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John Sipher’s Garbage Post Arguing the Steele Dossier Isn’t Garbage

I generally find former CIA officer John Sipher’s work rigorous and interesting, if not always persuasive. Which is why I find the shoddiness of this post — arguing, just as Republicans in Congress and litigious Russians start to uncover information about the Christopher Steele dossier, that the dossier is not garbage  — so telling.

I don’t think the Steele dossier is garbage.

But neither do I think it supports the claim that it predicted a lot of information we’ve found since, something Sipher goes to great pains to argue. And there are far more problems with the dossier and its production than Sipher, who claims to be offering his wisdom about how to interpret raw intelligence, lets on. So the dossier isn’t garbage (though the story behind its production may well be). But Sipher’s post is. And given that it appears to be such a desperate — and frankly, unnecessary — attempt to reclaim the credibility of the dossier, it raises questions about why he feels the need.

Making and claiming accuracy for a narrative out of raw intelligence

Sipher’s project appears to be taking what he admits is raw intelligence and providing a narrative that he says we should continue to use to understand Trump’s Russian ties.

Close to the beginning of his piece, Sipher emphasizes that the dossier is not a finished intelligence report, but raw intelligence; he blames the media for not understanding the difference.

I spent almost thirty years producing what CIA calls “raw reporting” from human agents.  At heart, this is what Orbis did.  They were not producing finished analysis, but were passing on to a client distilled reporting that they had obtained in response to specific questions.  The difference is crucial, for it is the one that American journalists routinely fail to understand.

[snip]

Mr. Steele’s product is not a report delivered with a bow at the end of an investigation.  Instead, it is a series of contemporaneous raw reports that do not have the benefit of hindsight.

Sipher explains that you need analysts to make sense of these raw reports.

The onus for sorting out the veracity and for putting the reporting in context against other reporting – which may confirm or deny the new report – rests with the intelligence community’s professional analytic cadre.

He then steps into that role, an old clandestine services guy doing the work of the analysts. The result, he says, is a narrative he says we should still use — even in the wake of eight months of aggressive reporting since the dossier came out — in trying to understand what went on with the election.

As a result, they offer an overarching framework for what might have happened based on individuals on the Russian side who claimed to have insight into Moscow’s goals and operational tactics.  Until we have another more credible narrative, we should do all we can to examine closely and confirm or dispute the reports.

[snip]

Looking at new information through the framework outlined in the Steele document is not a bad place to start.

How to read a dossier

One thing Sipher aspires to do — something that would have been enormously helpful back in January — is explain how an intelligence professional converts those raw intelligence reports into a coherent report. He describes the first thing you do is source validation.

In the intelligence world, we always begin with source validation, focusing on what intelligence professionals call “the chain of acquisition.”  In this case we would look for detailed information on (in this order) Orbis, Steele, his means of collection (e.g., who was working for him in collecting information), his sources, their sub-sources (witting or unwitting), and the actual people, organizations and issues being reported on.

He goes to great lengths to explain how credible Steele is, noting even that he “was the President of the Cambridge Union at university.” I don’t dispute that Steele is, by all accounts, an accomplished intelligence pro.

But Sipher unwisely invests a great deal of weight into the fact that the FBI sought to work with Steele.

The fact that the FBI reportedly sought to work with him and to pay him to develop additional information on the sources suggest that at least some of them were worth taking seriously.  At the very least, the FBI will be able to validate the credibility of the sources, and therefore better judge the information.  As one recently retired senior intelligence officer with deep experience in espionage investigations quipped, “I assign more credence to the Steele report knowing that the FBI paid him for his research.  From my experience, there is nobody more miserly than the FBI.  If they were willing to pay Mr. Steele, they must have seen something of real value.”

This is flat-out dumb for two reasons. First, it is one of the things the GOP has used to discredit the dossier and prosecution — complaining (rightly) that the FBI was using a document designed as opposition research, possibly even to apply for a FISA warrant. If the FBI did that, I’m troubled by it.

More importantly, the actual facts about whether FBI did pay Steele are very much in dispute, with three different versions in the public record and Chuck Grassley claiming the FBI has been giving conflicting details about what happened (it’s likely that FBI paid Steele’s travel to the US but not for the dossier itself).

WaPo reported that Steele had reached a verbal agreement that the FBI would pay him to continue his investigation of Russia’s involvement with Trump after still unnamed Democrats stopped paying him after the election. CNN then reported that FBI actually had paid Steele for his expenses. Finally, NBC reported Steele backed out of the deal before it was finalized.

If the FBI planned to pay Steele, but got cold feet after Steele briefed David Corn for a piece that made explicit reference to the dossier, it suggests FBI may have decided the dossier was too clearly partisan for its continued use. In any case, citing a “recently retired senior intelligence officer” claiming the FBI did pay Steele should either be accompanied by a “BREAKING, confirming the detail no one else has been able to!” tag, or should include a caveat that the record doesn’t affirmatively support that claim.

After vouching for Steele (again, I don’t dispute Steele’s credentials), Sipher lays out the other things that need to happen to properly vet raw intelligence, which he claims we can’t do.

The biggest problem with confirming the details of the Steele “dossier” is obvious: we do not know his sources, other than via the short descriptions in the reports.  In CIA’s clandestine service, we spent by far the bulk of our work finding, recruiting and validating sources.  Before we would ever consider disseminating an intelligence report, we would move heaven and earth to understand the access, reliability, trustworthiness, motivation and dependability of our source.  We believe it is critical to validate the source before we can validate the reliability of the source’s information.  How does the source know about what he/she is reporting?  How did the source get the information?  Who are his/her sub-sources?  What do we know about the sub-sources?  Why is the source sharing the information?  Is the source a serious person who has taken appropriate measures to protect their efforts?

The thing is, we actually know answers to two of these questions. First, Steele’s sources shared the information (at least in part) because they were paid. [Update, 11/15: According to CNN, Glenn Simpson testified that Steele did not pay his sources. That somewhat conflicts with suggestions made by Mike Morell, who said Steele paid intermediaries who paid his sources, but Simpson’s testimony may simply be a cute legal parse.] That’s totally normal for spying, of course, but if Sipher aspires to explain to us how to assess the dossier, he needs to admit that money changes hands and that’s just the way things are done (again, that’s all the more important given that it’s one of the bases the GOP is using to discredit the report).

More importantly, Sipher should note that Steele worked one step removed — from London, rather than from Moscow — than an intelligence officer otherwise might. The reports may still be great, but that additional step introduces more uncertainty into the validation. It’s all the more important that Sipher address these two issues, because they’re the ones the GOP has been and will continue to use to discredit the dossier.

Ultimately, though, in his section on vetting the document, Sipher doesn’t deal with some key questions about the dossier. Way at the end of his piece, he questions whether we’re looking at the entire dossier.

We also don’t know if the 35 pages leaked by BuzzFeed is the entirety of the dossier.  I suspect not.

He doesn’t raise two other key questions about the provenance of the dossier we’ve been given, some of which I laid out when the dossier came out when I also noted that the numbering of the dossier by itself makes it clear it’s not the complete dossier. Importantly: is the copy of the dossier leaked to BuzzFeed an unaltered copy of what Steele delivered to Fusion, in spite of the weird textual artifacts in it? And how and why did the dossier get leaked to BuzzFeed, which Steele has told us was not one of the six outlets that he briefed on its contents.

Finally, Sipher includes the obligation to “openly acknowledge the gaps in understanding” outside of the section on vetting, which is telling given that he notes only a few of the obvious gaps in this dossier.

Sipher claims the dossier predicted what wasn’t known

So there are a lot of aspects of vetting Sipher doesn’t do, whether or not he has the ability to. But having done the vetting of checking Steele’s college extracurricular record, he declares the dossier has proven to be “stunningly accurate.”

Did any of the activities reported happen as predicted?

To a large extent, yes.

The most obvious occurrence that could not have been known to Orbis in June 2016, but shines bright in retrospect is the fact that Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump, as the U.S. intelligence community itself later concluded.  Well before any public knowledge of these events, the Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including a cyber campaign, leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton, and meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents.  Mr. Steele could not have known that the Russians stole information on Hillary Clinton, or that they were considering means to weaponize them in the U.S. election, all of which turned out to be stunningly accurate.

Now as I said above, I don’t believe the dossier is junk. But this defense of the dossier, specifically as formulated here, is junk. Central to Sipher’s proof that Steele’s dossier bears out are these claims:

  • Russia undertook a coordinated and massive effort to disrupt the 2016 U.S. election to help Donald Trump
  • The Orbis report identified multiple elements of the Russian operation including
    • A cyber campaign
    • Leaked documents related to Hillary Clinton
    • Meetings with Paul Manafort and other Trump affiliates to discuss the receipt of stolen documents

As I’ll show, these claims are, with limited exceptions, not actually what the dossier shows. Far later into the dossier, the reason Sipher frames it this way is clear. He’s taking validation from recent details about the June 9, 2016 meeting.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

The Steele dossier was way behind contemporary reporting on the hack-and-leak campaign

I consider the dossier strongest in its reports on early ties between Trump associates and Russians, as I’ll lay out below. But one area where it is — I believe this is the technical term — a shit-show is the section claiming the report predicted Russia’s hacking campaign.

