Trump, Russia and the media – The Buzzfeed dossier and the bankruptcy of journalism (part 3)

The media was already sold on the allegations that Russia had interfered in the election to help Trump when, on January 10, CNN wrote that intelligence chiefs had briefed Trump about a dossier that was circulating according to which Russia had compromising information on him and had collaborated with some of his associates during the campaign. Although CNN did not publish the dossier itself, it described some of its content and, a few hours later, Buzzfeed took the decision to publish the full document. The dossier in question, which is a collection of memos written over several months before and after the election, was later revealed to be the work of Christopher Steele, a former British intelligent agent who is said to have a good reputation among the intelligence community. (As we shall see, upon reading the report, it’s really not clear why.) Steele started a private research firm after retiring from the MI6 and was hired by Trump’s opponents during the campaign to produce opposition research on him.

Even before anyone started to dissect the content of this dossier, everyone should have been extremely skeptical. Indeed, it was presented from the outset as a piece of opposition research, which means that it must have been fed to scores of journalists during the campaign in the hope that some of them would be able to verify some of the claims it contains and would publish something about it, because that’s what campaigns do with opposition research. (This has been largely confirmed after Buzzfeed published the dossier, as several journalists came forward to testify that they had seen it before.) But since nothing was published about it, with the exception of a few articles I will discuss shortly that didn’t confirm any of the allegations made in the report, it must be that nobody was able to verify anything. Yet, given the relationship between Trump and journalists, it was probably not for lack of trying… Thus, from the moment that dossier was published, people should have known that it was unlikely to be true. But it didn’t prevent a lot of people, especially on the social networks, to take it very seriously or even accept the allegations as facts.

But the fact that, up until recently (more on this shortly), nobody had apparently been able to substantiate any of the claims in the dossier even though it had presumably been circulating for months is not the only reason to be skeptical. Indeed, in addition to the salacious allegations that have attracted a lot of attention, the dossier contains many claims that are highly implausible on their face. For instance, the dossier claims that Russia had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for “at least 5 years” in order to “encourage splits and divisions in Western alliance”, as alleged by the report, is itself utterly incredible. But 5 years ago, nobody could have predicted that Trump could gain such political importance as to be able to create “splits and divisions in Western alliances”. Now, everybody agrees that Putin is highly intelligent, but he is not a soothsayer… The dossier also claims that, at the Kremlin, the person in charge of the operation to help Trump’s campaign is Dmitry Peskov. But Peskov is the Kremlin’s spokesman, the equivalent of the White House Press Secretary in the US, so it wouldn’t make any sense for him to be in charge of that kind of operation. Moreover, the dossier contains, if not inconsistencies, at least claims that are in tensions with each other. For instance, one memo claims that Trump has been offered many business deals by the Russian government, yet mysteriously refused to accept any. Yet, in another memo, it is said that Trump wasn’t able to make any investment in Russia despite trying everything he could. Now, it’s possible to read those claims in a way that is consistent, but it requires a pretty unnatural interpretation.

In addition to claims that are in tension with each other or implausible on their face, the dossier also contains several claims which have already been shown to be false. For instance, it claims that Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s attorneys, secretly met with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign. According to the dossier, the meeting is supposed to have taken place in August or September, but it has already been established that Cohen was in California with his son in August and he claims that he spent the entire month of September in New York. Indeed, he said that he’d never been to Czech Republic and even offered to show his passport to prove it, which as far as I know was the end of this allegation. The dossier also claims that Cohen’s father-in-law was “a leading Moscow property developer” close to Putin. However, ABC News confirmed that it was not true, in a piece that was published immediately after Buzzfeed released the dossier. (Since they had to go to Moscow in order to check this claim, they presumably did so before the dossier was published, which is further confirmation that it had been circulating among journalists for a while and that many of them tried to substantiate the claims it contains.) The dossier also claims that Carter Page, then still a part of Trump’s campaign, met with Igor Sechin, the President of Rosneft and a close ally of Putin, in Moscow on July 8 or 9. We know that Page was in Moscow during that period since he gave a talk over there on July 7. The dossier mentions that event, but can’t even get the school right. It claims that Page gave a talk at the “Higher Economic School in Moscow”, which probably refers to the Higher School of Economics. I know that school because I gave a talk on paraconsistent logic over there last October, but that’s not where Page gave his talk. It was at the New Economic School, which is a completely different institution. (Unlike the Higher School of Economics, which is public, the New Economic School is a private institution.) Several other problems with the dossier have been noted, and even Buzzfeed noted some mistakes when it published it, but this should be enough to give a sense of how unreliable it is. This dossier is a farce and, were it not for the hostility toward Trump in the media and within the deep state (I will come back to this momentarily), it would never have been taken seriously by anyone. Yet many people, including several prominent journalists, did exactly that.

