The Disinformation that Got Told: Michael Cohen Was, in Fact, Hiding Secret Communications with the Kremlin

CJR was kind enough to invite me on to discuss media accountability and the Steele dossier with Erik Wemple last week.

On the show, I made the argument that it’s not enough to identify the things that didn’t, but should have, shown up in the dossier: like George Papadopoulos getting advance warning of the Russian operation not far from Christopher Steele’s office, or a dirt-for-sanctions-relief meeting in Trump Tower attended by a client of Fusion GPS, or a deputy for Steele client Oleg Deripaska, Konstantin Kilimnik, trading Trump’s campaign manager $19 million in debt relief to obtain the campaign’s strategy.

Given the way that, on July 30, 2016, Deripaska used Steele (via his lawyers) to make Manafort more vulnerable just days before, on August 2, 2016, Deripaska used that vulnerability to carry out a key step in the election operation, it is reasonable to consider whether any disinformation in the dossier became a key part of the Russian operation. That makes it important to look at the stories that did get told in it, to understand how they related to other aspects of the operation.

In the CJR podcast, Erik Wemple was — as he has been in the past — skeptical.

Wheeler: If, in fact, the dossier is full of disinformation, which is what every Republican in Congress believes and what I think is largely the case, then the question is not, what was the access. The question was, why did Oleg Deripaska learn about it, as the DOJ IG Report suggests happened, why did he learn about it before the second report? Why did two Russian intelligence people learn about it before the second report, and why did the stories that get told get told? So, yes, there’s the absence of, you know, Papadopoulos in London, but the stories of Michael Cohen in Prague which are the, the, the most easily debunked, do, are near misses on things that were really happening in the Russian operation. Michael Cohen was in fact covering up stuff about Russia at the time — he was covering up the Trump Tower deal. Michael Cohen was also covering stuff having to do with sex at the time. You put those two together and you’ve got the Prague thing. That’s a pretty near miss.

Wemple: Is it though? The allegation in the dossier was that he was meeting with Kremlin representatives — as I recall — to —

Wheeler: And he called up the Kremlin and got Putin’s involvement in the Trump Tower deal.

Wemple: But he met in Prague to cover up or figure out how to pay hackers, if I recall the allegation.

Wheeler: Yeah yeah yeah. Yup.

Wemple: I don’t know. I don’t see it as being that close to what Michael Cohen actually did but we can —

Wheeler: Right, but do you deny that Michael Cohen was covering up stuff about Russia that involved, actually, the Kremlin?

Wemple: Well, it’s clear that he was involved in keeping quiet the Trump Tower —

Wheeler: Okay. Which involved the Kremlin. And involved a GRU officer.

Wemple: Unquestionably, no question.

Wheeler: Okay. So that’s my point. Russia knew that. Russia knew that when Trump made a statement in July of 2016 that he had no business in Russia — which by the way, Durham is reacting against; he’s trying to claim it was unreasonable for cybersecurity researchers to respond to that and say, that’s very alarming, which was very alarming. As soon as Trump made that comment, in July of 2016 (and he had made it a bunch of times before that), Russia knew that Michael Cohen and Donald Trump and a number of other people were lying, publicly, about this ridiculously lucrative deal that involved the Kremlin and involved a GRU officer. And so the Prague story is absolutely garbage. And that came from Olga Galkina, right?

Wemple: It did. Who’s a middle school friend of Danchenko

Wheeler: Right. She’s central to the Danchenko indictment. One of the things that Durham charges Danchenko with is trying to hide how obvious, how much Galkina knew about that. And he didn’t hide it at all. I think that allegation is completely, is completely easily debunked if you actually read the interview. But my point is that, in fact, Michael Cohen was covering up communications with the Kremlin and with a GRU officer. And Russia knew that. And if those Michael Cohen reports which, by January 2017, the FBI believed to be disinformation, so if those were disinformation, why did we get that form of disinformation, when in fact Michael Cohen — and if you read Danchenko, Galkina knew, right away, Michael Cohen’s name. She was ready for it, so those questions. If you want to talk about media accountability, those questions have to be asked as well.

The details of any disinformation in the dossier — the possibility that Russian intelligence deliberately planted false stories about secret communications Michael Cohen had with the Kremlin — are important because they may have served the overall Russian operation. In some cases, such as the claim that Carter Page was Paul Manafort’s purported go-between with Russia rather than Konstantin Kilimnik, might have provided cover. The claims that Russia had years old FSB intercepts of Hillary they planned to release as kompromat, rather than recently stolen emails from John Podesta, would similarly provide cover. In others, disinformation might have worked in the same way Oleg Deripaska’s double game did, increasing the vulnerability of Trump’s people even while making it more likely they’d do what Russia wanted.

I have argued in the past that the Trump Tower deal wasn’t important because it showed that Trump was pursuing a real estate deal while running for President. Rather, it was important to the success of the Russian operation because it gave Russia proof, before any hint of the Russian operation became public, that Donald Trump would be willing to work, in secret, with sanctioned banks and a GRU officer to make an impossibly lucrative real estate deal happen.