Here’s how Sipher substantiates that claim.

By late fall 2016, the Orbis team reported that a Russian-supported company had been “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.” Hackers recruited by the FSB under duress were involved in the operations. According to the report, Carter Page insisted that payments be made quickly and discreetly, and that cyber operators should go to ground and cover their tracks.

[snip]

Consider, in addition, the Orbis report saying that Russia was utilizing hackers to influence voters and referring to payments to “hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the Clinton campaign.” A January 2017 Stanford study found that “fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared a total of 30 million times, nearly quadruple the number of pro-Hillary Clinton shares leading up to the election.”  Also, in November, researchers at Oxford University published a report based on analysis of 19.4 million Twitter posts from early November prior to the election.  The report found that an “automated army of pro-Trump chatbots overwhelmed Clinton bots five to one in the days leading up to the presidential election.”  In March 2017, former FBI agent Clint Watts told Congress about websites involved in the Russian disinformation campaign “some of which mysteriously operate from Eastern Europe and are curiously led by pro-Russian editors of unknown financing.”

The Orbis report also refers specifically to the aim of the Russian influence campaign “to swing supporters of Bernie Sanders away from Hillary Clinton and across to Trump,” based on information given to Steele in early August 2016. It was not until March 2017, however, that former director of the National Security Agency, retired Gen. Keith Alexander in Senate testimony said of the Russian influence campaign, “what they were trying to do is to drive a wedge within the Democratic Party between the Clinton group and the Sanders group.”

Here’s what the dossier actually shows about both kompromat on Hillary and hacking.

June 20: In the first report, issued 6 days after the DNC announced it had been hacked by Russia, and 5 days after Guccifer 2.0 said he had sent stolen documents to WikiLeaks, the dossier spoke of kompromat on Hillary, clearly described as years old wiretaps from when she was visiting Russia. While the report conflicts internally, one part of it said it had not been distributed abroad. As I note in this post, if true, that would mean the documents Natalia Veselnitsaka shared with Trump folks on June 9 was not the kompromat in question.

July 19: After Guccifer 2.0 had released 7 posts, most with documents, and after extended reporting concluding that he was a Russian front, the second report discussed kompromat — still seemingly meaning that dated FSB dossier — as if it were prospective.

July 26: Four days after WikiLeaks released DNC emails first promised in mid-June, Steele submitted a report claiming that Russian state hackers had had “only limited success in penetrating the ‘first tier’ of foreign targets. These comprised western (especially G7 and NATO) governments, security and intelligence services and central banks, and the IFIs.” There had been public reports of FSB-associated APT 29’s hacking of such targets since at least July 2015, and public reporting on their campaigns that should have been identified when DNC did a Google search in response to FBI’s warnings in September 2015. It’s stunning anyone involved in intelligence would claim Russia hadn’t had some success penetrating those first tier targets.

Report 095: An undated report, probably dating sometime between July 26 and July 30, did state that a Trump associate admitted Russia was behind WikiLeaks release of emails, something that had been widely understood for well over a month.

July 30: A few weeks before WikiLeaks reportedly got the second tranche of (Podesta) emails, a report states that Russia is worried that the email hacking operation is spiraling out of control so “it is unlikely that these [operations] would be ratcheted up.”

August 5: A report says Dmitry Peskov, who is reportedly in charge of the campaign, is “scared shitless” about being scapegoated for it.

August 10: Just days before WikiLeaks purportedly got the Podesta tranche of emails, a report says Sergei Ivanov said “Russians would not risk their position for the time being with new leaked material, even to a third party like WikiLeaks.”

August 10: Months after a contentious primary and over two weeks after Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation during the convention (purportedly because of DNC’s preference for Hillary), a report cites an ethnic Russian associate of Russian US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP campaign insider, not a Russian, saying the email leaks were designed to “swing supporters of Bernie SANDERS and away from Hillary CLINTON and across to TRUMP.” It attributes that plan to Carter Page, but does not claim any Russian government involvement in that strategy. Nor would it take a genius for anyone involved in American politics to pursue such a strategy.

August 22: A report on Manafort’s “demise” doesn’t mention emails or any kompromat.

September 14: Three months after Guccifer 2.0 first appeared, the dossier for the first time treated the Russians’ kompromat as the emails, stating that more might be released in late September. That might coincide with Craig Murray’s reported contact with a go-between (Murray has been very clear he did not ferry the emails themselves though he did have some contact in late September).

October 12: A week after the Podesta emails first started appearing, a report states that “a stream of further hacked CLINTON materials already had been injected by the Kremlin into compliant media outlets like Wikileaks, which remained at least “plausibly deniable”, so the stream of these would continue through October and up to the election, something Julian Assange had made pretty clear. See this report for more.

October 18, 19, 19: Three reports produced in quick succession describe Michael Cohen’s role in covering up the Trump-Russia mess, without making any explicit (unredacted) mention of emails. See this post on that timing.

December 13: A virgin birth report produced as the US intelligence community scrambled to put together the case against Russia for the first time ties Cohen to the emails in unredacted form).

What the timeline of the hacking allegations in the Steele dossier (and therefore also “predictions” about leaked documents) reveal is not that his sources predicted the hack-and-leak campaign, but on the contrary, he and his sources were unbelievably behind in their understanding of Russian hacking and the campaign generally (or his Russian sources were planting outright disinformation). Someone wanting to learn about the campaign would be better off simply hanging out on Twitter or reading the many security reports issued on the hack in real time.

Perhaps Sipher wants to cover this over when he claims that, “The Russian effort was aggressive over the summer months, but seemed to back off and go into cover-up mode following the Access Hollywood revelations and the Obama Administration’s acknowledgement of Russian interference in the fall, realizing they might have gone too far and possibly benefitted Ms. Clinton.” Sure, that’s sort of (though not entirely) what the dossier described. But the reality is that WikiLeaks was dropping new Podesta emails every day, Guccifer 2.0 was parroting Russian (and Republican) themes about a rigged election, and Obama was making the first ever cyber “red phone” call to Moscow because of Russia’s continued probes of the election infrastructure (part of the Russian effort about which both the dossier and Sipher’s post are silent).

The quotes Sipher uses to defend his claim are even worse. The first passage includes two clear errors. The report in question was actually the December 13 one, not “late fall 2016” one. And the Trump associate who agreed (in the alleged August meeting in Prague, anticipating that Hillary might win) to making quick payments to hackers was Michael Cohen, not Carter Page. [Update, 12/10/17: Just Security has fixed this error.] Many things suggest this particular report should be read with great skepticism, not least that it post-dated both the disclosure of the existence of the dossier and the election, and that this intelligence was offered up to Steele, not solicited, and was offered for free.

Next, Sipher again cites the December 13 report to claim Steele predicted something reported in a November Oxford University report (and anyway widely reported by BuzzFeed for months), which seems to require either a time machine or an explanation for why Steele didn’t report that earlier. He attributes a quote sourced to a Trump insider as indicating Russian strategy, which that report doesn’t support. And if you need Keith Alexander to suss out the logic of Democratic infighting that had been clear for six months, then you’re in real trouble!

Sipher would have been better off citing the undated Report 095 (which is another report about which there should be provenance questions), which relies on the same ethnic Russian Trump insider as the August 10 report, which claims agents/facilitators within the Democratic Party and Russian émigré hackers working in the United States — a claim that is incendiary but (short of proof that the Al-Awan brothers or Seth Rich really were involved) — one that has not been substantiated.

In short, the evidence in the dossier simply doesn’t support the claim it predicted two of the three things Sipher claims it does, at least not yet.

The dossier is stronger in sketchy contacts with Russians

The dossier is stronger with respect to some, but not all Trump associates. But even there, Sipher’s defense demonstrates uneven analytic work.

First, note that Sipher relies on “renowned investigative journalist” Michael Isikoff to validate some of these claims.

Renowned investigative journalist Michael Isikoff reported in September 2016 that U.S. intelligence sources confirmed that Page met with both Sechin and Divyekin during his July trip to Russia.

[snip]

A June 2017 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff described the Administration’s efforts to engage the State Department about lifting sanctions “almost as soon as they took office.”

Among the six journalists Steele admits he briefed on his dossier is someone from Yahoo.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016.

That the Yahoo journalist is Isikoff would be a cinch to guess. But we don’t have to guess, because Isikoff made it clear it was him in his first report after the dossier got leaked.

Another of Steele’s reports, first reported by Yahoo News last September, involved alleged meetings last July between then-Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page and two high-level Russian operatives, including Igor Sechin — a longtime associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who became the chief executive of Rosneft, the Russian energy giant.

In other words, Sipher is engaging in navel-gazing here, citing a report based on the Steele dossier, to say it confirms what was in the Steele dossier.

Sipher similarly cites a NYT article that was among the most criticized for the way it interprets “senior Russian intelligence officials” loosely to include anyone who might be suspect of being a spook.

We have also subsequently learned of Trump’s long-standing interest in, and experience with Russia and Russians.  A February 2017 New York Times article reported that phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian officials in the year before the election.  The New York Times article was also corroborated by CNN and Reuters independent reports.

The two reports he claims corroborate the NYT one fall far short of the NYT claim about talks with Russian intelligence officials — a distinction that is critical given what Sipher claims about Sergey Kislyak, which I note below.

