It’s a familiar pattern in the Trump era: A partisan figure tasked with thwarting the president—say, Special Counsel Robert Mueller or former FBI Director James Comey—is portrayed as a fair-minded arbiter of truth and justice, a vanguard of our highest democratic institutions, bravely taking on the Bad Orange Man. Such figures are cast as heroes impervious to political bias. Every move they make, we are told, is for our own good. We are not to question their unimpeachable integrity, their stellar reputation or their motives.
Such was the case with Christopher Steele, the author of the infamous dossier that served as the raison d’etre for the FBI’s investigation into Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
In order to legitimize the dossier’s dubious claims, the media characterized Steele as an objective player in the nascent Russian collusion plotline, a former British intelligence officer leveraging his long-time Kremlin connections to root out a corrupt scheme between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin to steal an American election. His work was a profile in courage, we were told; he was a highly-regarded compatriot in America’s fight to make sure our new president was not in fact a covert Russian stooge.
But now that Steele faces questioning by a federal prosecutor assigned to investigate the corrupt origins of the FBI’s probe into the Trump campaign, it’s obvious that the early hype about Steele was just one more example of the media’s complicity in the Russian collusion coup.
Steele’s dossier, often glorified in the media as “raw intelligence,” is a collection of vague, anonymous, inaccurate and unproven allegations, yet it captured the attention of the most powerful people in the world both before and after the election. The dossier was the critical piece of “evidence” cited in a warrant presented to a secret court as justification to spy on a Trump campaign aide. Steele and his longtime associate, Fusion GPS owner Glenn Simpson, circulated the dossier amongst their journo-pals in the D.C. media claque beginning in the summer of 2016.
Pre-election articles in Yahoo News and Mother Jones suggesting chicanery between Team Trump and the Kremlin relied heavily on accusations contained in the dossier, as well as Steele’s probity. (David Corn, who wrote the October 31, 2016 Mother Jones article, referred to Steele, without naming him, as “a credible source with a proven record of providing reliable, sensitive, and important information to the U.S. government.”)
James Comey selected the most outlandish claim in Steele’s dossier about alleged dalliances with Russian prostitutes to warn Trump just days before the inauguration that the Kremlin might be in a position to blackmail the new president. A summary of the dossier was attached to an official report compiled by Obama’s intelligence chiefs, including former CIA Director John Brennan and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, that concluded the Russians interfered in the election in order to help elect Donald Trump.
Then, on January 10, 2017, BuzzFeed posted the dossier in its entirety and the media’s swoon over Christopher Steele began.
“It came from a former British MI6 intelligence agent who was hired by a political opposition research firm…who was doing work for both Republican and Democratic candidates opposed to Trump,” legendary reporter Carl Bernstein told CNN’s Jake Tapper during an explosive segment that aired that same day. “They in turn hired this MI6 former investigator. He then came up with additional information from his Russian sources. He then took it to an FBI colleague he had known in his undercover work for years.”
Tapper went on to assure his viewers that Steele, whose name they did not reveal, and his sources had been “vetted” by the FBI and that Steele was considered to be a “credible” purveyor of information.
After Trump dismissed the spurious allegations as fake news, the media shifted into overdrive in early 2017 to defend Steele. The Wall Street Journal, Glenn Simpson’s former employer, publicly identified Steele for the first time as a “former British intelligence officer who is now a director of a private security-and-investigations firm.” Steele’s business partner told the Journal that their firm, Orbis Business Intelligence, had “no political ax to grind.”
The New York Times described Steele as someone “known in British intelligence circles for his knowledge of the intricate web of Kremlin-tied companies and associates that control Russia,” and assured readers in a follow-up article that “by all accounts, Steele has an excellent reputation with American and British intelligence colleagues and had done work for the FBI.” Business Insider outlined an “avalanche of support for Steele’s credentials [reported] in the British press.”
In a lengthy puff piece in Vanity Fair in March 2017, the same month Comey publicly confirmed that the Trump campaign had been under FBI investigation for eight months, Howard Blum portrayed Steele as a reluctant hero, an honorable man just trying to save the world from the evils of Donald Trump.
“Steele’s credentials were the real thing and, apparently, impressive enough to scare the hell out of James Clapper . . . James Comey, [and] John Brennan, the CIA director,” Blum wrote. “How else can one explain their collective decision to pass on the still-unverified dossier to the president and the president-elect?”
But as Congress zeroed in on the political origins of the dossier, the media-constructed facade around Steele began to disintegrate. In October 2017, the Washington Post finally confirmed what Republican lawmakers—and most journalists—already knew: Steele wasn’t just a former British spy but a hired political gun, paid partially by none other than Trump’s campaign rival, Hillary Clinton. Testimony by Glenn Simpson would later reveal that Steele was paid around $180,000 to dig up Russia-related dirt on Trump.
Even after that damning detail was revealed, news reports continued to identify Steele as a “former British intelligence officer” rather than “paid Democratic operative.” (He left MI6 in 2009 to start his London-based consulting business.)
After Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued his memo in February 2018 detailing how the dossier was cited as evidence in an application presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court without disclosing its political benefactors, the media still ran cover for Steele. (The memo also disclosed that Steele had been fired by the FBI for lying about his contacts with the press.) “Christopher Steele is a hero and Americans owe him their thanks,” insisted Washington Post editor Christian Caryl, presumably with a straight face.
But as Steele began to face real scrutiny, including a criminal referral for lying to the FBI and defamation lawsuits, the narrative quickly shifted from hero to victim. The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer lamented how Steele—the “ex-spy [who] tried to warn the world about Trump’s ties to Russia”—was being unfairly targeted by Trump, Putin, Nunes, and the Fox News cabal. “They’re trying to take down the whole intelligence community!” Mayer reported Steele telling his friends. “And they’re using me as the battering ram to do it.’”
It’s clear now that Steele is not a victim, despite the media’s whitewash. Congressional testimony by former Justice Department official Bruce Ohr exposed his decade-long relationship with Steele; Ohr’s wife, Nellie, worked with Steele as a contractor for Fusion GPS on Trump opposition research.
Newly-released emails further reveal that Steele had ties to Obama’s State Department. And while Steele was working for Clinton and the Democratic National Committee, he also was representing Oleg Deripaska, the Russian oligarch tied to Putin and sanctioned by the U.S. government. Steele also was a paid FBI informant in 2016. Quite a shady network.
Now the author of the most infamous opposition research file in American political history is the target of a federal investigation into FBI misconduct in 2016. A full accounting of his role will prove that the Clinton campaign, not the Trump campaign, colluded with the Russians through Steele to interfere in the election. Steele also could be in legal trouble for lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign entity (Deripaska) without disclosing his relationship. Other charges could involve perjury and presenting false evidence to law enforcement.
And the media will once again be guilty of its own kind of perjury: Misleading the American public about a key perpetrator of the collusion hoax, all in the service of their crusade to get Donald Trump.
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