Richard Burr’s Tacit Warning to Christopher Steele

I’m just now catching up to Richard Burr and Mark Warner’s press conference on the Russia investigation yesterday. I saw some folks questioning why they did the presser, which surprises me. The answer seems obvious. They did the presser to release and apply pressure from specific areas of the investigation. For example, Burr exonerated those involved in the Mayflower Hotel meetings on April 2016 and further argued that the GOP platform was not changed to let Russia off the hook for Ukraine (I think the latter conclusion, in any case, is correct; I’m less persuaded about the first). Warner used the presser to push for Facebook to release the ads sold to Russia.

A particularly instance of this — one that I believe has been misunderstood by those who’ve reported it thus far — pertains to the Steele dossier. Here’s what Burr said about it, working off of prepared remarks (meaning issuing this tacit warning was one purpose of the presser; after 16:00):

As it relates to the Steele dossier: unfortunately the committee has hit a wall. We have on several occasions made attempts to contact Mr. Steele, to meet with Mr. Steele, to include, personally, the Vice Chairman and myself as two individuals, of making that connection. Those offers have gone unaccepted. The committee cannot really decide the credibility of the dossier without understanding things like who paid for it? who are your sources and sub-sources? We’re investigating a very expansive Russian network of interference in US elections. And though we have been incredibly enlightened at our ability to rebuild backwards, the Steele dossier up to a certain date, getting past that point has been somewhat impossible. And I say this because I don’t think we’re going to find any intelligence products that unlock that key to pre-June of ’16. My hope is that Mr. Steele will make a decision to meet with either Mark and I or the committee or both, so that we can hear his side of it, versus for us to depict in our findings what his intent or what his actions were. And I say that to you but I also say that to Chris Steele.

People seem to interpret this to mean SSCI hasn’t been able to corroborate the dossier — a point on which Burr is ambiguous. He references intelligence products that might unlock secrets of the dossier, which might suggest the committee has found intelligence products from later in the process that either confirms or doesn’t the events as the dossier as produced.

More important, however, is his reference to June 2016. While it seems like Burr might be suggesting the committee has found no evidence on collusion dating to before that date, that would seem to be inconsistent with the committee having received information on Michael Cohen’s discussions of financial dealings from before June (though given Burr’s exoneration of the Mayflower attendees, he may deem the earlier activities to be inconclusive).

So it seems more likely Burr raised the June 2016, along with his question about how paid for the report, to suggest he has real questions about whether its findings served as a partisan effort to taint Trump, paid for by a still undisclosed Hillary backer.

If Christopher Steele won’t talk about what intelligence he had on Trump before the time when, in June 2016, he reported on Russia providing kompromat (though not, at that point, hacked emails) on Hillary to Trump’s team, Burr seems to be saying, then it will be far easier to question his motivations and the conclusions of the report. And frankly, given some of the details on the Steele dossier — especially Steele’s briefings to journalists and his claim that the customers for the brief never read it — Burr is right to question that.

In other words, one point of the presser, it seems to me, was for Burr to warn Steele that his dossier will not be treated as a credible piece of work unless and until the committee gets more details about the background to it.

Update: Apparently, Steele responded to Burr’s comments by informing the committee he is willing to meet with Burr and Warner.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
  1. Charles says:

    I keep wondering why the Steele dossier is of any real interest. It’s raw intelligence and could include misinformation or disinformation. It certainly contains a couple of errors. It may give investigators ideas of where to look, but that’s about it. As far as I can see, the only thing that gives much credibility to the dossier is that Steele continued to work on it after the election, when he was presumably not getting paid.

    And I can’t see why Steele would agree to testify. He certainly won’t disclose his sources, since that would end his chances of getting any future intelligence. As for his ultimate employer, he may not even really know. Glenn Simpson knows and isn’t talking. And since Steele is still embroiled in a lawsuit, he has significant interest in not testifying simultaneously in a different silo.

    Burr’s main goal, as with all Republicans, seems to me to defend Trump by deflecting the conversation . Otherwise, I’d expect to see some talk about how serious the question of foreign intervention in our elections is (though I’d really like to see that extended to US activities in the “Color Revolutions” and in Latin America, I don’t see that happening) in an attempt to pressure Trump to stop interfering with the investigations.

    • emptywheel says:

      I agree it shouldn’t be as central as it is. By this point there’s so much else that the Steele dossier isn’t necessary or even all that useful.

      But I think some possible explanations for it would be problematic, and worth considering for that reason.

    • orionATL says:

      i too think the dossier’s time has long come and gone.

      at the beginning of the time of suspicion, however, it may have been a useful early warning device for u. s. counterinsurgency (yes, counterinsurgency). in time though, with the map generated by the combination of reports from cybersecurity firms, maybe from the mighty nsa, with the establishment of dcleaks and gucifer sites (i think of these as data repositories, not personalities), and the wikileaks capers, whatever usefulness the dossier had had been superceded. at that point it became merely a political football revealing or smearing trump depending on your political passions.

      there is a third group of interested students of the dossier, those who think it true or possible that at some point in its evolution or in its dissemination the fell hand of u. s. counterinsurgency agents was involved. that latter would not surprise me at all, but neither would it trouble me. there is more than enough history about both trump’s dealing with russians and russian emmigres (including fbi/cia assests) and republican party campaign dirty tricks for u. s. intelligence officials to be intent on stopping what they saw as a russian-assisted presidency. that concern, by the way, of the foreign-assisted election of an american president was one of the nightmares the folks who penned the constitution were, rightly, very worried about.

      given who he is, if richard burr has any serious interest in the steele dossier it is likely simply to use it to obscure the far greater importance of russian intervention in the american election and to short-circuit and rapidly terminate a complete investigation and report of russian techniques for meddling.

      one major hidden motive for burr, et al. wanting to end this investigation sooner than later is that at some point in the near future it will likely become evident that, independent from any russian interference or collaboration, the trump campaign used internet voter misinformation and vote suppression tactics similar or identical to those the russians used. i think this could be the major truth to come out of the entire passel of “russian meddling” investigations – the only difference between the russian tactics and the republican tactics may have beeen their respective nationalities.