Carter Page

Sipher cites the Carter Page FISA order as proof that some of these claims have held up.

What’s more, the Justice Department obtained a wiretap in summer 2016 on Page after satisfying a court that there was sufficient evidence to show Page was operating as a Russian agent.

But more recent reporting, by journalists Sipher elsewhere cites approvingly, reveals that Page had actually been under a FISA order as early as 2014.

Page had been the subject of a secret intelligence surveillance warrant since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.

Paul Manafort

I have no complaint with Sipher’s claims about Manafort — except to the extent he suggests Manafort’s Ukrainian corruption wasn’t know long before the election. Sipher does, however, repeat a common myth about Manafort’s influence on the GOP platform.

The quid pro quo as alleged in the dossier was for the Trump team to “sideline” the Ukrainian issue in the campaign.  We learned subsequently the Trump platform committee changed only a single plank in the 60-page Republican platform prior to the Republican convention.  Of the hundreds of Republican positions and proposals, they altered only the single sentence that called for maintaining or increasing sanctions against Russia, increasing aid for Ukraine and “providing lethal defensive weapons” to the Ukrainian military.  The Trump team changed the wording to the more benign, “appropriate assistance.”

Republicans have credibly challenged this claim about the platform. Bob Dole is credited with making the platform far harsher on China in the service of his Taiwanese clients. And Trump’s team also put in language endorsing the revival of Glass-Steagall, with support from Manafort and/or Carl Icahn.

Michael Cohen

Sipher’s discussion of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is the weirdest of all, not least because the Cohen reports are the most incendiary but also because they were written at a time when Steele had already pitched the dossier to the media (making it far more likely the ensuing reports were the result of disinformation). Here’s how Sipher claims the Steele dossier reports have been validated.

We do not have any reporting that implicates Michael Cohen in meetings with Russians as outlined in the dossier.  However, recent revelations indicate his long-standing relationships with key Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors, and highlight his role in a previously hidden effort to build a Trump tower in Moscow. During the campaign, those efforts included email exchanges with Trump associate Felix Sater explicitly referring to getting Putin’s circle involved and helping Trump get elected.

Go look at that “recent revelations” link. It goes to this Josh Marshall post which describes its own sourcing this way:

TPM Reader BR flagged my attention to this 2007 article in The New York Post.

[snip]

Because two years ago, in February 2015, New York real estate trade sheet The Real Deal reported that Cohen purchased a $58 million rental building on the Upper East Side.

This is not recent reporting!! Again, this is stuff that was publicly known before the election.

More importantly, given Cohen’s rebuttal to the dossier, Marshall supports a claim that Cohen has ties to Ukraine, not Russia. The dossier, however, claims Cohen has ties to the latter, as Cohen mockingly notes.

Felix Sater

Then there are the Trump associates who are now known to have been central to any ties between Trump and the Russians that the Steele dossier didn’t cite — as least not as subjects (all could well be sources, which raises other questions). The first is Felix Sater, whom Sipher discusses three times in suggesting that the dossier accurately predicts Cohen’s involvement in the Russian negotiations.

To take one example, the first report says that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was responsible for Russia’s compromising materials on Hillary Clinton, and now we have reports that Michael Cohen had contacted Peskov directly in January 2016 seeking help with a Trump business deal in Moscow (after Cohen received the email from Trump business associate Felix Sater saying “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this.”).

[snip]

Following the inauguration, Cohen was involved, again with Felix Sater, to engage in back-channel negotiations seeking a means to lift sanctions via a semi-developed Russian-Ukrainian plan (which also included the hand delivery of derogatory information on Ukrainian leaders) also fits with Orbis reporting related to Cohen.

Given that Sater’s publicly known links between mobbed up Russians and Trump go back a decade, why isn’t he mentioned in the dossier? And why does the dossier seemingly contradict these claims about an active Trump Tower deal?

Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin

There are far more significant silences about two other Trump associates, Aras Agalarov and Rinat Akhmetshin.

To be fair, the dossier isn’t entirely silent about the former, noting in at one place that Agalarov would be the guy to go to to learn about dirt on Trump in Petersburg (elsewhere he could be a source).

Far, far more damning is the dossier’s silence (again, at least as a subject rather than source) about Akhmetshin. That’s long been one of the GOP complaints about the dossier — that Akhmetshin was closely involved with Fusion GPS on Magnitsky work in parallel with the Trump dossier, which (if Akhmetshin really is still tied to Russian intelligence) would provide an easy feedback loop to the Russians. The dossier’s silence on someone well known to Fusion GPS is all the more damning given the way that Sipher points to the June 9 meeting (which the dossier didn’t report, either) as proof that the dossier has been vindicated.

It was also apparently news to investigators when the New York Times in July 2017 published Don Jr’s emails arranging for the receipt of information held by the Russians about Hillary Clinton. How could Steele and Orbis know in June 2016 that the Russians were working actively to elect Donald Trump and damage Hillary Clinton?

[snip]

To take another example, the third Orbis report says that Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was managing the connection with the Kremlin, and we now know that he was present at the June 9 2016 meeting with Donald Trump, Jr., Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Rinat Akhmetshin, who has reportedly boasted of his ties to ties and experience in Soviet intelligence and counterintelligence.  According to a recent New York Times story, “Akhmetshin told journalists that he was a longtime acquaintance of Paul J. Manafort.”

There’s no allegation that investigations didn’t know about June 2016 plan to hurt Hillary (indeed, the Guccifer 2.0 stuff that Sipher ignores was public to all). Rather they didn’t know — but neither did Fusion, who has an established relationship with Akhmetshin — about the meeting involving Akhmetshin. If you’re going to claim the June 9 meeting proves anything, it’s that the dossier as currently known has a big hole right in Fusion’s client/researcher list.

Sergey Kislyak

Which brings me — finally! — to Sipher’s weird treatment of Sergey Kislyak. Sipher argues (correctly) that Trump associates’ failure to report details of their contacts with Russians may support a conspiracy claim.

 Of course, the failure of the Trump team to report details that later leaked out and fit the narrative may make the Steele allegations appear more prescient than they otherwise might.  At the same time, the hesitancy to be honest about contacts with Russia is consistent with allegations of a conspiracy.

Of course, Trump’s folks have failed to report details of that June 9 meeting as well as meetings with Sergey Kislyak. Having now invested his vindication story on that June 9 meeting, he argues that reports about Kislyak (on which the NYT article he cites approvingly probably rely) are misguided; we need to look to that June 9 meeting intead.

It should be noted in this context, that the much-reported meetings with Ambassador Kislyak do not seem to be tied to the conspiracy. He is not an intelligence officer, and would be in the position to offer advice on politics, personalities and political culture in the United States, but would not be asked to engage in espionage activity.  It is likewise notable that Ambassador Kislyak receives only a passing reference in the Steele dossier and only having to do with his internal advice on the political fallout in the U.S. in reaction to the Russian campaign.

Of course, to determine if collusion occurred as alleged in the dossier, we would have to know if the Trump campaign continued to meet with Russian representatives subsequent to the June meeting.

This seems utterly bizarre. We know what happened after June 9, in part: Per Jared Kushner (who also is not mentioned in the dossier or Sipher’s column), immediately after the election Kislyak started moving towards meeting about Syria (not Ukraine). But in the process, Kushner may have asked for a back channel and at Kislyak’s urging, Kushner took a meeting with the head of a sanctioned bank potentially to talk about investments in his family’s debt-ridden empire. And all that is the lead-up to the Mike Flynn calls with Kislyak about sanctions relief which provide some of the proof that Trump was willing to deliver the quo that the dossier claims got offered for quids.

That latter story — of the meetings Kushner and Flynn did in the wake of the election and events that may have taken place since — is every bit as coherent a narrative as the Steele dossier or the entirely new narratives tied to the June 9 meeting (which Sipher claims are actually the Steele narrative).

Of course, neither is yet evidence of collusion. And that’s, frankly, what we as citizens should be after.

A narrative offered up by an intelligence contractor who was always trying to catch up to the central part of the story — the hack-and-leak — is not what we should be striving for. That’s why this dossier is probably mostly irrelevant to the Mueller probe, no matter how the GOP would like to insinuate the opposite. If there was collusion (or rather, coordination on all this stuff between the campaign and Russia), we should expect evidence of it. The Steele dossier, as I have noted, left out one of the key potential proofs of that, in spite of having ties with someone who attended the meeting.

All that said, it would be useful for someone responsible to respond to GOP criticisms and, where invented (such as with the claim that Steele paying sources diminishes its value), demonstrate that. It would be useful for someone to explain what we should take from the dossier.

Sipher didn’t do that, though. Indeed, his post largely suffers from the same bad analysis he accuses the media of.

Update: In the original I got the date of the final report incorrect. That has been corrected.

Update, 12/10/17: I didn’t realize it, but Just Security updated Sipher’s post to include this language, which it explains with an editor’s note saying “Editor’s note: This article was update to provide additional analysis on Carter Page.” Compare this with this. Here’s the language.

