Silicon Valley saw this happen in real time.
AARON MATÉ: Okay, fine. The last question, then.
MARCY WHEELER: That’s a third party.
AARON MATÉ: I’m sorry. Yeah. Yeah.
MARCY WHEELER: There are other third parties who have confirmed it. One of the interesting things that came out today, Aaron, just because we, you and I have to fight every time I come on.
Cambridge Analytica, yesterday, I think, in the House, the House Intelligence committee, which is the friendliest investigation to Trump going, there was an email that got leaked out, basically with Cambridge Analytica, which is Trump’s data people, emailing Julian Assange saying, “Assange, can we help you get out these Hillary Clinton emails?” We’ve got a contractor for the Trump campaign working with Hillary to maybe get out emails that came from Russian hackers. Already, the Trump campaign has thrown that under the bus. That’s pretty damning stuff.
AARON MATÉ: Marcy, no. Marcy, what did Assange say in response? He said, “No thank you.” He said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” He didn’t want to work with them, which then further undermines this narrative that Wikileaks and Russia were colluding as part of this campaign against Hillary. If anything, I think it undermines the narrative.
MARCY WHEELER: No. No, it says that, I mean, I think that emails are probably not genuine. It says that for whatever reason, Assange could not cooperate with both the Russians and the Trump campaign at a time where people were watching him. It is a damning statement because a Trump contractor reached out to Assange to try and facilitate the release of emails that Russian hackers… That is-
AARON MATÉ: Sure, these shady characters were looking for all the help that they could get. Assange is known, Is the most famous leaker in the world. They thought maybe he could help them get these missing emails from Hillary’s server. They asked, he said no.
MARCY WHEELER: Actually, they don’t. It’s unclear what they asked. They seemed to think he already had the emails and Assange said, “I don’t need your help.”
AARON MATÉ: At least-
MARCY WHEELER: He actually may have gotten, I mean, remember, was this GOP rat fucker who was trying to pay Russian hackers to go find these emails. He said to all of them, “Send those emails to Wikileaks. Wikileaks will get them out,” so we know that a GOP, a well paid GOP figure was talking to Russian hackers, looking for those emails, offering money, telling them to send it to Wikileaks. We now know that a contractor from the Trump campaign had called up these, had contacted-
AARON MATÉ: This man died and this man died recently. We also know that nothing came of his apparent plot to involve Russian hackers. Marcy, let me ask you one final question because we’re way over time. In all this, we never at least, one thing I don’t get is that we never explained what we think the Trump campaign was supposed to coordinate with the Russians on because it’s not as if they were planning a military attack. All right? This was simply just the release of emails. We talk about Trump and Russia colluding, what exactly would that even have meant? Just saying to each other, “Let’s release this batch of emails here,” or, “Let’s hack into this server?” It doesn’t make sense to me.
MARCY WHEELER: Right, I think that there was the initial Russian operation. I actually think Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, may have, there may have been some discussion about Russians helping to get Trump elected. I mean this goes back to the Trump Tower deal in Moscow. I think there actually may be more smoke there than people want to make out-
AARON MATÉ: How we’re doing on Moscow? That went nowhere. That went absolutely nowhere and Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, didn’t even have an email for his counterparts in Russia.
MARCY WHEELER: Trump… No, Cohen chose to write on an email that the NSA would not monitor, which is a different issue.
AARON MATÉ: Agree that the Trump Moscow deal went absolutely nowhere and the Russian government never even came close to approving it.
MARCY WHEELER: As far as we know? Yeah, but the quid pro quo, right? I mean, the idea behind that, Felix Sater, a year ago, basically saying, “Look, we’re going to make a deal with the Russians and they’re going to get you elected president.” In that background, though a hack and leak happens, and I think that Peter Smith stuff is more interesting because I think there is at least a good deal of smoke that says the same players got together to try and get the Clinton Foundation emails out with everyone playing a role in money exchanging hands and so on.
I think that, then the quid pro quo is sanctions. The quid pro quo is you release the sanctions, Magnitsky sanctions, the election sanctions, the news sanctions, the Ukraine sanctions. You get rid of the sanctions, you bring-
AARON MATÉ: None of which, none of which they’ve done except for they had, as we started this off with, they have not imposed these new sanctions that were passed just recently-
MARCY WHEELER: Right.
AARON MATÉ: But in terms of all those sanctions that would have been part of this quid pro quo that you’re speculating about, that has not happened. Let me say one thing where I think we converge on, which is that Trump did praise Putin right as he was pursuing this Trump Moscow deal so I think that actually is a tangible, potential case of conflict of interest. Given that as far as we know, the deal went absolutely nowhere. It’s hard for me to see why we’re still talking about this issue as if it’s the biggest national security issue we face one year after the election.
Marcy, final comments and then we have to wrap.
MARCY WHEELER: Well, look I think Democrats would do well at this point to ditch the dossier and say, “Look, it was an oppo-research project.” If they can say that Steele went to the FBI, he didn’t tell the FBI that it was an oppo-research project, then we can close the door on this dossier and talk about what there actually is evidence of, and talk about all the other things Trump is doing to ruin the country.
AARON MATÉ: Fair enough. We’ll leave it there. Marcy Wheeler, independent journalist whose blog is emptywheel.net. Let us post up on that blog is a long take down of the Steele dossier and why Democrats should not be relying on it. I recommend it, has an expletive in the title so I’m not going to say the name. Marcy, thank you.
MARCY WHEELER: Thanks so much.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.