Cognitive Rot and the Steele Dossier

One reason I write so much on the Steele dossier is because the cognitive rot it has fostered among Democrats is really dangerous. Often, they’ll point to a confirmed event — such as that Carter Page met Arkadiy Dvorkovich and Andrey Baranov on a Russian trip that was otherwise publicly reported contemporaneously — and claim it “proves” a dossier claim claiming something else — in this case that he met Igor Sechin and Igor Diveykin. Out of some need to see the larger dossier “confirmed,” its fans claim over and over again that Not-A = A. As a result, rather than asking why the dossier is so full of narrow misses and why it doesn’t report any of the big known events — starting with the Trump Tower meeting attended by Fusion GPS researcher Rinat Akhmetshin — Democrats instead keep seeing “truth” in the dossier in the tea leaves that, in actuality, are really just dregs. And, in the process, they become willing to argue that Not-A = A, arguing that claims that don’t match known reality actually are reality, just like the Trump boosters we claim to abhor.

Josh Marshall engages in a bit of the same today, then Jonathan Chait piggy backs on Marshall and (as is his wont) exacerbates the error.

Marshall starts by laying out the claim from the dossier — that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had a meeting 1) in Prague 2) in August to clean up the Manafort scandal (and the burgeoning Russia scandal generally).

I wanted to focus specifically on what the Steele Dossier alleges was a meeting with Russian intelligence agents in Prague in August 2016.

He spends the rest of the paragraph correctly noting that this is raw intelligence, so if the Cohen detail is wrong, it doesn’t mean the rest of the dossier is.

Marshall then lays out what had been known before today: that Cohen’s known travel to the EU was (like so much else in the dossier) close, but no cigar.

Cohen’s passport did show a trip to Italy in July. July isn’t August. But that’s the kind of dating issue that might get mixed up in the chain of information transition.

In any case, point being: Cohen was in the EU zone, relatively close to the Czech Republic only a couple weeks before August. So his passport by no means rules out a visit to Prague. Since most press coverage has seemed to take Cohen’s denial at face value, I had assumed or left open the possibility that he’d provided investigators with other evidence we’re not aware of.

Note, it is true that someone might mistake a July meeting for an August one. Except if you consider the actual claims about the Cohen meeting: that he was cleaning up after events that occurred in July and even (Manafort’s resignation) August.

That is, it would be darn near impossible for Cohen to clean up the scandal created by — for example — Page’s Moscow speech on July 7 and the platform change made on July 11 and 12 and first reported on July 18 on a trip to Europe from July 9 through 17. The mess hadn’t started yet! Manafort’s troubles, especially, were only just beginning to break out publicly.

Marshall then links to this story and argues that it is still an open question whether Cohen had “this meeting” described in the dossier.

Politico has this passage …

Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a visit to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his point of EU entry. A congressional official said the issue is “still active” for investigators.

Reading the article it seems clear that Cohen simply denied ever being in Prague and majority Republicans saw no basis to disbelieve him and thus would not require him to provide items like credit card records and other documents which might confirm his account.

This seems very much an open question whether Cohen did in fact have this meeting.

The article — on top of making it clear it is reporting on the dysfunctional HPSCI investigation which (among other things) has shown members not asking about discussions that might be related to the larger Middle East aspect of this operation and is clearly inadequate for other reasons — includes this language before the passage Marshall quotes.

Cohen has come under close scrutiny for several Trump-Russia controversies, including emailing Putin’s spokesman two weeks before the first GOP primary to ask for his help in advancing a proposal to build a Trump Tower development project in Moscow. He also was linked to a proposed pro-Russian peace plan for Ukraine involving Felix Sater, a former Trump business associate with Russian government connections.

Cohen has strenuously denied that a Prague meeting occurred, and he provided a copy of his passport to BuzzFeed in May. The passport was stamped for entry and exit to the United Kingdom and Italy — but not the Czech Republic, whose capital is Prague. “I have never been to Prague in my life. #fakenews,” Cohen tweeted on Jan. 10.

His passport stamps show that he traveled twice to London in 2016 and once to Italy, from July 9 to July 17.