Admittedly, Isikoff’s reporting may have relied on Steele himself for that information. Isikoff, however, also reported that U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it. There are also other indicia that are also consistent with the Orbis report but only developed or discovered later. In early December 2016, Page returned to Moscow where he said he had “the opportunity to meet with an executive from” Sechin’s state oil company. In April 2017, Page confirmed that he met with and passed documents to a Russian intelligence officer in 2013. Court documents include an intercept in April 2013 of conversations between the Russians discussing their effort to recruit Page as “as an intelligence source.” A Russian intelligence officer said of Page: “He got hooked on Gazprom … I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to earn lots of money … For now his enthusiasm works for me. I also promised him a lot … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.” In late December 2016, Sechin’s chief of staff, Oleg Erovinkin “who may have been a source for ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s Trump dossier,” according to multiple reports, was found dead in the back of his car in Moscow.

But this passage introduces new errors for Sipher’s post!

First, here’s the language (in an article Just Security never links) Sipher relies on to justify using Isikoff’s Steele-based reporting to claim Steele had been proven correct.

After one of those briefings, Senate minority leader Harry Reid wrote FBI Director James Comey, citing reports of meetings between a Trump adviser (a reference to Page) and “high ranking sanctioned individuals” in Moscow over the summer as evidence of “significant and disturbing ties” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin that needed to be investigated by the bureau.

Some of those briefed were “taken aback” when they learned about Page’s contacts in Moscow, viewing them as a possible back channel to the Russians that could undercut U.S. foreign policy, said a congressional source familiar with the briefings but who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject. The source added that U.S. officials in the briefings indicated that intelligence reports about the adviser’s talks with senior Russian officials close to President Vladimir Putin were being “actively monitored and investigated.”

A senior U.S. law enforcement official did not dispute that characterization when asked for comment by Yahoo News. “It’s on our radar screen,” said the official about Page’s contacts with Russian officials. “It’s being looked at.”

It is true that “U.S. intelligence officials were confident enough in the information received about Page’s meeting Russian officials to brief senior members of Congress on it,” and that Harry Reid was leaking from the Steele dossier just like Isikoff was. But the “senior US law enforcement officer” does not back the identities of those Page met with, just that “it’s being looked at.”

That’s important for the way that Page’s meetings with people other than Igor Sechin have been used to claim the dossier has borne out. Not-A = A. Which is what Sipher does here, by pointing to Page saying he met with Rosneft but not Sechin. “Page says he was not referring to Sechin in his remarks,” the linked AP story says (as does Page’s congressional testimony).

Then Sipher points to language unsealed in a court filing in January 2015 that Page admitted — after reporting on it — was him. That Page was wrapped up in an earlier Russian spy prosecution is another of those things one might ask why Steele didn’t know, particularly given that the filing and the case was already public.

But the citation also exacerbates the problems with Sipher’s reliance on Page’s FISA wiretap as proof the Steele dossier proved out. As I noted above, later reports stated Page had been under FISA wiretap “since 2014, earlier than had been previously reported, US officials briefed on the probe told CNN.” That means it wasn’t the meetings in Russia, per se, that elicited the interest, but (at least) the earlier interactions with Russian spies.

Finally, Sipher points to the death of Oleg Erovinkin, something I’ve pointed to myself (and which would only be “Carter Page” analysis if Page actually had met with Sechin). Since Sipher updated this post, however, Luke Harding wrote (on page 101),

Steele was adamant that Erovinkin wasn’t his source and “not one of ours.”

As a person close to Steele put it to me: “Sometimes people just die.”

I’m not sure I find Harding entirely reliable elsewhere, and I can see why Steele would deny working with Erovinkin if the leak of his work had gotten the man killed. But if you buy Harding, then Erovinkin no longer proves the value of the Steele dossier either.

Update, 12/10: According to the Wayback Machine this change was made between October 25 and November 6. Ryan Goodman explained that he didn’t give me a hat-tip for this correction because he’s not sure whether he corrected because of me because a Daily Caller reporter also weighed in.

It is true that Chuck Ross (with whom I discuss the dossier regularly) tweeted that Sipher’s Isikoff reference was self-confirming on November 4, shortly before the change was made.

Ryan and I had a conversation about the errors in this piece on September 6, when the post first came out, both on Twitter then–late that evening–on DM. I included a link to my post.

I guess Ryan is now confessing he never read this post, and let notice of egregious errors sit unreviewed for two months, because he didn’t like my tone.

 

The Post-Press Michael Cohen Details in the Steele Dossier

I’m doing a long response on this unfortunately terrible John Sipher post trying to calm questions about the Steele dossier. As part of Sipher’s post, he makes these claims about Michael Cohen, the allegations against whom in the Steele dossier are actually far more inflammatory than against Carter Page and Paul Manafort.

We do not have any reporting that implicates Michael Cohen in meetings with Russians as outlined in the dossier.  However, recent revelations indicate his long-standing relationships with key Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors, and highlight his role in a previously hidden effort to build a Trump tower in Moscow. During the campaign, those efforts included email exchanges with Trump associate Felix Sater explicitly referring to getting Putin’s circle involved and helping Trump get elected.

Further, the Trump Administration’s effort lift sanctions on Russia immediately following the inauguration seems to mirror Orbis reporting related to Mr. Cohen’s promises to Russia, as reported in the Orbis documents.  A June 2017 Yahoo News article by Michael Isikoff described the Administration’s efforts to engage the State Department about lifting sanctions “almost as soon as they took office.”  Their efforts were halted by State Department officials and members of Congress.  Following the inauguration, Cohen was involved, again with Felix Sater, to engage in back-channel negotiations seeking a means to lift sanctions via a semi-developed Russian-Ukrainian plan (which also included the hand delivery of derogatory information on Ukrainian leaders) also fits with Orbis reporting related to Cohen.

He also botches the most inflammatory claims about Cohen, getting (in this reference but not another one) the date of the December 13 report wrong, that it mentioned Cohen, not Page, and that Cohen — or anyone else on the Trump team — personally paid hackers.

By late fall 2016, the Orbis team reported that a Russian-supported company had been “using botnets and porn traffic to transmit viruses, plant bugs, steal data and conduct ‘altering operations’ against the Democratic Party leadership.”  Hackers recruited by the FSB under duress were involved in the operations.  According to the report, Carter Page insisted that payments be made quickly and discreetly, and that cyber operators should go to ground and cover their tracks.

[snip]

Trump campaign operative Carter Page is also said to have played a role in shuttling information to Moscow, while Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, reportedly took over efforts after Manafort left the campaign, personally providing cash payments for Russian hackers.

I’m not so much interested in those  typos — I’m sure they’ll be fixed. But I am interested in Sipher’s apparent lack of curiosity about the Cohen reporting.

I’ve long noted that that most inflammatory report (the one Sipher claims came out in late fall but actually came out as the IC was looking for a compelling case against Russia in December) came out after David Corn had already publicly revealed the existence of the dossier (and just a few weeks before a likely source for the dossier died in suspicious circumstances). We now know that Steele claims the information in it was offered up for free.

Those details should raise real questions about that last report.

But as pseudonymous in NC has been pointing out, the other three reports invoking Cohen were produced in remarkably quick succession, based on mid-October meetings.

It’s worth clearing your mind and reading 134-135-136 in sequence to see how that strand developed.

134/Oct 18: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation with trusted compatriot emphasizes “a key role” played by Cohen. Some redaction in Buzzfeed doc, no indication of a meeting.

135/Oct 19: “Kremlin insider” in mid-October conversation (the same one?) says Cohen met “in an EU country in August 2016”, but unsure of “the exact date/s and locations.”

136/Oct 20: “Kremlin insider” speaking on October 19 “clearly indicated” in “cryptic” terms that meeting was in Prague using plausibly deniable contacts and location.

Assuming the same or very similar provenance for all three notes — and given the compressed timeframe, I think we’re okay to do that — that’s a lot of elaboration on Cohen in three days from at least two separate conversations, where presumably the one described in 136 was guided by Steele’s feedback on the earlier one.

On top of the quick succession of these inflammatory reports just weeks before the election, there are two other reasons to take note of the timing.

First, as Steele has admitted, he started briefing reporters on the existence and contents of the dossier by late September, and briefed reporters (including Michael Isikoff, whom Sipher cites repeatedly in his post without noting he got briefed on the Steele dossier in real time) in person in mid-October.

The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion’s instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion’s instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person.

As I note, the claim that these were the only reporters who got briefed (by someone) conflicts with the claims of BBC’s Paul Wood.

Whatever the truth of the total numbers of reporters who got briefed, they had already been briefed and were presumably actively trying to confirm details from the dossier — with unknown operational security — in advance of those three Cohen reports.

That by itself ought to raise real questions about those reports.

Then there’s the fact that Cohen traveled to London in in October. The BuzzFeed review of Cohen’s (sole, Cohen claims) passport shows three trips to Europe: once to Italy in July, once to the London in October, and another trip to London in November, after the election.

The stamps indicate he traveled abroad at least four times in 2016: twice to London, once to St. Maarten, and once to Italy in July. The Italian trip is the most intriguing, because it places Cohen in what’s known as the Schengen Area: a group of 26 European countries, including the Czech Republic, that allows visitors to travel freely among them without getting any additional passport stamps.

