By John T. Bennett
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday labeled a dossier of information about his alleged Russia ties as “disproven,” suggested it was directly paid for by the Democratic Party and used by the FBI to tip the scales in the 2016 election.
But each of those claims is dubious at best.
First, here is what the president tweeted just after 6:30 a.m., in his own words:
“Disproven and paid for by Democrats ‘Dossier used to spy on Trump Campaign. Did FBI use Intel tool to influence the Election?’ @foxandfriends Did Dems or Clinton also pay Russians? Where are hidden and smashed DNC servers? Where are Crooked Hillary Emails? What a mess!”
Unpacking his many claims and implications has to start at the very first word: “Disproven.”
At issue is a dossier of information about Trump and alleged ties to Russians that was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele for research firm Fusion GPS, which had been hired by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Its co-founder, Glenn Simpson, described the document as “a collection of field memoranda, of field interviews” in testimony before the senior staff of the Senate Judiciary Committee in August.
Trump, White House aides and many Republican lawmakers continue to raise doubts about its contents. Senate Judiciary member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and others, for instance, have called on the Justice Department to name a second special counsel to investigate the actions of the Clinton campaign and Fusion GOP during the 2016 campaign.
So it would be accurate to brand the Steele dossier as “questioned.” But the document has not been “disproven.”
In fact, Simpson told the Judiciary Committee that when Steele was interviewed by FBI officials in Rome in September 2016, the bureau signaled they had obtained some of the information he had collected prior to him even writing the first memo in his dossier.
“They believed Chris might be credible because they had other intelligence that indicated the same thing,” Simpson said. “One of those pieces of intelligence was a human source from inside the Trump organization.” He added that the FBI had a “walk-in” whistleblower who was someone in Trump’s orbit.”
If the Fusion co-founder misled the Judiciary Committee staffers during the August interview, he did so knowing it could result in jail time.
That’s because while he was not under oath, Patrick Davis, the deputy chief investigative counsel for panel Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, informed Simpson at the start of the session that the U.S. Code “makes it a crime to make any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation in the course of a congressional investigation. That statute applies to your statements in this interview. Do you understand that?” Simpson replied: “Yes, I do.”
The president’s claim that the Democratic Party paid for the Steele dossier also is murky at best. Trump’s tweet excludes any mention that an unknown Republican client funded the firm’s work on Trump’s Russia ties even before the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee inquired about retaining its services. That undercuts his claims the dossier was produced via purely partisan efforts.
What is public record, so far, is that the Clinton campaign and DNC hired the firm through Marc Elias, a lawyer with the firm Perkins Coie, to conduct research on Trump and Russia. Fusion then retained the services of Steele.
So, based on Simpson’s testimony and reporting from major media outlets, it would be more accurate to say the dossier was paid for in part by a law firm connected to the Clinton campaign.
Then there is the president’s suggestion that the FBI used an “intel tool to influence the Election.”
It is not immediately clear if the commander in chief is referring to the Steele dossier or, as a later Thursday morning tweet seemed to suggest, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
The House was set for a vote later in the day on reauthorizing the controversial law, which sets parameters for the electronic surveillance of individuals suspected of conducting espionage against the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign entity. Though the White House on Wednesday evening called for the House to vote to reauthorize the law and touted its “useful role” in national security, Trump the next morning suggested he wants it ended.
The tweet represented the second time in three days Trump has appeared to hold much different policy views than many of his top White House aides and Cabinet officials.
But back to his charge the FBI used something against him in the 2016 election. The allegation, like the others, is undercut by the bureau’s actions just before Election Day.
That’s because of a letter then-FBI Director James Comey sent to lawmakers on Oct. 28, 2016 — 12 days before voters went to the polls to decide whether Trump or Hillary Clinton would become the 45th president of the United States. In it, Comey informed a list of House and Senate committee chairs that he had reopened the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s handling of emails while she was secretary of state.
Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com, a site that focuses on analyses of mostly political and sports issues, wrote this: “Hillary Clinton would probably be president if FBI Director James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28. … The impact of Comey’s letter is comparatively easy to quantify, by contrast. At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona.”
“At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so,” Silver concluded after crunching the numbers. “Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.”
In short, Trump’s Thursday morning tweet was high on the defensive meter but registers pretty low on the accuracy scale. Yet again, the president bent the facts and contorted actual events to defend himself, lash out at his political foes, undermine a federal investigation and placate his hardcore supporters.