But as the story immediately started to unravel, Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier came under a lot of criticism, not only from Trump but also from other journalists who claimed it was irresponsible. The common wisdom is that, by publishing the report, Buzzfeed violated several basic principles of good journalistic practice. CNN, on the other hand, is presented by most other media as being above reproach, since it didn’t publish the dossier but only reported that it had been mentioned in a briefing of Trump with intelligence chiefs.  However, it seems to me that, although that’s probably not why it published the dossier, Buzzfeed did the public a favor in doing so. Indeed, by just saying that, according to a report nobody could see except politicians, journalists and intelligence officials, Russia had compromising material on Trump, CNN was leaving it to the imagination of the readers what this material could be and deprived them of any way to assess how credible that information was. In contrast, by publishing the report, Buzzfeed allowed everyone who is not completely brainwashed to see that it was total bullshit.

Moreover, by publishing the dossier, Buzzfeed helped to solve the puzzle of why, throughout the campaign and despite the lack of evidence, journalists had been so quick to embrace the theory that Trump was Putin’s Manduchurian candidate or, as Paul Krugman — who is apparently very upset that he wasn’t able to get the job he coveted in Clinton’s administration — repeatedly called him, the “Siberian candidate”. For instance, in July 2016, Josh Marshall published a piece on Talking Points Memo with the headline “Trump & Putin. Yes, it’s really a thing”. This article was shared thousands of times on social networks and widely discussed. Yet, after reading the article, one could only be surprised by the lack of concrete facts Marshall offered to support his theory. One possibility is that he had read some of the memos contained in the dossier published by Buzzfeed, which affected his judgment when he assessed the evidence in favor of his theory. Of course, Marshall is hardly the only journalist to have accused Trump of nefarious ties with Putin on the basis of clearly insufficient evidence, many other reporters did the same thing during the campaign and even after the election was over. Now, most journalists were hostile to Trump, but I think it’s very likely that, in addition, the rumors contained in the dossier published by Buzzfeed, which had been circulating for months, colored the reporting of many of them. In a few cases, the influence of those rumors is absolutely indisputable, but we would never have known that had Buzzfeed not decided to publish it. Thus, on October 31, David Corn wrote a piece for Mother Jones where he explained that a former Western intelligence officer had compiled memos according to which Russia had compromising material on Trump. It’s clear that he was talking about the dossier published by Buzzfeed in January, but someone who read his article back then would have had no idea of how unreliable that information was. Similarly, Newsweek published a piece by Kurt Eichenwald a few days before the election which, in retrospect, was clearly relying on the dossier. The fact that journalists reported on what are clearly unsubstantiated rumors or even let those rumors color their judgment, in my opinion, should be criticized just as much if not more than Buzzfeed’s decision to publish the dossier.

The events that led to the publication of this dossier also pose serious questions about the attitude of the intelligence community. In a series of widely criticized tweets after the dossier was published, Trump made it clear that he suspected the intelligence chiefs of being responsible for leaking the content of their briefing with him and, to be honest, it’s hard to deny that he’s got a case. Only a handful of people knew that the intelligence chiefs had mentioned the dossier in their briefing with Trump and it’s not clear who beside someone in the intelligence community could have leaked that information. It’s also not clear why the intelligence chiefs thought they had to talk about this dossier in their briefing. According to CNN when it broke the story, they wanted to warn Trump that the rumors contained in the dossier were circulating, but that’s a totally unconvincing explanation. Although Trump denied it, there is no doubt that his campaign knew about this dossier, since as I have already noted it was known to a lot of people in Washington. It’s hard to believe that the intelligence chiefs did not know that, so what could possibly have been their motivation to mention the dossier in their briefing with Trump? One possible explanation is that they hoped that, by talking about it and then leaking to the press that they had, it would give the media a reason to openly talk about the rumors in that dossier, which many of them had already read. This, in turn, would harm Trump. As we shall see, more recent leaks have confirmed that many people in the intelligence community are hostile to Trump, so this theory is not difficult to believe. It’s also worth noting that the intelligence briefing in question came only a week after Trump had already criticized the intelligence community, for publicly saying that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic party and releasing the material to help him in the election. At the time Charles Schumer, the Senate Minority Leader, warned Trump on MSNBC that he was “being really dumb” for attacking the intelligence agencies. He added that, if “you take on the intelligence community, they have six ways from Sunday at getting back at you”. He is obviously right about this and, in retrospect, his words sound prophetic…

