What percentage chance that the incoming president has been compromised by a hostile foreign power is acceptable?
Most Americans, and the U.S. Constitution, would say “none.”
Meanwhile, the media apparatus of our nation’s closest ally, England, has taken an entirely different approach: they’re reporting doggedly on the story, comparing the credibility of its two main players—former FBI asset and top MI6 agent Christopher Steele, and serial exaggerator and compulsive liar Donald Trump—and playing out various scenarios, including the possible impeachment of Trump not long after he is inaugurated.
Around the same time as The Guardian was pondering aloud how and whether Trump could be impeached for high crimes, the U.S. Speaker of the House was on CNN saying that the story of Trump’s possible compromising by a foreign power is so insignificant that it shouldn’t even be mentioned in U.S. media.
So why are the Brits looking out for Americans’ (and the world’s) interests so much more than our own elected officials and media outlets? Why, in England, is even a 5 percent or 10 percent chance of a U.S. president who committed treason to gain office unacceptable, while here in America one is told by top government officials to not even ask the question, and officials themselves are refusing to do so as well?
There are scary times, so it behooves us to compare British and American reports on Trump’s Russian controversy and try to determine (a) how we as citizens in a democracy should expect the story to be covered, and (b) what market forces in American media might be preventing our cable and network news, and many of our newspapers, from doing their jobs. The reason to ask these questions is that the intelligence services we rely upon to investigate questions such as this are less likely to feel the pressure to do so from our elected officials if our elected officials aren’t feeling pressure from the media—and therefore, in effect, from the American people.
So first things first: if you were alive and older than six in 2016, you know that Donald Trump repeatedly made inaccurate statements during the Republican primary and the general election, and has continued doing so near-daily in the current presidential transition period. I’m not going to waste page-space confirming this, except to note that—on the issue of the memos written by Christopher Steele from months of human intelligence work with trusted Russian sources—Trump, who claims the memos are 100 percent false, has already lied about them repeatedly.
That’s pretty inexplicable, given his proclamations of innocence. Innocent men, absent strenuous interrogation by law enforcement, don’t lie about things they didn’t do. It’s practically a maxim in criminal law—which I used to practice—and it certainly applies here.
Now compare Mr. Trump to Mr. Steele, who was trusted by the FBI to do extensive work for them, who rose in the ranks at MI6 to run their Russia desk, who’s been described (in The Guardian) by former UK government officials as “one of the more eminent Russia specialists for MI6”; “very credible”; “sober, cautious, and meticulous”; “[a man] with a formidable record”; “not the sort of person who will simply pass on gossip”; “an experienced and highly regarded professional”; “a very straight guy”; “not prone to flights of fancy or doing things in an ill-considered way”; “highly professional, very effective”; and someone who, “if he puts something in a report, believes there’s sufficient credibility in it for it to be worth considering.”
One former UK Foreign Office official added, as if it were necessary to make the point in any clearer terms, that “the idea that his work is fake or a cowboy operation is false—completely untrue.” Nigel West, the noted intelligence historian and novelist, says that Steele is “James Bond.” He’s so well-trained, according to a recent report, that he trains other spies. And as to his now-famous memos, while they were originally drafted for top names in Trump’s own Republican Party, Steele continued trying to get the memos into the hands of journalists and Congressmen long after he was no longer in the Republicans’ (or anyone’s) employ, and even after the election was over—striking behavior for a top spy, and suggestive of a firm belief that at least a significant portion of the intel contained in the memos he wrote is true.
Want more? Okay. The New York Times reports that Steele is “known in British intelligence circles for his knowledge of the intricate web of Kremlin-tied companies and associates that control Russia.” The Times adds that a former CIA agent says Steele has a “good reputation” and is considered credible. More recently—on the subject of Trump, rather than Steele—Rolling Stone reported that American intelligence has advised Israel not to transmit sensitive data to the Trump administration, as the Russians “have ‘leverages of pressure’ to use against Trump.”
If one of our closest allies refusing to send us intelligence because our government may be run by Russian puppets isn’t a constitutional crisis, nothing is.
All of which means the Steele memos must be fully investigated now.
Not the day after tomorrow, not in a week, not in a month.
It seems the only three people in America who are convinced Christopher Steele willfully authored a fictitious, fanciful piece of creative writing are Donald Trump, Sean Spicer, and Kellyanne Conway: all people who could face charges for conspiracy to commit treason, or worse, if even a portion of Steele’s 35-page document is accurate.
So is it accurate? We don’t know. But one thing you don’t do is trust, as to the subject of a document’s veracity, the very people who’d be implicated by that document if it’s accurate.
Meanwhile, our intelligence agencies, with one voice, have said that they’ve made “no judgment” on the accuracy of the document—whatever suspiciously exculpatory lies Donald Trump has already told about that determination.
Okay, so then why is Chuck Todd of NBC calling the Steele document “false information”?
Why is Andrea Mitchell calling it a “smear campaign”?
Why is NBC reporting that the 35 pages of human intelligence gathered by Steele from Russian sources long considered reliable by him (and frequently relied upon by the United Kingdom) is “disinformation”—meaning, information planted by the Kremlin or made up from whole cloth by Steele himself?
What evidence is there for any of those claims?
The strange behavior of journalists on NBC and MSNBC may be partly explained by the strange behavior we’re now witnessing on CNN. Instead of covering what multiple experts on cable news have already called the greatest story in U.S. political history if true, CNN is engaged in a tit-for-tat with the Trump team over whether CNN accurately reported the events of a Trump briefing with intelligence services. Who cares about this feud? Well, CNN—and much more than the news story behind the feud, obviously—and perhaps also NBC and MSNBC. The latter two networks watched with dismay as CNN’s Jim Acosta got frozen out of Trump’s Wednesday news conference and publicly tarred as a purveyor of “fake news.”