Upon entering the Schengen Area, visitors get a rectangular stamp with the date, a country code, their port of entry, and a symbol showing how they entered — such as an airplane or a train. In Cohen’s passport, that mark appears on page 17, with a date of July 9. The mark is too faint to be fully legible. The exit stamp, similar but with rounded edges, is also light, but the letters “cino” are legible, indicating he flew out of Leonardo da Vinci–Fiumicino Airport in Rome. That stamp is dated July 17.

[snip]

Regarding the three other 2016 stamps in his passport, Cohen said he visited London twice, where his daughter is studying: once in October for a birthday party and again in November for Thanksgiving. He said he vacationed in the Caribbean island of St. Maarten in January.

Cohen’s Twitter feed shows a break between October 5 and October 12, which may reflect a trip overseas. And while I don’t buy a lot of this post, it shows Cohen’s daughter’s birthday was in early October.

That could either be inculpating or exonerating with respect to Cohen’s role in meeting with Russians; it offered a time and place where Cohen might have met with Russians (though presumably under close view of Steele and his buddies).

But it should raise real questions about whether reports on Cohen have been injected with disinformation. Once reporters started reporting this out, it’s far more likely Russian sources would also learn about the dossier and feed deliberate disinformation to known Steele sources.

Trump’s Lawyer: I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague I Did Not Go to Prague

Four days ago, Michael Cohen (or the Trump Organization) pre-empted revelations that would leak as soon as he turned over a third tranche of documents to the House Intelligence Committee by revealing a seemingly damning detail from it: along with Trump’s associate Felix Sater, Cohen was pursuing a Trump Tower deal in Moscow well after Trump’s campaign was in full swing. Sure enough, more damning information was still to come: Sater somehow imagined the deal — whatever it was — would get Trump elected. Then still more damning information: in January 2016, Cohen reached out to trusted Putin aide Dmitry Peskov to push for help on the deal. That’s when Cohen began to not recall precisely what happened, and also ignore questions about why he hadn’t told Trump about this call, unlike the other actions he took on this deal.

Again, these events were connected to Cohen’s delivery of a tranche of documents on August 28 to HPSCI.

Today, the letter Cohen sent to HPSCI on August 14 after reviewing and delivering two previous tranches of documents got liberated (this copy by the Daily Beast, but multiple outlets got copies). So the letter, which includes four pages plus backup rebutting the allegations made about Cohen in the Steele dossier, reflects the understanding Cohen’s lawyers had two weeks before they delivered emails showing Cohen was contacting Putin’s trusted aide in support of a deal that Sater believed would get Trump election.

Before I look at the letter, let me reiterate what I have suggested elsewhere (I plan to return to these shortly). 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.

The entire letter 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.

As I said above, I think it highly likely the dossier includes at least some disinformation seeded by the Russians. So the most charitable scenario of what went down is that the Russians, knowing Cohen had made half-hearted attempts to broker the Trump Tower deal Trump had wanted for years, planted his name hoping some kind of awkwardness like this would result.

If so, Mission accomplished!

All that said, the way in which Cohen has orchestrated this disclosure — up to and including his failures to recall and answer obvious questions — is either great lawyering and/or sign that this earlier deal making is a real problem.

It may be that HPSCI only investigated Cohen because he was badly implicated in the Steele dossier. But if so, it led to the disclosure of earlier deal-making, including an attempt to reach out to one of Putin’s most trusted associates, that will likely give HPSCI a whole new reason to investigate.

Dmitry Peskov: Building Skyscrapers Is Not Our Work [But Is Stealing Elections?]

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spox, has now responded to the reports that Michael Cohen wrote him, at Felix Sater’s instructions, to do something that might get Trump elected. Effectively, he said his job was not building skyscrapers.

Peskov confirmed that his office had located a copy of the email, which said the development deal wasn’t moving forward and requested support.

He said the email was sent to the public “Press Office of the Kremlin” address — which receives thousands of queries, relevant or otherwise — and denied knowing Cohen personally.

“This email said that a certain Russian company together with certain individuals is pursuing the goal of building a skyscraper in the ‘Moscow City’ district, but things aren’t going well and they asked for help with some advice on moving this project forward,” Peskov said. “But, since, I repeat again, we do not react to such business topics — this is not our work — we left it unanswered.”

Bloomberg’s Russian correspondent (not sure if she’s there or here) described Peskov’s comments as addressing two of the details not covered by CNN: Peskov denied knowing both Cohen and Sater. And Peskov said the issue was not discussed with Putin.

No further emails were sent and Peskov said the subject wasn’t discussed with President Vladimir Putin.

[snip]

Peskov said he didn’t know Cohen or Felix Sater, an associate of Trump’s that Cohen said recommended he email the Kremlin.

Also, Ivanka didn’t sit on Putin’s chair or lap.

Peskov said Ivanka Trump didn’t visit Putin’s office or sit in the president’s chair.

Still, none of the competing sides of this story explain the underlying question, which I laid out here, nor do they deny communications about topics other than these “business topics.” In November, Sater had a deal that, he thought, might lead to his buddy becoming President. Purportedly, that deal was about building a Trump Tower in Moscow, and required only that Vladimir Putin say nice things (which, as it turns out, he did start saying).
Peskov dismisses the possibility that the reported deal went anywhere because — he explains — he’s not in the business of skyscrapers.
But if Sater’s intended deal was something else, would Peskov be in that business?

How Does Inking a Luxury Residential Real Estate Deal in Moscow Get You Elected President? In the US, I Mean?

There’s an implicit premise of my posts covering yesterday’s big scoops on the emails between Felix Sater and Michael Cohen turned over to the House Intelligence Committee yesterday:

The NYT republished fragments of two of the emails. Here’s the key one:

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

On November 3, 2015, two months before the GOP primary started in earnest and barely over a year before the presidential election, mobbed up real estate broker and sometime FBI informant Felix Sater emailed Trump Organization Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Trump, Michael Cohen. According to the fragment we read, Sater boasts of his access to Putin going back to 2006 (when the Ivanka incident reportedly happened), and said “we can engineer” “our boy” becoming “President of the USA.”

Before HPSCI got the emails, the Trump Organization did a preemptive leak to the WaPo, which successfully cemented the interpretation of the “news” associated with these emails as proof of another contact between Trump associates and Russians. Cohen’s statement to HPSCI, which WaPo’s later reporting quoted, reaffirmed that view, even though key details about it — why, of all the things he couldn’t recall, was whether Putin associate Dmitry Peskov responded to an email in which Cohen asked for his personal response, or why Cohen would email a press contact like Peskov, who readily gives out his personal email, to a general email line that is less likely to be bugged by western intelligence — remain unexplained.

The NYT only released one paragraph of the emails it published; it’s unclear whether that’s all they got, or whether they’ve just chosen to redact all the context.

Nevertheless, this paragraph, presented as it is, ought to have elicited very different “news” reporting: a year before the election, Sater was boasting he could get Trump elected because of his ties to Putin. In an update (the NewsDiffs on NYT’s version of this story are worth reviewing in detail, particularly for the way they shift emphasis away from Sater’s claims in the email), the NYT reprinted Sater’s lawyer’s explanation, which doesn’t address the underlying question at all, even while it replicates the spin that this would be nothing more than a “political win.”

Through his lawyer, Mr. Sater declined on Monday to address why he thought the deal would be a political win for Mr. Trump. He said he brought the project to Mr. Cohen in late 2015, but that he was not working for the Trump Organization and “would not have been compensated” by them.

“During the course of our communications over several months, I routinely expressed my enthusiasm regarding what a tremendous opportunity this was for the Trump Organization,” Mr. Sater said.

Again, perhaps the full emails justify this approach. But absent a better explanation, the question that should be answered by this scoop — well before the excitement of proof of yet one more tie between a Trump associate and increasingly senior Russians — is why Sater believed whatever he was emailing Cohen about would lead to Trump’s election?

Even assuming Cohen’s personal intervention via Peskov got Putin to rubber stamp the missing permits in early January 2016, which was the most optimistic scenario short of the personal trip to Moscow Sater was pushing Cohen to take, how would that have had any influence on the Presidential election at that point 11 months away? Obviously, the actual building, its clients, the possibility it might be used to launder money, perhaps even back into Putin’s pockets — none of that would be in place in time for the election. Yet another luxury residence in a city most American voters will never visit isn’t going to flip many votes, if any. More realistically, the deal would be regarded just as reporters are now spinning it, as an inappropriate potential conflict of interest, even ignoring the Russophobia that would ratchet up later in the year.

The second email NYT published in part might be a quasi explanation.

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it all is the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

That is, perhaps Sater believed that if Trump could negotiate with Putin successfully, voters would value his negotiating ability more highly than former Secretary of State Hillary’s. That’s probably what Trump voters actually did, but it required no fresh deals. But even here, Sater is again positioning his pitch in terms of what will impress Putin, not what will impress American voters.

Sater is a lot of things, but he’s nowhere near the dumbest Trump associate. Why is it that he sent an email to Cohen promising a deal would help Trump get elected?

One more detail. This is not the first exchange Cohen had with the committees. Congress first got interested in Cohen at the end of May; Cohen refused the first requests, declaring them overly broad. And, as the NYT notes, Cohen’s lawyer already started communicating with the committee, issuing a point-by-point refutation of the parts of the Steele dossier that pertain to Cohen.