Yes, the article supports Marshall’s point: HPSCI (both Democrats and Republicans have shown to be ineffective, but he blames just the Republicans) did not demand more information from Cohen to disprove a meeting (though it’s not clear how they’d refute the only possibility that “this meeting” is “this meeting” — that Cohen, like Manafort and Rick Davis, has more than one passport).

But the theory posed is not that he has a second passport he might have used to travel to Prague, but that “this meeting” would instead be a July meeting, not an August one. That is, it couldn’t be “this meeting” because it couldn’t accomplish what the meeting reportedly accomplished. It might be another meeting, in which case the report of it as “this meeting” would be wrong or disinformation, not truth.

The article also notes HPSCI is investigating Cohen’s other European travel, to London (one trip in October and one at Thanksgiving), which for the reasons I note here, might be more promising. If any meetings of interest happened there, they’d be interesting. But they’d also be other meetings, occurring just before the flurry of Cohen reporting as journalists were beginning to chase down this story or after all but the last dossier report.

But there is no evidence presented in the article that supports a claim that “this meeting” took place, nothing to change the conclusion that public evidence does not support the claim that any possible meeting is “this meeting.” Not A might = A, Marshall argues.

When I tweeted to him about this, he observed that he thinks the dossier “has been borne out in a broad sense,” which is a great way to claim that Not-A = A without getting your PhD pulled.

Then, along comes Chait.

Ah, Chait.

He starts by hanging previous doubts about the dossier on the pee tape and Cohen’s strong denials.

Two details in particular made the dossier seem suspect. First, its report that Trump had paid Russian prostitutes to urinate on a bed that had been used by Barack Obama. And second, the report alleged that Michael Cohen, a Trump crony with Russian contacts, had met in Prague with Russian intelligence officials. The golden-showers detail, while unconfirmed, seemed too bizarre to be plausible. And Cohen shot down the Prague allegation forcefully. The report of his meeting was “totally fake, totally inaccurate,” Cohen said, “I’m telling you emphatically that I’ve not been to Prague, I’ve never been to Czech [Republic], I’ve not been to Russia.”

Cohen’s denials helped shape skeptical coverage of the dossier.

That is, before, because these two details were doubtful, the entire dossier might be doubtful.

He then points to the same Politico report on the dysfunctional HPSCI investigation considering the Prague question “still active” (without doing the math to figure out that a July Prague meeting could not be the meeting reported in the dossier) to argue that Cohen should not be trusted more than Steele.

[T]his hardly settles the question. A congressional investigation is digging into whether Cohen is telling the truth about the alleged visit to Prague. “Cohen’s passport would not show any record of a visit to Prague if he entered the EU through Italy, traveled to the Czech Republic, and then returned to his point of EU entry,” reports Politico, in a passage that’s received less attention than merited. “A congressional official said the issue is ‘still active’ for investigators.”

Most reporters have treated the say-so of Cohen, a Trump hanger-on laden with extremely shady associations, as implicitly more credible than the reporting of a British intelligence agent with years of expertise. That is probably a mistake.

I’m fine with assuming Cohen is a liar, especially given how carefully he parsed his denial, not to mention the way he orchestrated turning over documents to distract attention from the previously undisclosed and far more inflammatory details of earlier negotiations with Russians tied to the getting Trump elected. But that doesn’t mean Steele is correct either. They could both be telling non-truths.

Chait then says “we don’t have any idea whether” the pee tape is real, but says that because Brian Beutler has argued Trump has a pathological jealousy of Obama, then … I’m not sure what he’s arguing here.

And what about the bit about the prostitutes? The detail has been endlessly described as “salacious,” placing it in the category of National Enquirer–type gossip of dubious veracity. We don’t have any idea whether that detail is true. However, Brian Beutler made a fairly persuasive case that Trump has displayed during his presidency the exact same kind of pathological, self-destructive jealousy of Barack Obama (who had publicly humiliatedTrump two years before the alleged incident).

I mean, sure, Trump hates that a black man was more competent as President than he has been. But does that affect the specifics of how the Russians might compromise him?

Finally, Chait points to one more article that argues Not-A = A, then links to the shitty Sipher defense of the dossier.