[T]here is a piece of the Cohen statement of the offense the significance of which hasn’t gotten sufficient attention. That’s the detail that Dmitry Peskov’s personal assistant took detailed notes from a 20-minute January 20, 2016 phone call with Cohen, which led to Putin’s office contacting Felix Sater the next day.

On or about January 16, 2016, COHEN emailed [Peskov]’s office again, said he was trying to reach another high-level Russian official, and asked for someone who spoke English to contact him.

On or about January 20, 2016 , COHEN received an email from the personal assistant to [Peskov] (“Assistant 1 “), stating that she had been trying to reach COHEN and requesting that he call her using a Moscow-based phone number she provided.

Shortly after receiving the email, COHEN called Assistant 1 and spoke to her for approximately 20 minutes. On that call, COHEN described his position at the Company and outlined the proposed Moscow Project, including the Russian development company with which the Company had partnered. COHEN requested assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction. Assistant 1 asked detailed questions and took notes, stating that she would follow up with others in Russia.

The day after COHEN’s call with Assistant 1, [Sater] contacted him, asking for a call. Individual 2 wrote to COHEN, “It’s about [the President of Russia] they called today.”

Cohen had lied about this, claiming that he had emailed Peskov’s public comment line just once, but gotten no response.

This language is important not just because it shows that Cohen lied.  It’s important because of what Cohen would have said to Peskov’s assistant. And it’s important because a written record of what Cohen said got handed on to Putin’s office, if not Putin himself.


[W]hen Cohen called Peskov’s assistant, he would have told her that he was speaking on behalf of Donald Trump, that Trump remained interested in a Trump Tower in Moscow (as he had been in 2013, the last time Putin had dangled a personal meeting with Trump), and that on Trump’s behalf Cohen was willing to discuss making a deal involving both a sanctioned bank (whichever one it was) and a former GRU officer.

The impossibly lucrative real estate deal was useful to the Russian operation because it ensured that, even before GRU hacked the DNC, Putin had collected receipts showing that Trump’s personal lawyer had secretly been in discussions about a deal brokered by a GRU officer and sanctioned banks for Trump’s benefit. Trump would want to (and in fact did) keep this fact from voters because it would have proven he was lying about having business interests in Russia. The attribution of the DNC hack to the GRU made Trump’s secret more inflammatory, because it meant Trump stood to benefit personally from the same people who hacked his opponent. Trump and Cohen couldn’t have known all that when Cohen called Peskov in January. But Russia did. Indeed, that may well have been the entire point.

The Cohen-in-Prague story includes outlines of Trump’s real secret: contact by Trump’s personal lawyer with the Kremlin and those who conducted the DNC hack. But the Cohen-in-Prague story displaced the key details of that secret, providing a place and personal details that would be even more damning, but also easier to debunk.

In fact, when Michael Cohen broke the law (by lying to Congress) to cover up this secret, when the Trump Organization withheld from Congress the most damning documents about it, when Trump told his most provable lie to Mueller about it, they (along with Felix Sater and others) used the Cohen-in-Prague story as an easy way to issue true denials while limiting admissions (and lying) about the extent of the Trump Tower deal. Here’s what I described, in August 2017, about the way Cohen used Prague denials to pre-empt his limited (and therefore false) admissions of his pursuit of the Trump Tower deal.

There are real, unanswered questions about the provenance of the document as leaked by BuzzFeed. Some of the circumstances surrounding its production — most notably its funders and their claimed goals, and Steele’s production of a final report, based off voluntarily provided information, for free — raise real questions about parts of the dossier. I think it quite likely some parts of the dossier, especially the last, most inflammatory report (which accuses Cohen of attending a meeting where payments from Trump to the hackers that targeted the Democrats were discussed), were disinformation fed by the Russians. I believe the Intelligence Community is almost certainly lying about what they knew about the dossier. I believe the Russians know precisely how the dossier got constructed (remember, a suspected source for it died in mysterious circumstances in December), and they expect the exposure of those details will discredit it.

So while I think there are truths in the dossier, I do think its current form includes rumor and even affirmative disinformation meant to discredit it.

With that said — and remembering all the time that shortly after this letter got written, documents were disclosed showing Cohen was involved in brokering a deal that Sater thought might get Trump elected — here’s my analysis of the document.

[Cohen’s letter to Congress] is pitched around the claim that HPSCI “included Mr. Cohen in its inquiry based solely upon certain sensational allegations contained” in the Steele dossier. “Absent those allegations,” the letter continues, “Mr. Cohen would not be involved in your investigation.” The idea — presented two weeks before disclosure of emails showing Cohen brokering a deal with Russians in early 2016 — is if Cohen can discredit the dossier, then he will have shown that there is no reason to investigate him or his role brokering deals with the Russians. Even the denial of any documents of interest is limited to the dossier: “We have not uncovered a single document that would in any way corroborate the Dossier’s allegations regarding Mr. Cohen, nor do we believe that any such document exists.”