But it wasn’t over, far from it. On February 10, CNN published another story about the dossier, according to which anonymous intelligence officials had been able to verify some of the claims it contains. The only thing in the dossier which, as far as we can tell from this article, has been corroborated is that “intercepts … confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place between the same individuals on the same days and from the same locations as detailed in the dossier”. (However, CNN explicitly says that, according to its sources, none of the salacious aspects of the dossier have been corroborated.) But without more details, this claim is pretty much empty, because it could mean something totally uninteresting. Indeed, the dossier in question reports conversations between, for instance, Putin and Russian oligarchs that have nothing to do with Trump. Thus, even if the US intelligence had really been able to confirm that, it would have little to no bearing on the allegations about Trump contained in the dossier. I guess one could argue that, if some aspects of the dossier were corroborated, it would make the rest of the dossier more credible even if those aspects were unrelated to the allegations against Trump. But as we have seen, there are so many things in the dossier that have already been disproved or that are wildly implausible on their face that it’s hard to see how this, if it’s the kind of things CNN’s sources told them they had been able to corroborate, could make any difference.

Even more problematic, with a handful of exceptions, the dossier published by Buzzfeed doesn’t give a specific date for any of the conversations it describes. As far as I can tell, the exceptions concern a meeting between Putin and Yanukovych that allegedly took place on August 15 near Volgograd, as well as the meeting between Igor Sechin and Carter Page I already mentioned which allegedly took place on July 8 or 9. Apart from those, whenever a specific date is given in the dossier, it’s about a conversation between a contact of the person who wrote it and one of the sources he claims to have in the Russian government. The other conversations which are described in the dossier are said to have taken place in “June 2016”, in “late July 2016”, in “mid-September 2016”, etc.  It’s possible that, when the US officials who talked to CNN said that they had been able to confirm that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place on the day it says they have taken place, the US officials who leaked this information were talking about conversations between the contact of the author of the dossier and his sources in the Russian government. Given what they apparently told CNN, there is simply no way of ruling that out. But, if that’s what they meant, then it’s absolutely uninteresting and their intentions were extremely misleading.

On the other hand, if they were talking about the conversation that allegedly took place on August 15 between Putin and Yanukovych, then CNN could and should have at least verified that it was consistent with Putin’s official agenda, but there is no indication in the article that anyone even tried to do so. So I did what CNN should have done but apparently didn’t and checked Putin’s official agenda for August 15. As it happens, Putin was in Volgograd that day, but this could just mean that, unlike the people at CNN, the person who wrote the dossier published by Buzzfeed is not completely incompetent and made sure that what he wrote wasn’t inconsistent with publicly available information. Moreover, Putin was apparently pretty busy that day, since he took part in two events during his trip to Volgograd. (Putin was also in Sochi, almost 1,000km from there, the next morning to meet with Nursultan Nazarbayev, the President of Kazakhstan.) It’s really not clear why he would have chosen such a busy day, during which he was presumably followed by journalists most of the time, to have such a sensitive meeting. I get that the story about how Manafort’s name had allegedly been found in a ledger detailing illegal payments made to people working for Yanukovych’s party in Ukraine, which is supposed to have been the topic of the meeting between him and Putin, was published by the New York Times on August 14, but that’s still a lot for one man. Moreover, it’s really not clear why Putin would have taken the risk to meet with Yanukovych personally about this, when he could have just sent another person. Like many things in the dossier, this claim is completely implausible on its face. CNN could also have tried to figure out whether Putin’s trip to Volgograd had been planned long in advance or at the last minute. If the former, then it would make the dossier’s story even more unlikely, for we’d have to assume that Yanukovych just happened to have been hidden near Volgograd after he fled Ukraine, where by a happy coincidence Putin just happened to be on a trip the day after the NYT article about Manafort. But there is no indication that CNN made any effort to find out about this.