As time goes by, more and more of the claims first reported by Steele have been borne out. In general, there is a split between the credibility afforded the dossier by the mainstream media and by intelligence professionals. The former treat it is gossip; the latter take it seriously.

We can’t expect Chait, a paid pundit, to actually test such claims on his own because he’s not paid to be smart but instead to repeat warmed over conventional wisdom, so I guess I’ll have to forgive Chait for not noticing the glaring holes in Sipher’s piece.

Which brings us to the best example of the cognitive rot the dossier creates. In the same breath where Chait admits he should not take the dossier as gospel truth and parts of it (he’s not going to do the work, mind you, because he’s not paid for that kind of actual labor) are “no doubt” false.

Unverified private reporting should not be taken as gospel truth, and no doubt some of the tips Steele picked up are false. But we should probably be giving far more weight to the possibility that the darkest interpretation of Trump’s relations with Russia is actually true.

But from that, he assumes (wrongly, in my opinion) that the “darkest interpretation of Trump’s relations” are what the dossier reports, and that those are possibly true.

Chait has abdicated any need to verify individual claims out of which he builds his larger truths.

As I’ve said repeatedly, we don’t need the dossier to believe dark things about Trump’s relations with Russians; public reports substantiate that darkness, and darker things are to come.

The desire to find tea leaves that prove the worst about Trump — rather than to do the work to look at the actual evidence and/or wait for Robert Mueller to do his work — has led Democrats to excuse themselves of insisting on tying claims to actual reality, in varying degrees of the same kind of thing that makes Trump so dangerous. It’s okay if claims are “borne out in a general sense,” rather than being proven true piece by piece.

We used to believe that justice was not about truth being “borne out in a general sense” but about discrete evidence. Too many seem to believe we can skip that step with Trump. That’s true, even though we have facts and evidence and they’re accumulating to be even more damning than anything in the Steele dossier. Just as important, we need to retain the habit of facts and evidence.

41 replies
  1. SomaliCanadian says:

    Many publications editorial standards are are thrown out the window when Trump-Russia is the issue.

    “And darker things are to come” By the way when will you stop tickling our asses with a feather? Like in the next week, month…? This is just cruel now.

  2. pseudonymous in nc says:

    Yep, “second passport” and “but Schengen” are trying too hard to do exegesis on the text instead of the context. It’s more interesting that: a) we know Cohen arrived in London just after Assange’s weird Berlin video keynote; b) we know Page was in Budapest around Labor Day weekend; c) per Harding, Steele’s sources had gone quiet in the summer, but started chirping about buyers’ remorse and Page and Cohen in mid-October; d) Steele was talking to the FBI and to some journalists at that time.

    It reminds me a bit of the people who came up with all kinds of explanations for “42” in the Hitch-hiker’s Guide books, when Adams is on record saying he picked the number because it sounded funny.

    (Marshall and TPM’s work on the long-standing Cohen-Sater connection is good. He’d be able to pick out where Steele’s stuff on Cohen’s in-laws is not quite right.)

    • lefty665 says:

      42=the answer to the question of the meaning of life, the universe and everything. 7 and a half million years in the making, did it need an explanation?  It seemed 42 said it all.

      Zaphod Beeblebrox on the other hand is entirely too familiar. Bet he actually did collude with the Ruskies.

  3. Avattoir says:

    It’s unfortunate for the prospects of life on this planet that pundit laziness and pundit sloppiness are such reliably cheap, renewable & toxic power sources.

  4. GKJames says:

    “… has led Democrats to excuse themselves of insisting on tying claims to actual reality”. All Democrats?

  5. lefty665 says:

    It is the essence of propaganda, a few truthful snippets mixed with many falsehoods that sound good (near misses) that can be spun into perceptions by partisan axe grinders to cozen the gullible and those who want to believe. What we do know for sure is that the Clinton campaign and DNC both paid Fusion for opposition research, political gossip dressed up as “intelligence”. Fusion paid Steele, and Steele in turn paid Russians. What they produced was exactly what Clinton and the DNC ordered, slime and propaganda. As you document, it worked. It has metastasized and feeds the hysteria of elite neolib Dems.