With that, Cohen’s lawyers address the allegations in the dossier, one by one. As a result, the rebuttal reads kind of like this:

I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Cohen literally denies that he ever traveled to Prague six times, as well as denying carefully worded, often quoted, versions of meeting with Russians in a European capital in 2016. Of course that formulation — He did not participate in meetings of any kind with Kremlin officials in Prague in August 2016 — stops well short of other potential ties to Russians. And two of his denials look very different given the emails disclosed two weeks later showing an attempt to broker a deal that Felix Sater thought might get Trump elected, including an email from him to one of the most trusted agents of the Kremlin.

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any “secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin relationship.”

Mr. Cohen is not aware of any indirect communications between the “TRUMP team” and “trusted agents” of the Kremlin.

The Cohen-in-Prague story provided an easy way for Cohen to issue true denials. But it also magnified the risk of the secret — a secret Russia knew — they were keeping, because they committed crimes to keep the secret.

There can be little doubt that, if the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation, it was wildly successful. Indeed, most Trump supporters — including many of the people debunking the dossier full time — seemed to believe that if they could prove that Cohen never went to Prague, that by itself would amount to proof that Trump had no ties with Russia in 2016, a claim every bit as outlandish as the pee tape.

If the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation, it was spectacularly successful, both for obscuring the Trump Tower discussions and for creating an easily debunked stand-in for Trump’s real cooperation, distracting from Manafort’s role.

Years later, we now know there were reasons to think the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation from the start. A declassified DOJ IG footnote describes that, even before the Igor Danchenko interviews in January 2017, FBI had received intelligence suggesting that was the case.

In addition to the information in Steele’s Delta file documenting Steele’s frequent contacts with representatives for multiple Russian oligarchs, we identified reporting the Crossfire Hurricane team received from [redacted] indicating the potential for Russian disinformation influencing Steele’s election reporting. A January 12, 2017, report relayed information from [redacted] outlining an inaccuracy in a limited subset of Steele’s reporting about the activities of Michael Cohen. The [redacted] stated that it did not have high confidence in this subset of Steele’s reporting and assessed that the referenced subset was part of a Russian disinformation campaign to denigrate U.S. foreign relations. [italicized language declassified]

If it was disinformation, Danchenko’s source for it, his childhood friend Olga Galkina, seems to have been prepared. When Danchenko described the sourcing of the report, he explained that that Galkina was “almost immediately” familiar with Cohen when he asked.

[Danchenko] began his explanation of the Prague and Michael Cohen-related reports by stating that Christopher Steele had given him 4-5 names to research for the election-related tasking. He could only remember three of the names: Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. When he talked to [Galkina] in the fall of 2016 — he believes it was a phone call — he rattled off these names and, out of them, he was surprised to hear that [Galkina] immediately [later [Danchenko] softened this to  “almost immediately”] recognized Cohen’s name.


Danchenko believes he had 2, maybe even 3, conversations with [Galkina] on this topic later in October. Nothing on Prague and Cohen was collected during the [redacted] trip in [redacted]. The first conversation is the one during which he believes [Galkina] noted her recognition of Cohen’s name. The second conversation is the one in which she discussed Prague, the visit of Cohen plus three other individuals, and the meeting with the Russia side. There may have been a third conversation on the topic, but [Danchenko] could not recall exactly and said that they had also talked about “a private subject.”

Several details in the Danchenko indictment explain why Galkina might be prepared.

Charles Dolan, the PR Executive whom Danchenko introduced to Galkina that spring, had worked directly with Dmitry Peskov for years and remained in touch with Putin’s Press Secretary in conjunction with an event he was helping plan in October 2016. During the summer, Dolan recommended Galkina to Peskov for a job in the Presidential Administration.

[F]rom in or about 2006 through in or about 2014, the Russian Federation retained PR Executive-I and his then-employer to handle global public relations for the Russian government and a state-owned energy company. PR Executive-I served as a lead consultant during that project and frequently interacted with senior Russian Federation leadership whose names would later appear in the Company Reports, including the Press Secretary of the Russian Presidential Administration (“Russian Press Secretary-I”), the Deputy Press Secretary (“Russian Deputy Press Secretary-I”), and others in the Russian Presidential Press Department.


In anticipation of the June 2016 Planning Trip to Moscow, PR Executive-I also communicated with Russian Press Secretary-I and Russian Deputy Press Secretary-I, both of whom worked in the Kremlin and, as noted above, also appeared in the Company Reports.


Additionally, on or about July 13, 2016, Russian Sub-Source-I sent a message to a Russia-based associate and stated that PR Executive-I had written a letter to Russian Press Secretary-I in support of Russian-Sub-Source-I’s candidacy for a position in the Russian Presidential Administration.

As it was, Danchenko attributed of any mention of Peskov in the dossier to Galkina. But Galkina’s real ties to Peskov, the person who knew more about Michael Cohen and Trump’s secret than anyone else in Russia — who knew they were pursuing an impossibly lucrative real estate deal involving sanctioned banks and a retired GRU officer with Peskov’s help — had been enhanced in months leading up to that reporting. Galkina’s ties to Peskov would had been enhanced in a way that may have made her source relationship with Danchenko even more evident to Russian spooks (though it would always have been easy to discover).

