A stunning admission by former FBI Director James Comey is an infuriating reminder how badly the Republicans screwed up the Steele dossier story in the critical early months of 2017—and a warning that they are at risk of doing it again before they potentially lose control of Congress in November.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, Comey admitted he did not tell President Trump about the dossier’s origin during a private meeting on January 6, 2017. Here’s the exchange:
Stephanopoulos: Did you tell him [the president] that the Steele dossier had been financed by his political opponents?
Comey: No. I didn’t even use the term Steele dossier.
Stephanopoulos: But didn’t he have a right to know that?
Comey: That it had been financed by his political opponents? I don’t know the answer to that. It wasn’t necessary for my goal, which was to alert him we had this additional information.
Comey’s goal—which he achieved thanks to the fecklessness of congressional Republicans —was to obscure the fact that the dossier had been funded by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee. (We know that Comey also hid that critical information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on the application to obtain a warrant on Trump volunteer Carter Page.) He also admitted to Stephanopoulos that Steele’s work had been funded by a Democratic-aligned group “trying to get opposition research on Trump.”
Time and again, Republicans capitulated to Comey’s defiance in answering crucial questions about the dossier, even though news coverage in early 2017 confirmed its political origins. On January 11, the New York Times reported, “After it became clear that Mr. Trump would be the Republican nominee, Democratic clients who supported Hillary Clinton began to pay Fusion GPS for this same opposition research,” referring to Steele’s alleged intelligence about the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian government. (To its credit, the Times refused to post the dossier at that time because the information had not been verified.) A Washington Post article the following month also disclosed the former British spy had been paid by Hillary Clinton supporters.
In other words, it was the worst-kept secret in Washington but largely unknown to the public.
They Knew What They Had
Republicans were well aware that the dossier was political opposition research. In a March 6, 2017letter, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) told Comey, “the idea that the FBI and associates of the Clinton campaign would pay Mr. Steele to investigate the Republican nominee for President in the run-up to the election raises further questions about the FBI’s independence from politics.”
Grassley asked Comey to answer several questions, including explaining agency rules regarding sources that are associated with political consultants or political campaigns. Grassley followed up that inquiry with a letter to Fusion GPS owner Glenn Simpson. (Simpson refused to cooperate, invoking the Fifth Amendment before Grassley’s committee agreed to take his closed-door testimony.)
At that point, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill should have been talking publicly about the dossier’s shady political origins every single day: in every interview, in every congressional hearing, in every news release. But they didn’t.
Even when they had the chance to press Comey during his testimony on Capitol Hill in the spring of 2017, Republicans failed to hold him accountable. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in May 2017, Grassley raised several concerns about the dossier, even acknowledging that the Justice Department had been looking into a complaint that Fusion GPS worked as an unregistered foreign agent for a Russian interest at the same time the FBI was leveraging the Fusion-concocted dossier.
Comey repeatedly refused to answer questions about the dossier posed to him by Grassley and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), claiming he couldn’t answer publicly. But that was utter buncombe. There was no reason for Comey’s obstinance; at one point, Grassley became so frustrated with Comey that he raised his voice and uttered, “egads.” When Graham asked Comey if he was familiar with Fusion, Comey replied, “I know the name.” (You know the name?!) He then told the senator he “could not say” when asked about Carter Page and the dossier.
Here is one question the Republican committee members did not ask Comey: Why not? Why can’t you answer in an open setting? The dossier had been published in BuzzFeed in January; it was not classified. The committee knew that Steele had worked for Fusion GPS and had Democrat benefactors. So why didn’t the senators press him to answer?
What Didn’t Happen Next
After that hearing, the Senate immediately should have filed contempt of Congress charges against Comey. Not only had he rebuffed two inquiries by the Judiciary Committee chairman, he offered materially inconsistent information to the committee, according to Grassley. What’s more, he would not come clean with the American people about the catalyst for an allegation that was tearing the country apart, dominating news coverage, and threatening the legitimacy of a new presidency.
But they let him off the hook. One week later, Trump fired Comey and he earned instant hero-worship status. Another week later, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, Comey’s buddy and predecessor, was appointed to investigate allegations of Trump-Russia election collusion. Game over.
In a June 2017 hearing, when Comey returned to Capitol Hill as a martyr, he again refused to answer any questions related to the dossier. (His demeanor between the two hearings is markedly different. Comey’s hubris and sanctimony were on full display the second time.) While Comey talked at length about the ongoing investigation into Michael Flynn, opined in detail about private conversations he had with President Trump, and even admitted he leaked a memo to the media in order to trigger the appointment of a special counsel, a smug Comey suddenly clammed up when it came time to talk about the dossier: “I can’t answer that in an open setting” was his mantra.
Now, imagine for a moment if the Republicans hadn’t screwed this up 10 ways from Sunday. Imagine that—before May 2017—everyone in the country knew that not only was the Steele dossier full of unverified garbage but that Democrat political operatives were responsible for it, and people close to the Clinton campaign had paid for it: There would be no Mueller investigation.
Even if we still hadn’t known at that time that the Hillary for America PAC and the DNC paid Fusion for its work (and funneled the money through a law firm so no one would notice), it would have lost all credibility. Americans would have been spared a year of political torture; folks like Michael Flynn would not have lost their house and their reputation; we would not have been subjected to a daily dog-and-pony show courtesy of the Trump-hating media about which Trump family member, campaign aide, or White House advisor was talking to Mueller’s team.
Is it too late for Republicans to redeem themselves? Not yet, but it’s getting close.
After being threatened with impeachment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein allowed House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) to see the initial document that launched the Trump-Russia investigation. Now Nunes should demand that the American public be allowed to see it, too.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) wants the memos Comey wrote while at the FBI. (Comey handed them off to Mueller for safekeeping after he was fired.) Goodlatte is also overseeing the release of documents that were slow-walked by the Justice Department. He has placed deadlines on both matters: If they are not met, Goodlatte should move fast on contempt charges.
Grassley and Graham in January referred Christopher Steele to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation into whether the dossier author lied to the FBI. That was more than three months ago. The leaders should force Rosenstein to respond this week, or take the next step.
Lastly, congressional Republicans should schedule public hearings this summer. Subpoena every Obama loyalist, every former and current law enforcement official nabbed in the various ongoing investigations, and pressure them to answer to the American public. (This is especially important now that the Obama Justice Department is imploding.)
We are done with letters and memos and formalities. Republicans need to compensate for their poor handling of this corrupt scheme—starting with their impotent oversight of the people who stonewalled on the dossier—before it’s too late.
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