    That does not mean that Trump is a good guy, that the Russians are naifs or that they do not pursue their own state interests, just as the US does. It is simply that some Dems have embraced Repub tactics. Part of what ran me out of the Democratic Party was Dem leaders preaching that “Republicans lie so we have to lie too”. Cognitive rot may be too charitable, in some cases it is clearly willful deceit. Damage to the Party and country is real.

    Thank you for your ongoing efforts to sort fact from fiction and perps from propaganda.


  6. Peacerme says:

    It’s weird, I live in a red state in the middle of the country in a medium sized city. No one in my state even knows about the Dossier. No one in my state discussing it or paying attention to it. I read national news but the dossier seems irrelevant to me for so many reasons. I feel pretty certain Trump is right, a tape could exist of him killing a woman and then peeing on her and the republicans in my state except for Ben Sasse who is being scorched in my state, would stand beside him. The real feel is that republicans can do whatever they want and no one will stop them. Dems are making the codependent choice of self righteousness which is equally false. Righteousness at any cost, even at cost of truth. As a therapist I see these mechanism of humanity as all clearly human. God is truth and it’s getting seriously hard to find it.

    • lefty665 says:

      In my state (Virginia) therapists I know reported a surge in clients right after the election (anxiety, depression) that a year later has not let up. That happen with y’all too?


      • nursewilling says:

        People realized that the mental health benefits they were seeing under the ACA might not be around for much longer.

        • lefty665 says:

          Maybe, but what was driving them to seek treatment was election outcome related anxiety and depression, not use coverage before you lose it. It was an acute issue “Trump!”, not chronic “I’ve had repressed anger at (fill in the blank) for 40 years, I guess I better get therapy for it now because something might happen to my mental health coverage someday.”

        • nursewilling says:

          Are you extrapolating from the anecdotal evidence of your therapeutic community in Virginia to imply a factual point? If that’s the game, then allow me to assist you. Mental and behavioral health practitioners operate along an extremely broad spectrum of talents and certifications. Realistically, if not idealistically, they work in concert, with a front line of counselors, clergy and social workers helping to guide their clients to, if not necessarily through, a sometimes obscure field of expensive clinical diagnostics and therapies that are poorly understood and difficult to access. I think that the behavioral health profession was unprepared for the increased demand created by the ACA mandate. I also think that participating insurers have strategically eliminated coverage of critical aspects of the diagnostic path, such as “psychological diagnostic testing,” each year since the inception of the ACA. My anecdotal evidence is Blue Cross BS here in S. Carolina. The result of this selective cattle chute approach to coverage is an aggregation of demand for care into cul-de-sacs of limited qualification, in which people who might need more specialized care are trapped at the level of a “therapist” who cannot prescribe any actual clinical interventions.

  7. Rapier says:

    The Democratic cognitive rot includes most everything pertaining to Russia and extends back to Bill Clinton’s move to expand NATO after the USSR’s collapse. After 10 years of at least thrice weekly stories in the NY Times naming Putin as the devil, Marshall has totally internalized this Democratic, and really old fashioned Neocon meme. Which has in turn poisoned this whole ‘Russia Russia Russia’ aspect of the election story.

    I am not dismissing that story I am saying it became a sort self fulfilling prophecy with a 25 year backstory. A discussion that doesn’t belong here but …….

    • maybe ryan says:

      That’s not fair.  Partisan though he is, Marshall spent 2016 and much of this year trying to diminish wild Democratic expectations about the Russia story and suggesting that there were reasons for the US to avoid demonizing Russia.  It’s only in the last 6 weeks or so that he’s become full-throated on Trump/Russia.

  8. earlofhuntingdon says:

    I knew there was a reason I skipped formal logic. I find it amusing to read a dispute=a non-dispute between an English Lit. PhD and a history PhD. It’s the sort of thing I associate more with economists. (My favorite description about them is that if you lined them all up, end to end, they would not reach a conclusion). Josh should be more careful about waffling; there’s a Michelin Guide reviewer in the house.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Facts and evidence-based reality?  The tenor of current debate seems medieval.  If we are to revert to arguments between cardinals and friars over the commandment to be poor, I’ll choose the side with William of Ockham, or a sandal-footed, hooded Sean Connery.