Earlier this month, Mr. Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, wrote a letter to congressional investigators that contained what he said was a point-by-point refutation of a dossier suggesting that Mr. Cohen colluded with Russian operatives. That dossier, compiled by a retired British spy and briefed to Mr. Trump during the transition, was published online early this year.

“We do not believe that the committee should give credence to or perpetuate any of the allegations relating to Mr. Cohen unless the committee can obtain independent and reliable corroboration,” Mr. Ryan wrote.

So was this found amid all his other emails, or is it something he only belatedly included?

Update: As Digby noted, there were rumors flying some weeks ago that Sater may be prepping to flip again, as he has for Robert Mueller’s investigators in the past.

And according to Wood’s sources, Sater may have already flipped and given prosecutors the evidence they need to make a case against Trump.

For several weeks there have been rumours that Sater is ready to rat again, agreeing to help Mueller. ‘He has told family and friends he knows he and POTUS are going to prison,’ someone talking to Mueller’s investigators informed me.

Sater hinted in an interview earlier this month that he may be cooperating with both Mueller’s investigation and congressional probes of Trump.

“In about the next 30 to 35 days, I will be the most colourful character you have ever talked about,” Sater told New York Magazine. “Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it now, before it happens. And believe me, it ain’t anything as small as whether or not they’re gonna call me to the Senate committee.”

I doubt Sater is cooperating, given the way his lawyer has adopted the spin Cohen first planted. If Sater is cooperating with some real dirt, it might explain why Cohen would roll out sharing these emails with a pre-emptive leak that succeeded, splendidly, in distracting the coverage from the more fundamental question raised here.

Michael Cohen Starts Not Recalling His Negotiations with Dmitry Peskov, “Main Protagonist” of Campaign Versus Hillary

In this post, I suggested the WaPo scoop about Felix Sater discussing a Trump Tower deal was Michael Cohen’s attempt to pre-empt the real story, which would begin to come out after those particular emails got delivered to HPSCI.

Once they got delivered, we learned that Sater connected the Trump Tower plan (if there ever was one) with getting Trump elected.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

The immediate question at that point should have been why Sater would tie this alleged real estate deal to getting Trump elected, but instead the follow-up reporting has been about the alleged deal.

In response to the first release of that language, Cohen “rebutted” that focus on Sater by denying two things that don’t address what the main focus should be.

Mr. Cohen suggested that Mr. Sater’s comments were puffery. “He has sometimes used colorful language and has been prone to “salesmanship,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement. “I ultimately determined that the proposal was not feasible and never agreed to make a trip to Russia.”

Sater was just engaged in salesmanship. But for what? A tower or a presidency?

Cohen never went to Russia. But did he make the deal without leaving NYC?

Now, a second story based on the emails actually turned over reveals a far more interesting detail: Cohen may not have gone to Russia, but he did reach out to Dmitry Peskov.

Peskov, you may recall, was (per the Steele dossier) the “main protagonist” of the kompromat campaign against Hillary, which initially reportedly — but perhaps not credibly — started as sharing old dirt on Hillary with Trump’s campaign, but by the end, consisted of deciding to leak the second batch of emails.

Russians do have further ‘kompromat’ on CLINTON (e-mails) and considering disseminating it after Duma (legislative elections) in late September. Presidential spokesman PESKOV continues to lead on this.

For his part, Cohen played the key role in brokering relations between Russia and the Trump team after Paul Manafort stepped down during the summer.

Speaking separately to the same compatriot in mid-October 2016, a Kremlin insider with direct access to the leadership confirmed that a key role in the secret TRUMP campaign/Kremlin was being played by the Republican candidates personal lawyer Michael COHEN

So any ongoing discussions between Cohen and Peskov would go to the heart of any coordination between Trump and Russia.

Which is why it is so interesting that Cohen has started to not recall whether there were ongoing conversations after that January email (note, NYT’s Haberman says Cohen sent this to the mail press email for Peskov, not a private one).

“Over the past few months I have been working with a company based in Russia regarding the development of a Trump Tower – Moscow project in Moscow City,” Cohen wrote Peskov, according to a person familiar with the email. “Without getting into lengthy specifics. the communication between our two sides has stalled.”

“As this project is too important, I am hereby requesting your assistance. I respectfully request someone, preferably you, contact me so that I might discuss the specifics as well as arranging meetings with the appropriate individuals. I thank you in advance for your assistance and look forward to hearing from you soon,” Cohen wrote.

[snip]

In the statement, obtained by the Washington Post, Cohen said Sater suggested the outreach because a massive Trump development in Moscow would require Russian government approval. He said he did not recall receiving a response from Peskov and the project was abandoned two weeks later. [my emphasis]

I wonder if Cohen can recall any more recent conversations with Peskov, such as in advance of the time, in February of this year, when he and Sater delivered a Ukrainian peace plan to Mike Flynn in the days before Trump’s National Security Advisor was forced to quit?

Ah well. I’m sure a good lawyer like Cohen simply forgot these details, rather than giving the classic DC not recall answer that will provide him with another opportunity to tell a cover story the next time inconvenient emails get found.

Update: The WSJ gets into the act, with this report on how Cohen, when asked why he didn’t tell Trump he was going to call Putin’s top advisor for favors while Trump was running for President, did not respond.

In 2015, Mr. Cohen said, he informed the then-candidate that he was working on a licensing deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow. He subsequently asked for and received Mr. Trump’s signature on a nonbinding letter of intent for the project in October 2015. And in January 2016, he said, he informed the then-candidate that he had killed the proposal. Mr. Cohen said each conversation was brief.

Mr. Cohen’s communication with the president about the Moscow project may come under scrutiny because of a January 2016 email Mr. Cohen sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top press official to ask for “assistance” in arranging the deal. Mr. Cohen said he didn’t inform Mr. Trump that he had sent the email to the press official, Dmitry Peskov. He didn’t respond when asked why he hadn’t done so.

So Cohen would have you believe he informed Trump at each stage of this process — except the one where he solicited help from a top official from a hostile nation-state.

The Steele Dossier and WaPo’s Trump Tower Scoop

For some reason, many people who’re convinced the Trump Russia investigation will hit paydirt but who haven’t been particularly attentive believe the Steele dossier must all be true. This, in spite of the fact that some parts of it clearly are not true. The best example of that is report 086, labeled as July 25, 2015 (but which must actually date to July 2016), which quotes a former senior Russian intelligence official claiming FSB was having difficulty compromising western and G7 government targets. In the previous year, the Russians had been enjoying quite a lot of success against just those kinds of targets, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Russia’s APT 29 is also believed to have compromised the DNC in July 2015), making it surprising anyone following Russian matters even marginally closely could present that report as credible.

The Steele dossier is not a document that is either credible or not as a whole; it is a series of raw intelligence reports based off a series of sources, some of which conflict with each other, some of which may be credible, others of which are less so. Moreover, there are a number of details about the dossier as we received it or as we’ve since learned about its production that raise legitimate questions about its quality.

Two seemingly contradictory claims provide one example that is especially noteworthy given WaPo’s report that the Trump organization inked a branding deal in Russia in late 2015. The very first report released as the Steele dossier, dated June 20, claims that the FSB has, for years, been trying to cultivate Trump by offering him “lucrative real estate development deals in Russia” but “for reasons unknown, TRUMP had not taken up any of these.”

The sourcing on this claim definitely includes “a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow” (though how would they know FSB was dangling real estate to compromise Trump unless they were themselves tied to FSB?) and may include the trusted compatriot of a “senior Foreign Ministry figure.”

Compare that with the undated report (it probably dates to between July 19 and July 30, 2016) crediting “a separate source with direct knowledge” claiming that Trump’s “claimed minimal investment profile in Russia … had not been for want of trying.”

Which is it? Has Trump been pushing for real estate deals but failing, or have figures close to Putin been trying to entice him with such deals only to have him respond with remarkable coyness?

A September 14 report, reported second-hand from two people in Petersburg, goes so far as to claim Trump had even paid bribes to get business deals in the city, but offered little more. Significantly, the sources said Aras Agalarov — who was involved in the June 9, 2016 meeting offering dirt on Clinton in New York’s Trump Tower — would have any details on real estate deals and sex parties and the clean-up thereof.

All of which is to say that in three different reports, Steele’s sources offered conflicting details about whether Trump was trying to get business in Russia but had failed, or Russia was trying to suck Trump into business deals as part of a program to compromise him, only to have him inexplicably resist.

Which brings us to the WaPo’s latest scoop, which reveals that between November 2015 and January 2016, the Trump organization signed a licensing deal for a big real estate project in Moscow, which ended up flopping because there was actually no deal behind it.

As part of the discussions, a Russian-born real estate developer urged Trump to come to Moscow to tout the proposal and suggested he could get President Vladimir Putin to say “great things” about Trump, according to several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.

The developer, Felix Sater, predicted in a November 2015 email that he and Trump Organization leaders would soon be celebrating — both one of the biggest residential projects in real estate history and Donald Trump’s election as president, according to two of the people with knowledge of the exchange.

Sater wrote to Trump Organization Executive Vice President Michael Cohen, “something to the effect of, ‘Can you believe two guys from Brooklyn are going to elect a president?’ ” said one person briefed on the email exchange. Sater emigrated to the United States from what was then the Soviet Union when he was 8 and grew up in Brooklyn.