The only remaining possibility is that CNN’s sources were talking about the meeting between Carter Page and Igor Sechin that allegedly took place in July. However, it’s that is the conversation which they were able to establish really happened, it would be totally uninteresting without more information about the nature of that conversation. Indeed, back in July, Carter Page was still a close adviser of Trump, one of the two main candidates at the US presidential election. Given that he was in Moscow to give a talk, of course the Russian intelligence tried to talk to him, as they would no doubt have tried if one of Clinton’s advisers had been there instead of Page. It’s just what is to be expected from intelligence services in similar circumstances anywhere in the world. But even if Page talked to Russian intelligence officials while he was in Moscow, it doesn’t mean that he knew they were members of the Russian intelligence, because as Manafort says in the New York Times article I will discuss later, they don’t wear badges that say “I’m a Russian intelligence officer”. In case you’re wondering, neither do American, French or British intelligence officers…

Since people at CNN decided to report what anonymous intelligence officials, people who are in the business of deception, told them about their investigation of the dossier published by Buzzfeed, they should obviously have raised those questions, yet they did not. This suggests that, in publishing that article, CNN wasn’t really interested in the truth, but was only trying to harm Trump. It’s clear that, given how vague what their sources told them was, whatever they were able to corroborate in the dossier, assuming they’re not lying about that, it may have absolutely no bearing on the allegations about Trump’s relationship with Russia. But they would have known that, just by saying that some of the claims in the dossier had been corroborated without being able to give any details, CNN would make those allegations more credible. Especially if, as was likely given the nature of the relationship between CNN and Trump, they didn’t ask any of the obvious questions raised by those leaks in reporting them. For reasons I have explained, the dossier published by Buzzfeed should have very little credibility, which means that any claims that some of it has been corroborated should be subject to a high degree of scrutiny, especially when the people making those claim do so under condition of anonymity and refuse to give any details.

NOTE: This is the third post in a four-part series of posts. See also part 1part 2 and part 4.

4 thoughts

  1. I also appreciate your presenting the case clearly and forcefully, even if I do not agree with some of your conclusions.

    1. “For instance, the dossier claims that Russia had been “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for “at least 5 years” in order to “encourage splits and divisions in Western alliance”, as alleged by the report, is itself utterly incredible. But 5 years ago, nobody could have predicted that Trump could gain such political importance as to be able to create “splits and divisions in Western alliances”.”

    You’re forgetting that Trump was already knee-deep in the birther conspiracy theories by this time, and publicly contemplated a presidential bid in 2012. In fact, he briefly polled at the top of the Republican field before he ultimately decided not to run.

    2. “For instance, it claims that Michael Cohen, one of Trump’s attorneys, secretly met with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign. According to the dossier, the meeting is supposed to have taken place in August or September, but it has already been established that Cohen was in California with his son in August and he claims that he spent the entire month of September in New York. Indeed, he said that he’d never been to Czech Republic and even offered to show his passport to prove it, which as far as I know was the end of this allegation.”

    Note that Cohen was in Italy in late July.

    1. Sorry, I totally forgot to reply to this, so I’ll do it now even if it’s a bit late.

      1. That’s a fair point, though I don’t think it really changes anything, the notion that Putin started grooming Trump more than 5 years ago remains a stretch. A lot of completely implausible candidates have polled very well in the early stages of the primary campaign, but it doesn’t mean that people gave them a chance. For instance, Herman Cain polled very well in 2011, but he eventually collapsed. Indeed, that’s what people used to say at the end of 2015 to dismiss Trump’s candidacy, when he was polling very well. It’s still the case that, just a little bit more than a year ago, almost nobody gave Trump even the slimmest of chance to become President.

      2. Yes, if I’m not mistaken, I gave a link to this article in my post. I didn’t mention this because the fact that Cohen was in Italy in July really doesn’t do much to support the claim that he met with Russian officials in Prague in August or September.

      “I also appreciate your presenting the case clearly and forcefully, even if I do not agree with some of your conclusions.”

      Thanks, I clearly have a view on this and I didn’t try to hide it, but I did make a real effort to present the evidence objectively and not cherry-pick it. Speaking of which, in case you’re interested, I added a few paragraph in the first post of the series where I discuss in more details what I consider the most convincing evidence presented by any private cybersecurity companies or, for that matter, by anyone else.

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