    As you say, keeping to facts and evidence concerning Trumpian misdeeds should be relatively easy.  What’s missing is political will.  Trump has left a trail so wide and trampled a lost buffalo could follow it.  We don’t need fantasies to substitute for facts; we do need to find the political will to impose political and legal consequences for them.

    If we give in to the long-term GOP strategy of turning facts into opinion – useful to avoid consequences for predatory behavior – then law and government become handmaidens of the powerful, instead of checks and balances limiting their cruelest excesses.


  10. D Lane says:

    Mueller’s the ballgame so this is all irrelevant. His report is what the nation’s looking to, not any commentary by a blogger or talking head.

  11. orionATL says:

    i am tired of having the steele dossier brought up in editorial discussions by dem supporters. that document has given the party absolutely nothing of value to use politically.

    the dossier is raw intelligence, i. e., intelligence gossip. it’s author would have known that. christopher steele was an experienced russian hand at m16 before being outed and staring his own business providing info on russia to western businesses that wanted to operate in russia.

    i assume the dossier was straight, accurate reporting of what it’s author was told. that does not prevent the larger story from having been that initiating the dossier project may have been either a cover for an entirely contrary operation or it’s author may have been partially or systematically exploited.

    it is of interest to me that fusion gps was involved in a number of russian p. r. campaigns almost simultaneously with apparently diametric objectives – republican party oppo on trump, dem party oppo on trump, working on a doj lawsuit for the russian corporation prevezon thru bakerhostetler, and aiding the russian gov’t in its p. r. attack on willian browder and the magnitsky sanctions.

    recently i think it was emptywheel who pointed out the closeness in time between the june 9, 2016 meeting with trump jr. in which a fusion operative was present and the date of the hiring of christopher steele under dem lawyer aegis.

    finally, out of irritation at blatant pandering to media, i think that including the salacious story about president trump did nothing for the dossier’s credibility. it was a blatant ploy, sugar water in a dish, to attract media attention.

    i am also puzzled by the small amount of money fusion-glenn simpson paid steele – ~$170k.

    • orionATL says:

      the problem for me is that it is so incongrous with the tone and inferences from the rest of the dossier. the salacious stuff belongs as headline material in a story from breitbart, the drudge report, or trumps bff’s paper, the national enquirer, story.

      the of the report in a nytimes, wapo, etc. story.

  12. orionATL says:

    by the way, since apparently us dems keep talking on and on about only the part of the report released,

    who (or whoes) controls the rest of the dossier? one of the congressional committees? the fbi? mueller? i’ve never read that.

    why are we not permitted to read this material also?

    is it known to be significant?

    when can we peeons be expect to be allowed to read the whole damned thing?

  13. Peacerme says:

    Maybe Ryan,

    I agree, Sasse is doing well, he’s just taking a beating from the right wingers on Facebook. I didn’t mean he’s not polling well. Far less scientific. I have quite a few Trump supporters as friends. I enjoy being familiar with the rhetoric. Of course I don’t mean that literally no one knows about dossier, it’s just not generating discussion with my Social media crowd. Yes, Trump world anxiety, invalidation regarding race and past sexual assaults has been given as a reason given for coming in for treatment by several clients in the last year.

  14. Silence Hand says:

    It’s like creationists – excuse me, “intelligent design” advocates making God of the Gaps arguments. “The demonstrated fact of (A) could be seen to support the idea that (X) , and there’s no explanation for (N). Therefore (X)!”

  15. Desider says:

    I don’t see the importance of this at all – the Steele Dossier’s impact was pointing to a lot of possible funny stuff going on with Russia, not taken very seriously until Buzzfeed published it.
    Since then facts from investigations have far surpassed it.
    So whether Steele was 20%, 50% or 80% right, the larger implication has been proven correct, and as we check the floorboards we keep finding more and more holes and secret passages.
    At this point, the number of convictions and flipped witnesses and closer proximity to Trump is a better indicator of the state of scandal.