Trump never went to Moscow as Sater proposed. And although investors and Trump’s company signed a letter of intent, they lacked the land and permits to proceed and the project was abandoned at the end of January 2016, just before the presidential primaries began, several people familiar with the proposal said.

[snip]

Discussions about the Moscow project began in earnest in September 2015, according to people briefed on the deal. An unidentified investor planned to build the project and, under a licensing agreement, put Trump’s name on it. Cohen acted as a lead negotiator for the Trump Organization. It is unclear how involved or aware Trump was of the negotiations.

For six months, Christopher Steele pushed his sources for information on any deals Trump had planned in Russia. And only one of them — the one suggesting his go-between consult with Agalarov — offered any hint that a deal might have actually been done. Yet just months earlier, a deal had purportedly been signed, a deal personally involving Michael Cohen, who figures prominently throughout the dossier.

At least on their face, those are contradictory claims, ones that (because the WaPo story is backed by documents Congress will shortly vet) either emphasize how limited Steele’s collection was, even on one of his key targets like Cohen, or may even hint he was getting disinformation.

Or perhaps reading them in tandem can elucidate both?

First, some comments on the WaPo story.

It seems the real story here is as much the details as the fact that the deal was proposed. For example, I’m as interested that Felix Sater, from whom (as the story notes) Trump has been trying to distance himself publicly for years, was still brokering deals for the Trump organization as late as November 2015 as any other part of the story. See this post for some reasons why that’s so interesting.

It’s also quite significant that whoever leaked this to the WaPo did not explain who the investors were. Schedule another scoop in a week or so for when some outlet reveals that detail, because I suspect that’s as big a part of the story as the fact that the deal got signed. What entity came to Cohen months after Trump had kicked off his presidential campaign, and offered up the kind of branding deal that Trump loves (and which at least some of Steele’s sources say Trump had been seeking for over a decade), yet without the permits that would be a cinch if Putin and the FSB were really pushing the deal as part of a plan to compromise the candidate?

The sourcing, too, is of particular interest. WaPo describes its story as coming from, “several people familiar with the proposal and new records reviewed by Trump Organization lawyers;” in another place it describes its sources as, “several people who have been briefed on his correspondence.”  It explains that the emails are going to be turned over to Congress soon.

The new details from the emails, which are scheduled to be turned over to congressional investigators soon, also point to the likelihood of additional contacts between Russia-connected individuals and Trump associates during his presidential bid.

This all feels like an attempt, on the part of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, to reveal to Trump via non-obstructive channels what he has found in a review of documents he’s about to turn over, with an emphasis on some of the most damning parts (Sater and the timing), but without yet revealing the public detail of the investors. By releasing it in this form, Cohen’s associates give Trump warning of what’s about to come, while blunting the damage the revelation will have in more fleshed out form.

Finally, the WaPo emphasizes Sater’s push for Trump to get Putin to say nice things. Particularly given the lack of permits here, that suggests Sater recognized the deal was not actually done, it needed powerful push from Putin. A push that, given the January collapse, apparently didn’t come in timely fashion. That may be the more interesting take-away here. The deal was, when Sater bragged about it to the guy who (according to Steele’s dossier) would shortly go on to clean up Paul Manafort’s earlier corrupt discussions with Russia, illusory. But it makes it clear that Cohen, if and when he had those discussions, was aware of the Trump organization’s earlier, failed effort to finally brand a building in Moscow. It would mean that if those dodgy meetings in Prague actually happened, they came against the backdrop of Putin deciding not offer the help needed to make the Trump deal happen in the months before the election started.

All that may suggest the Steele dossier may instead be rich disinformation on a key point, disinformation that hid how active such discussions really were.

In any case, the WaPo story is not definitive one way or another. It may be utterly damning, the kind of hard evidence Cohen is about to turn over that he is aware could really blow the investigation into Trump wide open, or it could be yet more proof that Trump continued to resist the allure of real estate deals in Russia, as some of Steele’s sources claimed. But it does raise some important questions that reflect back on the Steele dossier.

Update: NYT got the actual language of two of the Sater emails, which have now been delivered to HPSCI.

Michael I arranged for Ivanka to sit in Putins [sic] private chair at his desk and office in the Kremlin. I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. We both know no one else knows how to pull this off without stupidity or greed getting in the way. I know how to play it and we will get this done. Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get Putins [sic] team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.

[snip]

Michael we can own this story. Donald doesn’t stare down, he negotiates and understand the economic issues and Putin only want to deal with a pragmatic leader, and a successful business man is a good candidate for someone who knows how to negotiate. “Business, politics, whatever it allis the same for someone who knows how to deal.”

Why does Sater tie the Trump Tower deal so closely with getting Trump elected?

The Virgin Birth of the Most Inflammatory Trump Dossier Claims

In a response to Alexsej Gubarev’s British libel lawsuit, Christopher Steele has submitted a defense making certain claims about the dossier on Trump he reportedly did for Trump’s opponents. (Washington Times published the filing along with this story.) The defense provides some limited information on the dossier, while remaining entirely silent about known details.

The defense provides further explanation of how Steele came to share the dossier with John McCain. Sir Andrew Wood is an Associate of Steele’s firm, which is how he knew about the dossier. At an undated meeting between Wood and John McCain and his associate David Kramer, Wood told the Americans about the dossier. That piqued McCain’s interest, so Kramer met with Steele in Surrey on November 28. After Kramer returned to DC, he arranged to get a hard copy of the dossier for McCain, and requested that “any further intelligence gathered by the Defendants about alleged Russian interference in the US Presidential election” be provided to him on behalf of McCain.

Steele denies he shared the dossier with journalists

Of critical importance, to substantiate a claim that he wasn’t spreading the document all over creation, Steele states,

The Defendants did not, however, provide any of the pre-election memoranda to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so. Nor did they provide the confidential December memorandum to media organizations or journalists. Nor did they authorize anyone to do so.

[snip]

[Steele] gave off the record briefings to a small number of journalists about the pre-election memoranda in late summer/autumn 2016.

I find the claim rather suspicious.

The changing (BBC) story about how it got (shown) the Steele dossier

Steele’s claim that he wasn’t sharing the dossier itself is dubious for several reasons. For example, the defense makes no mention of Steele sharing the dossier with the FBI, in spite of multiple reports of him doing so.

More damning, one of the reporters with whom the dossier was shared before the election, BBC’s Paul Wood, has changed a published story about receiving the dossier on two occasions. The original story appeared like this.

Sometime between the original publication and 14:06 GMT, the paragraph claiming the American oppo research company, Fusion, disseminated the document was removed from the story.

Then, by 15:32 GMT — roughly 20 minutes after I did a post noting the first change — that passage was again changed, this time to suggest the pages were shown, but not given, to journalists.

I’ve been told second-hand that actual pages were given, not shown, to at least one journalist, suggesting the middle story may be the accurate one. Moreover, the actual dossier would have had to have been shared for James Clapper’s claim that the dossier “was widely circulated … among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff ” to be true.

Steele’s free report based off unsolicited intelligence

All that pertains to the dossier, generally, though. It’s actually irrelevant to the lawsuit, since Gubarev is suing over claims made in the last report, dated December 13 (see this post for why that date is important).

Here’s what Steele claims about that last report.

The Defendants continued to receive unsolicited intelligence on the matters covered by the pre-election memoranda after the US Presidential election and the conclusion of the assignment for Fusion.

After receiving some such intelligence [Steele] prepared the confidential December memorandum, … on his own initiative on or around 13 December 2016.

[snip]

Accordingly, [Steele] provided a copy of the December memorandum to:

a. A senior UK government national security official acting in his official capacity, on a confidential basis in hard copy form; and

b. Fusion, by enciphered email with an instruction to Fusion to provide a hard copy to Sen. McCain via Mr Kramer.

Nowhere in this defense does Steele specify when he gave McCain the dossier, aside from sometime after November 28. Presumably it was on or before December 9, when McCain reportedly handed the dossier over to the FBI (though McCain was a bit sketchier about when he got and handed on the dossier and — very significantly — doesn’t describe doing so twice).

Steele does confirm he also shared the dossier with “a senior UK government national security official,” which is another way the US intelligence community might have gotten the dossier they shared with Trump before BuzzFeed leaked it, contrary to their utterly ridiculous claims to have been the last to know of it.

In any case, the timeline suggests that, after sources started leaking aggressively about Putin affirmatively trying to elect Trump on December 9 (even as Obama called for a review of the intelligence), Steele all of a sudden got new intelligence (or, less plausibly, decided to write down the intelligence he had before he sent McCain the dossier but hadn’t written up).

Multiple reports have said that Steele was working for free in that period. Apparently, too, the sources that Steele had been paying up to this point decided they would provide unsolicited intelligence.

Did they get paid, either?

The virgin birth of the most inflammatory claims

And this is all very interesting because — as I have noted before — this last brief includes three far more inflammatory claims than Steele had ever provided before.

First, as part of the claims Gubarev is suing over, Steele claimed he had been told that in addition to using botnets to “transmit viruses, plant bugs, and steal data,” (which sounds nothing like what allegedly actually happened in the hack), XBT also conducted “altering operations,” a suggestion that Russia was tampering with data rather than just stealing it.