That is, Dolan’s business relationships with the Russian government may not be important because Galkina appeared to share his enthusiasm for Hillary — the reason Durham included garden variety business networking in the midst of the Danchenko indictment. Rather, it may be important because it made her a much more lucrative target for disinformation.

Olga Galkina was in a position where, if Russia had wanted to tell the secret they knew Trump was keeping from voters, she might have learned the truth behind Cohen’s real, hidden communications with the Kremlin, a truth that voters had a right to know. Instead, she told a false story that mirrored certain aspects of the story that Cohen would do prison time in a failed attempt to hide, but which instead became an easily debunked stand-in for the real story of Trump’s enthusiasm for Russia’s efforts to tamper in America’s democracy.

If the dossier was significantly disinformation, then all Americans were victims of it. It turned a legitimate concern about real Russian interference into American elections into one of the biggest sources of political polarization in recent history. Like the social media trolling from Internet Research Agency, it stoked divisions, with the added benefit that it led significant numbers of Trump voters to trust the Russians who were feeding that disinformation more than they trust the current President. One viral Twitter thread earlier this year even claimed that the dossier (and therefore any Russian disinformation in it) led directly to and justified the attack on the Capitol on January 6. As such, disinformation injected into the dossier should increasingly be treated as a potential central part of the 2016 Russian influence operation — perhaps its most successful and lasting part.

Erik Wemple has spent a lot of time pushing CNN into committing the same reporting failures with the Danchenko indictment as they did on the dossier itself. But that has left largely unexamined the question of why the stories that did get told got told, which may be far more important to understanding how Russia was willing to screw both Paul Manafort and Hillary Clinton.

Danchenko posts

The Igor Danchenko Indictment: Structure

John Durham May Have Made Igor Danchenko “Aggrieved” Under FISA

“Yes and No:” John Durham Confuses Networking with Intelligence Collection

Daisy-Chain: The FBI Appears to Have Asked Danchenko Whether Dolan Was a Source for Steele, Not Danchenko

Source 6A: John Durham’s Twitter Charges

John Durham: Destroying the Purported Victims to Save Them

John Durham’s Cut-and-Paste Failures — and Other Indices of Unreliability

Aleksej Gubarev Drops Lawsuit after DOJ Confirms Steele Dossier Report Naming Gubarev’s Company Came from His Employee

In Story Purporting to “Reckon” with Steele’s Baseless Insinuations, CNN Spreads Durham’s Unsubstantiated Insinuations

On CIPA and Sequestration: Durham’s Discovery Deadends

The Disinformation that Got Told: Michael Cohen Was, in Fact, Hiding Secret Communications with the Kremlin

61 replies
  1. TC says:

    Thank you for this. I’ve been trying to follow you on the dossier for four years tryna wrap my head around how the disinfo worked, and this post is the first time I more or less get the part how it provided deniability of one set of facts to throw us off the scent of a similar, yet true, fact pattern of criminality that kept Trump in Putin’s back pocket..
    When i was a tween I could play chess and think 5 or 6 moves ahead. Now in late middle age I feel like the guy in Flowers for Algernon who can barely think one move ahead. Kudos to you for keeping up with GRU’s game and finally making it understandable to us lesser minds.

    • ThomasH says:

      I have a similar reaction to this essay; it’s as if a veil is finally being lifted, simultaneously, it reminds me that I don’t have the steel trap mind to keep and follow all the details anymore. The wages of piercing the “elderly” demographic. This reminds me of the time a friend who was in grad school invited me to join his reading group. It was focused on literary criticism interpreted through the deconstructionist analysis. I lasted through only one session, LOL!

      This piece deserves to be more widely disseminated. Perhaps is a form that’s more digestible to folks like me. Either as a set of bulletin points backed by all the supporting documentation in the footnotes, or as chapter headings with each heading elucidated in the body of the chapter.

      • Lillyhobbs says:

        I may be at the point of needing the graphic novel version, with colored arrows for the connections. It’s like a tangle of 15 strings of Christmas lights.
        P.s. Rayne, I didn’t realize I was using different names. I will stick with Lillyhobbs. Surely I can remember that.

      • John Paul Jones says:

        You didn’t miss a thing by not going to subsequent sessions of “deconstruction.” The whole project is pretty much vapid nonsense, the idea being that language is radically indeterminate and therefore nobody can say anything that has any determinate meaning. If that were true, then only one meeting would be needed, since there is no point in further discussion if (by definition) no discussion can have meaning.