      • Rugger9 says:

        Not just the Trump campaign, but the GOP itself, such as was documented already in South Florida.  That is the discovery Burr, McTurtle, and Lyin’Ryan are trying to head off.  Not that the base cares, but someone just might think a Russian puppet government is not really America, especially when the liberals remind them how we got one.

        • pseudonymous in nc says:

          Burr’s never going to face another election again. He won in 2016 barely campaigning — not that his was a locked-down safe seat, he just hasn’t ever actively fought for it, doesn’t do rallies, outsources everything to local activists.

          He’s a partisan, and won’t be even as minimally vocal as, say, Bob Corker, who’s out of the door at the end of next year, but after a career of blending into the background, his political legacy is going to hang on this investigation.

          So, I dunno. Given the goons and hacks in the GOP senate caucus, it could be worse.

          • orionATLr says:

            i think it can be said quite positively and appreciatively of burr that he appears to be working co-operatively with warner, his dem counterpart. warner himself has a long history of working patiently with republican counterparts.

            in their speeches/press conferences i assume both ssci leaders are pushing their party’s viewpoint.

            in burr’s case i do not think his party’s viewpoint is anything other than scratch-and-coverup – the quicker, the better. burr is playing a role. it is not necessary to condemn a politician for playing a role, but playing a role is not leadership.

            donald trump plays a role; he is not a president-leader.

  2. pseudonymous in nc says:

    As I’ve said before, the dossier is of interest because the knowledge of its existence and its gradual dissemination influenced what was believed to be known (or what was believed to be believed — the epistemology gets messy).

    Burr’s “our ability to rebuild backwards, the Steele dossier up to a certain date” was the thing that caught my ear yesterday, not in terms of corroboration or refutation per se but corroborability. This might be an over-reading, but “enlightened at our ability” isn’t really referring to the dossier, but how it illuminates contemporary intelligence products which have clearer provenance and sourcing.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Steering an investigation via press conference.  How Washingtonian.  It seems ironic, given the Mayflower’s reputation for probity (not) that some people were quick to exonerate a “meeting” there and that the word “meeting” is being manipulated like Clintonian “is”.

  4. Willis Warren says:

    don’t you think that Burr is just playing politics? At some point a Hilary backer took over funding, but it wasn’t initially funded by democrats and trying to paint it as partisan hackery just seems to be the instance of its own complaint.

    • Avattoir says:

      I read elsewhere than the NBC piece that Steele’s not only already met with Mueller’s team but also that he’d extended an invitation to the leadership of the Senate Intel cmte to meet with them where he is, presumably England.

      With all that in mind, the way I took Burr’s ‘plea’ is for Steele to come before the cmte to be made a typical partisan spectacle of – and that Steele wasn’t born under a toadstool so is simply not about to do that. Burr would realize, yet he still issued this ‘plea’, which suggests to me that Burr’s message is, I know you won’t come here to be turned into a partisan political punching bag AND quite possibly at the risk of your life, so I’m going to issue this phony baloney ‘plea’ so that my fellow Republicans can punch at you & more importantly “the dossier” in general with some phony baloney supposed basis that will serve Trump and his moronic racist, supremacist, nazi base.

  5. Rugger9 says:

    It appears to me that the Steele dossier was more of a flare to “look here”, rather than a case made for court proceedings. There will be gaps and misses as with any other HUMINT where the target doesn’t want one to know what they are doing. I do not think Mueller would be unwise enough to rely solely upon it for any of his warrants.

    I would also agree that ditching the Mayflower meeting as inconsequential is premature. The Trumpies always do what they do for a reason, no matter how moronic.

  6. orionATL says:

    off topic-on topic:

    does anyone have any info about whether the russians have been involved in the catalonia succession effort occurring in spain ?

  7. orionATL says:

    at wapo on 10/6 greg sargent had this quote:

    “… MUELLER’S TEAM MET WITH CHRISTOPHER STEELE: CNNscoops that special counsel Robert S. Mueller’s investigators met with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who authored the “Steele dossier” that included revelations about Russia-Trump campaign links:

    CNN has learned that the FBI and the US intelligence community last year took the Steele dossier more seriously than the agencies have publicly acknowledged. …CNN also reported earlier this year that US investigators have corroborated some aspects of the dossier, specifically that some of the communications among foreign nationals mentioned in the memos did actually take place.

    As CNN delicately puts it, this “contrasts” with efforts by Trump and his allies to “discredit Steele and the memos he produced.”… ”

    sargent’s quote is from this cnn article:

    http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/05/politics/special-counsel-russia-dossier-christopher-steele/index.html

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