Second, whereas earlier reporting on Michael Cohen’s role had been more vague, this report described him discussing “deniable cash payments to the hackers who had worked in Europe under Kremlin direction against the CLINTON campaign.” That is, the dossier made far stronger claims that Trump’s team had discussed the hack itself, rather than making quid pro quo deals to alter US policy.

Finally, and most importantly, Steele’s “unsolicited” intelligence claimed that Trump had paid the hackers.

On payments, IVANOV’s associate said that the operatives involved had been paid by both TRUMP’s team and the Kremlin, though their orders and ultimate loyalty lay with IVANOV.

This is the report that wraps up all the allegations in a neat little bow, setting up the impeachment of Trump, and it came unsolicited after the spooks were upping the pressure on McCain.

Right wing outlets are (rightly) making much of the fact that Steele claimed the intelligence “needed to be analysed and further investigated/verified.” But I’m just as struck by the rather neat claim that by far the most inflammatory intelligence in the dossier came in the days after Democrats and the IC started ratcheting up pressure on Trump, and that it came unsolicited.

Update: This post has been updated for clarity.

Update: David Corn’s account of interacting with Steele is inconsistent on the point of whether he got the dossier. At first he says he was able to “review” the memos.

I also was able to review the memos the former spy had written, and I quoted a few key portions in my article.

But by the end of the paragraph, he says the reason he didn’t publish the dossier is not because he didn’t have it, but because it would have revealed some of Steele’s sources (as it eventually did).

I also didn’t post the memos, as BuzzFeed did this week, because the documents contained information about the former spy’s sources that could place these people at risk.

And technically, Corn’s description of how Steele directed him to treat the information is not “off the record” (though I can still remember the moment during the Scooter Libby trial when, after one after another top journalist provided a different definition of the term on the stand, journalists in the media room — Corn was there — acknowledged that everyone has a different definition of the term). In his article, Corn says he was simply told not to ID Steele’s nationality or MI6 but suggests he was permitted to quote the dossier, which he did.

For my story in October, I spoke with the former spy who wrote these memos, under the condition that I not name him or reveal his nationality or the spy service where he had worked for nearly two decades, mostly on Russian matters.

Update: It’s worth comparing Steele’s claims with those made in this Vanity Fair feature on the dossier. Of particular note, VF makes no mention of Wood being an associate of Steele’s firm, and instead suggests he may have been sent to the conference in question to contact McCain.

It was at some point in this busy weekend that Senator John McCain and David J. Kramer, a former State Department official whose bailiwick was Russia and who now toils at Arizona State University’s Washington-based McCain Institute for International Leadership, found themselves huddling with Sir Andrew Wood, a former British ambassador to Russia.

Sir Andrew, 77, had served in Moscow for five years starting in 1995, a no-holds-barred time when Putin was aggressively consolidating power. And in London Station, the M.I.6 puppeteer pulling all the clandestine strings was Christopher Steele. Sir Andrew knew Steele well and liked what he knew. And the former diplomat, who always had a few tough words to say about Putin, had heard the rumors about Steele’s memo.

Had Sir Andrew arrived in Halifax on his own covert mission? Was it just an accident that his conversation with Senator McCain happened to meander its way to the findings in Steele’s memos? Or are there no accidents in international intrigue? Sir Andrew offered no comment to Vanity Fair. He did, however, tell the Independent newspaper, “The issue of Donald Trump and Russia was very much in the news and it was natural to talk about it.

Note, this account would put Kramer in Surrey meeting Steele around December 5, which would mean Steele’s most inflammatory intelligence came in (“unsolicited,” he claimed) during a period of 11 days. It also says that Kramer brought the dossier back with him, undermining Steele’s claims that Fusion had been in the loop. VF also suggests there may have been more to the dossier Steele handed Kramer; Steele goes so far out of his way in his defense to claim he did no reports in November that I suspect he did report in November (perhaps directly for FBI?).

Devin Nunes Doesn’t Think Donald Trump Should be Subject To the Kind of “Witch Hunt” He Conducted with Edward Snowden

We know what a Devin Nunes-led investigation into possible Russian compromise looks like. Just in December, after all, the House Intelligence Committee released their investigation into Edward Snowden.

Using the Snowden investigation as a guide, we know that HPSCI believes that if there’s an ongoing investigation, it should avoid speaking to anyone who knows evidence first-hand. It can instead rely on the impressions of people who don’t like the target of the investigation, as HPSCI did for claims that Snowden went to a hackers conference in China. It can also avoid reviewing official records, including public school records or even official Army records. Rather than do that, it may rely on imprecise citations of public reporting, interpreted in the light designed to be most damning. Any lies told — such as Snowden’s cover story that he’d be undergoing epilepsy treatment or Mike Flynn’s lies to Mike Pence — are themselves evidence of the worst possible guilt. Numbers are interpreted in the most damning possible light, even if more recent and informed numbers suggest something far less damning; those damning numbers came, in Snowden’s case, from a decision made by former DIA Director and recently fired National Security Advisor Flynn to assume any contact involved potential compromise.

Very importantly, HPSCI’s standard is that if anyone alleges contact between Russians and the target of an investigation, they should believed, even if that person is not in a position to know first hand. According to HPSCI standard, it is permissible to rely on dubious translations of Russian comments.

That’s the standard a Devin Nunes-led investigation holds to — or at last held to, with Snowden — before it deems an American citizen a traitor (irrespective of the very specific requirements of a treason charge).

Now, you can certainly argue that that’s a horrible standard for an intelligence committee investigation into allegations that an American citizen is spying for Russia. I have made that argument myself. But that is the standard HPSCI very recently set for serious allegations of possible intelligence compromises involving Russia.

Which is mighty curious, because Devin Nunes just gave a press conference claiming, categorically, that no Trump campaign personnel had any contact with any Russian official. That, in spite of public reporting relying on an interview with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that said his contacts with Trump campaign advisor Mike Flynn went back before November 8. That’s pretty good evidence that Trump’s campaign was in contact with a Russian official. (Later in his presser, Nunes acknowledged that Flynn spoke with Russia, though suggested that happened after Trump became President-Elect.)

And if Nunes applied the same standard to Trump’s associates he applied to Edward Snowden, then clearly the allegations in the Trump dossier should be presumed to be true (again, I’m not advocating for this, I’m talking about what would happen if HPSCI applied the same standard). That would mean Carter Page’s contacts with Kremlin Internal Affairs official Diyevkin would count as evidence of a contact. Carter Page’s other contacts were not named. Michael Cohen’s, which were alleged to be even more inflammatory, were done with Russian Presidential Administration figures working under cover, but would seem to meet the Nunes HPSCI standard. Paul Manafort’s contacts were with Ukrainians.

Finally, if HPSCI applied the same standards they did with Snowden, then the claims from Sergei Ryabkov that there were discussions before the election should amount to sufficient evidence to substantiate the claim.

Devin Nunes invoked McCarthyism in insisting his committee shouldn’t just investigate American citizens without evidence. But he apparently extends that standard differently to men on whose transition team he served.

White House Confident No Fire to Russian Smoke because Investigation Has Lasted Six Months

Mike Allen’s new rag has an update on the White House efforts to counter the NYT story that Trump’s team had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence leading up to the election. The piece that’s getting all the attention is confirmation that Sean Spicer is the one who arranged the contacts.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer personally picked up the phone and connected outside officials with reporters to try to discredit a New York Times article about Trump campaign aides’ contact with Russia, then remained on the line for the brief conversations,

But I’m just as interested in the logic the White House used to reassure itself there’s no risk to the investigation.

Top White House officials tell us they’re authentically confident that the Russia smoke won’t lead to fire, and are even happy to have their opponents distracted by the issue. “For over six months, we have heard about these alleged contacts with Russia,” the official said. “And yet, … with all the leaks have have come out, there’s no ‘there’ there.”

This is an administration that hasn’t conducted anywhere near the kind of vetting administrations normally do. Numerous staffers couldn’t get security clearance, several nominees had to withdraw because of financial conflicts, and still more should have. The administration lied about the substance of Mike Flynn’s contacts with the Russian Ambassador for weeks, and only fired Flynn when it became public that Flynn had purportedly lied to VP Pence. Moreover, Trump insisted the Hillary email investigation — a far less complex investigation — might result in indictments well past the six month mark of the investigation (it took just under a year for FBI to declare they would not charge her, even ignoring the October 2016 headfake related to the Anthony Weiner related emails).

And yet their assurance that these leaks will amount to nothing seems to come primarily from the fact that nothing has happened in six months of leaks (ignoring Flynn got fired after an interview with the FBI)?

I mean, they may well be right. Missing from most of the coverage of this story is the White House claim that Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe allegedly offered up that the story was “bullshit” (a claim Allen repeats unquestioningly). If that’s the case, NYT really should offer a correction.

Except there’s a big difference between saying there were not a stream of communications between Russian intelligence and Trump’s associates and saying that the ties with Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, especially, don’t present potential means to compromise Trump’s administration.

There’s one thing I’ll agree with the White House on, though: the Russian scandal is sucking up all the press’ attention, even as Trump’s rolls out his various dragnets of authoritarianism. While the press is obsessed with whether Trump was influenced by an authoritarian, most are ignoring how Trump is himself one.