  2. Silly but True says:

    One one hand, in 2021 we’re very far removed from arguably the best standard we have to date on handling business dealings, the Jimmy Carter standard. And admittedly, I have long become cynical on how Presidents have addressed their business divestures; the train left the station probably a quarter century or more ago. Even with it, most people misunderstood that Carter somehow completely divested his peanut farm through either a sale or management by blind trust. Carter placed Carter’s Warehouse and Carter Farms, Inc. in a trust with Charles Kirbo as the trust’s financial executer; Kirbo was Carter’s must trusted associate. Kirbo first represented Jimmy Carter in 1962 when Carter lost the Democratic primary for a Georgia state senate seat. 1971, then-Governor Carter offered to appoint Kirbo to the US Senate seat left vacant by the death of Richard Russell, but Kirbo declined. Kirbo was GA’s Democrat Party Chair 1972-1974. When Carter was elected President, Kirbo was considered as a possible White House Chief of Staff. Kirbo was also considered to be a candidate for the Supreme Court if a vacancy had occurred under a Carter Presidency. So, Carter’s blind trust was run essentially by Carter’s version of Michael Cohen, at time when Cohen was in Trump’s full graces. So that’s the Cadillac standard in Presidential business interest divesture; it’s been toothless all along. We can aspire to some standards of “blind trust,” but Carter even proved there’s ways to game the perception to ensure his interests were managed by a trusted agent. People like to make hay on this anytime Presidential candidates run for office while making an income off their businesses; it’s only gotten worse the more a global market has expanded.

    Enter Trump. There is a lot of smoke, and Trump surely would have exploited a deal had Putin let it go forward, but Trump, Inc. pursuing the deal it had been after for 30 years August 2015 through May 2016 wasn’t illegal.

    Same for Manafort moonlighting on Trump’s campaign data; Manafort selling campaign internals was a matter for Trump campaign.

    In all of these, it seems like Putin had more sense and was the shrewder dealer than Trump. Trump was biting at everything. Putin let him do it, understanding that in American politics, that alone was leverage regardless whether he greenlit a tower deal or not.

    Putin played us like a fiddle. He played the campaigns. He played the media. He played Michael Moore. He played us voters. And we still don’t have anything resembling any full or complete accounting of what and how it all was done.

  3. Theodora30 says:

    Erik Wemple’s obsession about CNN’s reporting on the dossier is strange. Wemple is willing to overlook more serious press omissions and distortions about Trump and Russia, but also other reporting. He keeps harping on this one story. Other WaPo columnists like Jennifer Rubin, Greg Sargent, Paul Waldman and Margaret Sullivan do a much better job critiquing their media peers’ coverage of the Biden administration while Wemple keeps repeatedly hammering this one story. It seems like he feels personally insulted that CNN hasn’t bowed to his wishes.

    • Silly but True says:

      How Rubin even has a job after blaming Islam for Oslo bombings, water-carrying for bombing Iran, and the corrections WaPo has been forced to make about her editorializing makes me wonder what sort of blackmail photos she has about Fred Ryan.

  4. BobCon says:

    “If the dossier was significantly disinformation, then all Americans were victims of it. It turned a legitimate concern about real Russian interference into American elections into one of the biggest sources of political polarization in recent history. Like the social media trolling from Internet Research Agency, it stoked divisions, with the added benefit that it led significant numbers of Trump voters to trust the Russians who were feeding that disinformation more than they trust the current President. ”

    It’s spread now to being a tool of a disinformation campaign being waged today, with a lot of the US press as dupes and collaborators.

    I think the best way to see Durham’s prosecution is basically as a parallel (or child) disinformation effort to the Russian effort to manipulate the Steele dossier. Although I would stress that I think the prime movers of Durham are the US right, who are far more adept at manipulating US press narratives than the Russians.

    Like Steele, Durham is about a few bits of truth mixed in with a lot of sort of truths and some flat out falsehoods that have been carefully massaged to support a misleading narrative. The disinfo relies on overly credulous, under critical disseminators with a bias toward publishing.

    Both Steele and Durham have been helped along the way by well intentioned but underinformed people who aren’t doing the necessary due dilligence to examine motives of prime movers. And there are some much less well intentioned people facilitating the spread.

    What especially alarms me about Durham is the ease with which his efforts are being snapped up by the US press.

    Steele may have actually died on the vine if McCain hadn’t pushed it as hard as he did. But the GOP PR machine that packaged and disseminated anti-Clinton propaganda so effectively in 2016 (with a press that happily cooperated in hiding the existence of the PR machine) is clearly getting results with Durham.

    The real lesson from Steele isn’t some narrow set of factors about anti-Trump bias in the press. It’s the media’s disturbing openness to and complicity in disinformation in general. Russia-Steele was an important piece, but only one piece, of a much larger ongoing GOP disinfo campaign which the press still doesn’t want to confront, even as it threatens to snuff the press as we know it out of existence.

    • Silly but True says:

      The idea or understanding that the FBI/DoJ was somehow victimized by certain of “the Dossier’s” actors seems to be a pretty profound feeling among the whole if the political spectrum; absent any better clarification from Biden or Garland, I suspect this may primarily be what’s facilitating Durham within the Biden administration at this point.

      • bmaz says:

        Eh, don’t think FBI/DOJ were victims of any sort. They knew who and what Steele was. The political spectrum has always been nuts on this.

        • Silly but True says:

          I think you’re right on this. I also have seen the theory embraced by a wide range of folks; both Ben Wittes and a Andrew McCarthy seem in agreement here: the notion the FBI was misled into investigating the dossier seems like an off-ramp to finally put 2016 behind.

        • BobCon says:

          I think there was a reasonable level of skepticism on their part — this wasn’t their first time dealing with this kind of thing.

