Before trying to draw big conclusions from the Clinton story, published in the Washington Post late on Tuesday, it's important to be clear on what it does and doesn't say.
The Steele dossier, so named because it was compiled by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele, is a compilation of allegations of Russian influence over Trump that's breathtaking in its scope and specificity. It's where, for example, the "pee tape" rumors come from — the notion that Russia is blackmailing Trump with videotapes of him with Moscow prostitutes whom he hired to urinate on a bed President Obama once slept in.
The Post's big scoop was that some of Steele's work had been funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee through go-betweens. Marc Elias, a Clinton campaign lawyer, hired a political research firm called Fusion GPS to assist Clinton's campaign on Trump. Fusion paid for Steele's research using DNC and Clinton cash.
This matters because it could land some important people in hot water. Elias reportedly
earlier this year when he was asked point blank about the document, telling reporter Ken Vogel that "you (or your sources) are wrong" about a connection between him and Steele.
More significantly, leading Democrats — including Clinton campaign chair John Podesta and former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz — reportedly denied any knowledge of this arrangement when asked by congressional investigators, per a CNN report on Thursday afternoon. Lying to such investigators is a crime, so if they did know, they'd potentially be in very serious trouble.
The implication that Trump allies are drawing from this is a bit more dubious. They are claiming the Steele dossier can be discarded entirely as a work of propaganda from a Clinton campaign hack, and even that the Post's piece is proof that Clinton was colluding with foreigners to influence the election.
"This is a profoundly vindicating day," Mollie Hemingway, a senior editor of the Trump-friendly publication the Federalist said on
on Wednesday. "It turns out the Clinton campaign was doing what it accused the Trump campaign of doing."
There are three problems with this interpretation of the news.
The first is that the Clinton campaign did not fund Steele's research alone. His work investigating Trump and Russia actually began in September 2015, during the Republican primary. According to Vanity Fair's Howard Blum, "the funding came from a 'Never Trump' Republican and not directly from the campaign war chests of any of Trump's primary opponents." Clinton's camp only started picking up the tab in April 2016, according to the Post, which makes it hard to dismiss its entire contents as the results of a secret Democratic plot.
Second, the notion that the Clinton campaign paying Steele is the same as Trump (allegedly) colluding with Russia is laughable.
The former involves paying an experienced private investigator — remember, Steele is a retired British agent — to conduct research. The latter involves working with a hostile foreign government to influence the outcome of a US election, and potentially aiding and abetting a crime (the hack and theft of Clinton campaign and DNC emails) in the process.
Third, and most importantly, attacks on the provenance of the Steele dossier would only matter if it were the only real source of allegations about Trump and Russia. It's not.
We know, for example, that Russia engaged in a massive information campaign designed to help bolster the Trump campaign, including by spamming pro-Trump and anti-Clinton messages through US social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. We know that the Trump campaign employed several people, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who have known financial ties to the Kremlin or its allies. We also know that Donald Trump Jr. took a meeting with a Kremlin-linked attorney who promised dirt on Clinton and said Moscow wanted to help Trump. These things all raise profound questions about Trump's ties to Russia independently of the Steele dossier.
What's more, the Steele dossier itself has been deemed credible at the highest levels of the US intelligence community, to the point where both Presidents Obama and Trump were briefed on it before its existence was made public. Independent intelligence experts have pointed out that many of its claims — though not the pee tape — have been confirmed by subsequent investigations.
"Steele and his company appear serious and credible," John Sipher, a 30-year veteran of the CIA, wrote at Slate in September. "Well before any public knowledge of these events, the [Steele dossier] identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to reportedly discuss the receipt of stolen documents."
Put most simply, the new Washington Post story just doesn't do what Trump and his allies claim. The Clinton campaign may have helped fund the Steele dossier — and then lied about doing so — but the reasons to worry about Trump's possible collusion with Moscow didn't start with the dossier, and don't end with it.