    • emptywheel says:

      The import of the dossier is that it is the source of (legitimate) complaints by the GOP. They may be obfuscating about its role, but that it had a role in the way it did is significant.

      The import is that, having the GOP attack the dossier, some Dems (most prominently of late, Rachel Maddow in a really breathtakingly bad propaganda piece) defend it even more aggressively, thereby increasing its import.

      The import is that what is supposed to separate anti-Trump rational people from pro-Trump delusionaries is precisely that rationality. But the anti-Trump side has given up rationality to defend the dossier. That–the sanctioning of Not-A = A–is tremendously dangerous. We lose rationality we lose our distinction from Trump.

      • orionATL says:

        ew –

        “….The import of the dossier is that it is the source of (legitimate) complaints by the GOP. They may be obfuscating about its role, but that it had a role in the way it did is significant..” .

        please specify in at least a little detail.

        what import? what was the source of the” legitimate complaints by the GOP” ?

        what exactly means you by “that it had a role in the way it did is significant” ?

        both these sentences are abstract and lack specific referents i can stick in memory.

      • greengiant says:

        Putin might as well have paid Fusion and salted Steele for the joy of seeing Simpson shop it around the media in the summer/fall of 2016. Perhaps someone could explain how Steele who helped expose FIFA of world cup Moscow 2018 was able to get so much information from Russian sources who surely would know better than as Akhmetshin says “to do anything Putin would not like”.

    • orionATL says:


      “…I don’t see the importance of this at all – the Steele Dossier’s impact was pointing to a lot of possible funny stuff going on with Russia, not taken very seriously until Buzzfeed published it.
      Since then facts from investigations have far surpassed it.
      So whether Steele was 20%, 50% or 80% right, the larger implication has been proven correct,… ”

      this is a succint summary of how i feel about the dossier. the dems were at war with the republicans. they were under what proved to be a disastrous cyber assault. they had some investigation done by an expert. expert’s report showed there is lots of smoke,i. e., russian gov (putin) interest in affecting the outcome of the election against clinton was multiply manifest.

      – steele’s facts were not very accurate. so what? they were in the ballpark and sketched an accurate overview of russian intent that was borne out.

      – checking the precision of the gossip steele recorded seems quixotic. my wife serves as neighborhood leader. we often smile a bit at the level of (in)accuracy of gossip in our neighborhood about simple things by the time they get to her – like whose dog was it that was out.

      though i can never be quite sure, what emptywheel serms offended about is not the steele report per se, or fusion’s effort, but about the analytical/argumentative sloppiness of people like maddow, chait, marshall who are using steele beyond it’s expiration date. still, propaganda is not just the repub option and steele can be presented to carry a large propaganda message.

      war is not a nice affair, particularly war with intellectual barbarians.

  16. ptb says:

    The breaking news of that dossier struck me as the specific turning point, when the “Manchurian Candidate” storyline became reduced to a joke. Perhaps intentionally.

    The reality is that Trump, like about every other US president and many a member of congress have a great many backers to whom they owe favors. Both commercial entities and states. It is specifically in cases when the backers have an agenda at odds with the natural course of US policymaking, that the backers would have a need to exert influence. But that bigger picture is untouchable, naturally.

    At the end of the day it is part of a PR campaign to provide the *REPUBLICAN* party the cover they need to dispose of Trump at whatever time, if any, is convenient to them. This would be by allowing a handful of Rep. Senators etc to vote for impeachment. This would be *AFTER* the legislative agenda is passed. Trump gets the blame for anything on the agenda that fails to benefit voters. Dem’s get the blame for impeaching Trump. The Dem’s get to salvage some of their dignity if they play along, but I don’t really see how they gain anything substantial in terms of power. There is no untangling this one, I’m afraid.

  17. orionATL says:

    well, well. a wapo article putting fusion-glenn simpson in the spotlight. how refreshing:

    note that david boies makes a cameo appearance in this article doing the same thing he did with the sleezy and vicious harvey weinstein – trying to suppress information embarrassing to a client by applying pyschological pressure from the inside before the public ever gets a chance to evaluate it – a relatively new and troubling kind of lobbying targeting news media journalists and editors.

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