          I do think they got some blowback from a number of ignorant or bad faith actors for even doing due diligence, and they also got blowback for legitimate unrelated investigations which were dumbly or maliciously conflated with the dossier.

          Which may have been something the Russians hoped would happen, of course.

            • Silly but True says:

              FBI listed twice in Steele’s 6-18-2018 FD-209: “Anomalies: CHS listed to an outside third party that CHS has a confidential relationship with the FBI.”

              I wonder if hay is being made now about Steele’s conduct as paid unofficial criminal informant to FBI? Although while there is some official documentation establishing Steele as unofficial source, I can’t imagine there is much else in way of official agreements, like any “official unofficial informant agreement” which imposes specific duty on Steele; if so, it would be redacted into oblivion before it saw light of day.

    • ThomasH says:

      I remember Nixon shouting to the rafters about “left wing media bias” and then Reagan picking that ball up and running with it. It’s worked! The press is cowed into automatically looking through the “both sides” lens to the detriment of truth and accuracy.

      • BobCon says:

        I think where the both sides tendency of the press is particularly insidious is that it leaves them predisposed toward right wing disinformation.

        Institutionally, once papers like the Times divide their beats and reporters not on a general category basis like corruption or influence peddling, but on a partisan basis, they will inevitably favor the GOP.

        Packaged disinfo with an established narrative will typically be faster and easier to rewrite and publish than real investigative journalism. The GOP knows how to line up and deliver sources, prepackaged reports, and curated facts to reporters who want to cut corners like Ken Vogel.

        As a result, honest investigative reporting faces a lot more headwinds at the editorial level as assigned reporters struggle to line up the elements of stories in the face of reluctant sources and scattered evidence.

        The solution would be to stop splitting reporting into GOP and Democratic beats, or along candidate lines, and focus on maximizing comprehensive reporting and analysis. But even papers with resources refuse at the editorial level to pass up temporary short term advantages even when it would mean better reporting and more compelling coverage in the long term.

  5. OldTulsaDude says:

    “I have argued in the past that the Trump Tower deal wasn’t important because it showed that Trump was pursuing a real estate deal while running for President. Rather, it was important to the success of the Russian operation because it gave Russia proof, before any hint of the Russian operation became public, that Donald Trump would be willing to work, in secret, with sanctioned banks and a GRU officer to make an impossibly lucrative real estate deal happen.”

    I think it is more than that. The Trump Tower deal disclosed that Trump could be counted on to put his personal interests and wealth accumulation above the interests of the United States, that Russia would have not only an ally in the White House but a co-conspirator.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Trump’s drive to put his own financial and ego interests above everything else, the country be damned, was never in doubt. But it is nice to have receipts.

  6. Cheez Whiz says:

    This post immediately brought to mind the Bush National Guard “the kerning proves the memos were forged” brou-ha-ha. The story around the documents was hinkey as hell (he immediately burned the originals [destroying the only way to authenticate them] after faxing them?) and “proving” they were forged immediately shut down any future inquiry into W’s time in the National Guard. Could be Putin was taking notes watching Rove at work.

  7. The Old Redneck says:

    Unfortunately, this story is just too damn complicated for most people. It takes a lot of patience to wade through cutouts, disinformation, and everything else which could throw you off the scent.
    Mass media could have helped. But predictably, its reporters succumbed to dealing in oversimplified narratives and shiny objects. That’s why everyone remembers the nonexistent pee tape, but no one remembers the legitimate concerns about national security which triggered the investigation.

  8. pdaly says:

    Thanks for the analysis.

    I wonder whether the Russians gamed out the two scenarios (Trump loses, Trump wins the presidency) and decided the whisper campaign in the form of the inaccurate Steele dossier would be useful to Putin no matter the U.S. presidential election outcome.

    If they wanted Trump to win the presidency from the outset, how could they be confident that Trump would survive a whisper campaign against him? After all, whisper campaigns and flat out lies are S.O.P. for Trump and allies to steamroll over opponents.

    If Trump lost, the Steele dossier’s lies/inaccuracies would be revealed post election as a way to batter Pres. Hillary Clinton.

    But then there is the issue with Manafort being put in a similar situation by Putin et al.

    • pdaly says:

      I got pulled away from the computer before I could finish my reply.

      If the Russians were planning for Trump to win, despite their injecting derogatory half-truths into the Steele dossier, then they must have estimated how much counter programming would be necessary to overcome any negative first impressions the dossier created in the minds of U.S. voters.

      How does one tamp down a whisper campaign that could easily grow out of control, given the way conspiracy theories and lies spread faster than the truth in our current media landscape, usually with the damage being done long before the truth can catch up?

      How many people have to know the game plan for it to work?

      • Eureka says:

        Displacement (“How does one tamp down…”): just throw out some louder, brighter balls to chase [and they had the IRA trolls (etc.) in place to direct that conversation, riding all the dumb social media algos]. If that was even necessary, though (for all practical purposes no one cared about 45’s other dirt, at least not enough to fail to elect him). To be fair, they did seem to feel that they ‘needed’ to run displacement campaigns over either Access Hollywood, the IC’s Russian hack attribution, or both. [EW has written often about the Podesta dump obscuring the same-day IC announcement as having been more significant, perhaps, than shunting attention from the Access Hollywood tapes.] But Putinism is about shit-stirring so I think they only cared to time the Wikileaks releases to ensure Trump got elected, _then_ being unsure how their audience would otherwise respond (now, the landscape is already so different…). They needed Trump in office to get any of the items on their wishlist.

        Else — i.e. barring a specific, tactical instrumental goal where the outcome might otherwise be in question — let chaos reign. All the better for them to get their way from a needy, compromised Trump while America or some substantial portion of her feels some combination of disrespect and untrustworthiness for the holder of her highest office.

        Lingering whispers would have (did) just left Trump compromised and with Putin retaining leverages over (esp. the tough nuts of) foreign policy. It would be like how people talk about Glenn Greenwald today, while he goes on doing all of his GG things. [On that front, he was seen yesterday puffing around Alex Jones — be sure to see his tweets and the replies for some real deep sociocultural illness — and when challenged over something, he pulled an “I don’t know him”. ! While Greenwald’s technique is more artfully Peircean than Trump’s in how he amplifies dis- and malinformation (agents, torques) in the name of championing American values (in this case, valorizing that someones interviewed Jones) the playbook’s not that deep.]

        TL;DR democracy-destroyers get off on (conflicting) whispers, it’s their kink.

        • Eureka says:

          (**checks watch, clock’s ticking**) I’m waiting on the announcement of Greenwald’s Visiting Assistant Professorship at SubstackU UATX (an appendix which would slide nicely with Marcy’s acronym: A.S.S. Prof…). To which department do you suppose he’ll be welcomed?

          • pdaly says:

            Ha ha! Perhaps “Prof. of Truthiness”?

            I had a lot of googling to do to get through your pithy comments. I had not yet heard of the new university UATX.
            I never studied Peirce, but I tried swimming through his sea of unfamiliar words and definitions.

            Will look for the recent Alex Jones /Greenwald interactions. I’m not on twitter, so my exposure is limited to the brief glimpses I catch from the links here.

            • Eureka says:

              LOL (and srry- who wants holiday homework!). By Peircean I loosely meant GG’s a little more indirect/complex in his semiotic dark arts (compared to 45’s bludgeons). Such warping, wefting of agents and objects helps with the gaslighting. I’ll see later if I can find the pertinent tweets — you’d be looking for a photo of Jones draped by two shockingly thin women interviewers/producers amongst Greenwald’s missives, for one (Jones himself is banned from twitter AFAIK).

  9. Hopeful says:

    Thank you, Dr. Wheeler;

    The plot thickens…….. Someone may have said this before, this story has all the elements of a great spy thriller.

    I’m reading each chapter awaiting the ending surprise that will make me say to myself “Wow, I didn’t see that one coming.”

    Haven’t been disappointed.

  10. J R in WV says:

    When I saw the undefined acronym CJR I wondered if it was in fact the famous journalism publlication, the Columbia Journalism Review, so I Googled CJR Podcast and saw that it was in fact a production of the Columbia Journalism Review. Probably the most respected publication about journalism at least in this country.

    Perhaps it would have helped make this article clearer to everyone if you had spelled out the meaning of CJR up front?

    Also, a great piece on disinformation. The fact that parts of the Steele memo were inaccurate does NOT mean there was no connection between Russian, the GRU, and Trump’s org at all. Quite the contrary, disinformation would nearly always include a carefully curated mixture of lies and facts, in part to make the facts less believable.

    Thanks for the work here… have a good holiday, even if it won’t be as universal in Eire as it would be here.

  11. mospeck says:

    Marcy, I was one of the pigeons, one of the ones rooting big time for The Cohen-in-Prague story–but then it’s the Russians, so one always has to take these things with a grain of salt. Annie A seems to think there’s some big ongoing general central struggle between democracies and autocracies that is v wide-ranging, spanning between nogoodniks on various continents (gets your goat out of the pen).
    But then there’s always two sides to a question, and on the other dark side of the moon side of the coin the Dean Baquet NYT says both sides now is even steven and also darkness is the right side of light. Their new op-ed guy is def in the running for Pravda section chief.
    Meanwhile, there’s no news at all on Navalny, who is outnumbered a million to one. Only bits and pieces leaked to Radio Free Europe about vlad detention Center No. 6 in Moscow that seems to keep moving around and no further details were given

  12. Zinsky says:

    Thanks again, Marcy, for steering us through this convoluted tangle of a dossier. I agree with prior commenters that this post sheds some more light on the disinformation aspects of this document. It’s mind-boggling to think through how someone came up with this approach to throw people off the trail of a truly scandalous morsel by dangling a lesser one in front of researchers.

  13. klynn says:

    Thank you. Great analysis. I hope this gets more attention!

    The dance of disinformation – the interplay of disinfo against truthful bits and pieces- against even more disinfo and the process amplified through social media as well as MSM, is quite destructive to the foundations of our democracy.

    A good primer on propaganda can be found here for anyone interested:

    I wish more strong investigative journalists would grown an understanding of the national security threat of Durham’s work product.

    Again, thank you.

  14. Eureka says:

    This here seems like another scale in the Matroyshka doll of disinformation (emphases added):

    There can be little doubt that, if the Cohen-in-Prague story was deliberate disinformation, it was wildly successful. Indeed, most Trump supporters — including many of the people debunking the dossier full time — seemed to believe that if they could prove that Cohen never went to Prague, that by itself would amount to proof that Trump had no ties with Russia in 2016, a claim every bit as outlandish as the pee tape.

    You may have undersold this point, with the singularity of Prague-as-falsifier being even *more* outlandish than the idea of a pee tape. [Given Trump’s general backstage pageant behavior per media reports (IIRC BuzzFeed had a laundry list), I’ve thought that entry _could_ serve as an index to spook Trump over something similar that may have taken place behind-the-scenes at Miss Universe. Let’s ask Emin — oh.]

    Off-topical but timely, I see in the twitter window that Jim has his hands on (or rather the family gullets are happily waving on) some kabocha squash and they win Fall. I like it sliced and roasted with warm spices.

  15. phred says:

    My Dear EW,

    I am thankful for you.

    I would like to echo TC in the first comment above that I have had a hard time following all the ins and outs and details of the dossier story. That it was disinformation I have understood for a long time (thanks to you : ) but I never understood the point of it until now.

    Thank you for sticking with it and with us to help all of us understand what you grasped almost from the start. Happy Thanksgiving!

  16. Spencer Dawkins says:

    I’ve been fascinated by counterintelligence for decades. I can (almost) follow Dr. Wheeler through this house of mirrors, but there’s no way I could lead anyone else through it. Thank you for your continued chipping away at the mirrors.

    One thing that has chapped me ever since the first reports about Flynn being in conversation with Kislyak became public – it was obvious to me that the intelligence community would be struggling to figure out what to say about ANY of this stuff in real time. You might think you have to say SOMETHING, especially if you’re just starting to realize how compromised the Trump campaign and administration are, so you couldn’t rely on them to fix anything in private. But almost anything you say will be very interesting to the Russians. Given the situation, we really can’t be surprised that the intelligence community lied in public about what they knew, and to make statements that were so carefully scoped as to be misleading.

    This is only one of the million downsides of having a compromised president, but it’s appalling on its own.

  17. WilliamOckham says:

    One of the most interesting things about the “Cohen-in-Prague” story was its return in April 2018 and then again that December. It’s not clear to me whether the revival was produced by the same team as the original.

  18. Jeffrey Gallup says:

    This story seems worthy of James Jesus Angleton. Multiple layers of deception that need to be peeled back to discover the truth. As to the overall Steele dossier, I agree with Bill Priestap. Why would the Russian government run a side project to denigrate Donald Trump when its expensive main effort was to denigrate Hillary and elect Trump?

    It is perhaps more plausible that Russia learned of Steele’s work for Hillary and decided to inject some disinformation in it with the objective of discrediting the dossier overall or taking attention away from the real scandals. But that would require a tradecraft of a subtlety that doesn’t seem typical these days. (Does Putin imagine the hacking of the DNC et all would not be traced back to Russia? Or the poisonings of various opponents?)

    Moreover, would it have been wise to direct FBI attention to Michael Cohen via the dossier (even if on the wrong issues) knowing that a thorough investigation of him would likely uncover other Russian ties, and maybe other misdeeds? I would love to know the origins of the Cohen in Prague story. The dossier also fingers Paul Manafort, who did have suspicious ties with Kilimnik, so that inclusion seems to harm Russian interests. Inserting the Carter Page-Russia connection into the story line seems more logical, since it led nowhere. Think Witness for the Prosecution. The wife testifies against her husband, and then is discredited. In paraphrase: Q. “You did it because you knew he was innocent?” A. “No, because I knew he was guilty.”

    And where is Felix Sater, Donald Trump’s longtime Russian-American partner, in all this?

    In my view, the dossier is essntially worthless except for some general observations that are true: Russia favored Trump and had a plan to support him through hacking and other means, though this may come from public sources. Other stuff is salacious and unverified but plausible (sexual escapades); lots of unverifiable but believable stuff about thinking inside the Russian government; and some false or at least doubtful allegations – Cohen in Prague; Trump helping pay hackers (does he ever pay for anything if he can avoid it?); Carter Page as trusted intermediary; non-existent Miami Consulate activities.
    If there was some kind of ongoing regular communication channel with Russia, it has not been discovered. Rather, there were scattershot contacts (June 6, Flynn, Cohen emails, Kislyak, Roger Stone to ?Jerome Corsi to Assange. This is Donald Trump’s modus operandi, but not a professional Russian intelligence service’s way of operating.

  19. bg says:

    Not to change the topic, but inasmuch as I remain skeptical of Intercept, I will say WRT the focus of media on certain topics, I did hear this on Counterspin the other day, on inflation. I appreciated the push back on the headlines about inflation hysteria.

    [FYI, link to Google Podcast address removed to avoid tracking and replaced with Counterspin’s URL to the edition, ‘They Do Not Tell Both Sides of the Inflation Story’ dd. November 26, 2021. /~Rayne]

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