The best part? It turns out that CNN was simply being trolled by the Trump transition team; today, CNN’s reporting that Trump was briefed directly about the Russian report was confirmed. Who briefed Trump? FBI Director James Comey himself.
Chalk that up as yet another lie from Trump: he sent Kellyanne Conway out on the Seth Meyers’ program on Wednesday to say that her boss knew nothing about the report until it appeared on Buzzfeed.
But perhaps American media is intimidated by a President-elect so unpredictable that he’ll call a news organization “fake news” for correctly reporting a story he himself lied about?
In any case, this much can be said: when a news network repeatedly frames the news in a way that directly contradicts its own reporting, something is wrong. And that’s exactly what’s happened at MSNBC over the past three days, and it’s beginning to become a real concern for those Americans hoping that the memos written by a long-reliable source like Christopher Steele will be accurately covered by the U.S. media.
MSNBC reporting that the memos were “disinformation” is unacceptable journalism, as that term, again, denotes propaganda deliberately developed to mislead readers. Neither MSNBC, nor any other television network, nor anyone in the intelligence community in the U.S., has determined that the Steele memos are “disinformation.”
The only way the Steele memos could be considered “disinformation” is if the U.S. intelligence community had evidence that Steele’s sources in Russia—developed over a decades-long career as a spy, and found repeatedly to be reliable by the United States—were in fact Kremlin agents. If MSNBC had this information, it would have reported it, and it would have been a bombshell. Instead, with no new reporting MSNBC continued to use the word “disinformation” throughout the day on Tuesday and Wednesday, including on Chris Matthews’ nightly program. Amazingly, even Trump himself hasn’t claimed that the Kremlin was behind the Steele memos—that would involve saying the first critical word about Vladimir Putin he’s ever said—satisfying himself with merely raving that the memos are false, garbage, a “witch-hunt,” and so on.
The reality? As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper wrote in a public summary of his recent phone call with President-elect Trump, “no judgment” has been made about the veracity or sourcing or the memos.
Then there was Chuck Todd’s Wednesday interview with Ben Smith, the Editor of BuzzFeed, who published the memos on Tuesday. Todd repeatedly charged that the memos constituted “false information” and “fake news”—without providing any explanation for why NBC, which has not reported that anything in the memos is either definitively false or definitively true, would leap ahead of its own reporting in this way. Nor did Todd explain how publishing material with repeated notices that it was “unverified,” in a context in which that material was already in the hands of government officials and media operatives—and was, moreover, beginning to drive public policy and intelligence analysis nationally—would qualify as publishing something “fake.”
Today, Fox News declared that Trump had successfully “stuck a knife in” the dossier story. How? By tweeting about it, of course—and with, per usual (and here’s a correct use of the term) disinformation, as Trump falsely called Steele a “failed spy.” Fox News offered no correction of Trump’s mischaracterization of Steele, indeed it gave its readers no additional information about Steele’s career whatsoever, thereby letting the President-elect’s intemperate and dishonest tweet stand as its own proof.
Russia Today and Vladimir Putin would be proud—as under Trump, the media is learning its place.
On Thursday, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell noted on-air, in passing, that Steele had been “hired to find salacious details” about Trump—suggesting that the well-respected intelligence agent had decided what he needed to find, and intended to find, before he’d even spoken to a single clandestine source in Russia.
In fact, Steele is now on the run for his life—fearing retribution, presumably, from Putin or Trump allies—so no one has spoken with him about his thinking on the memos or his motives in writing them.
Indeed, if anything we know three facts suggesting that Steele very much believes in the integrity of the information in the memos: (1) he continued trying to disseminate them to U.S. media and politicians even after he was not being paid to acquire new information, indeed even after the U.S. presidential election was over; (2) the BBC and other sources have confirmed that Steele is considered reliable by U.S. intelligence, one reason our nation relied upon his work in investigating corruption at FIFA; and (3) he and his family now fear for his life and are on the run, something we wouldn’t expect to see if Steele believed that everything in his memos was fanciful pap. Of course, we might also add, in addition to Steele’s decades-long history of trustworthiness and professionalism, that no one in the U.S. media has supplied for its American audience previous examples of meticulously detailed, 35-page intelligence memos written by an intelligence agent with a strong reputation and excellent sources that turned out to be—as Mitchell was suggesting of Steele’s work—entirely false and malevolently salacious.
But perhaps most concerning statement made in American media about the Steele memos was a statement made by Mitchell on-air on Thursday, which extended MSNBC’s entirely unsupported narrative discrediting the memos even further.
Mitchell is now calling the memos a “smear campaign” against Trump, again without any evidence. Such language runs the risk of turning America against what appears to be an active investigation into possible acts of treason committed by the President-elect, which investigation is undoubtedly critical to the future of the nation. Certainly, we know that the FBI sought a FISA warrant on this case—and may well have received one—in October, and that the Steele memos may well have played a role in that warrant application.
So not only is MSNBC getting well ahead of its own reporting, it is directly contradicting and repeatedly undermining the stance taken by the intelligence community with respect to the current Russia controversy. And it’s doing so at a time when Trump himself is repeatedly lying about these memos—thereby making himself look guilty in the eyes of many.
So what’s going on? Why is the media tossing objectivity aside to offer cover to the Trump team?
Could it be that NBC and MSNBC are hoping to gain viewers lost by CNN following the latter network’s “erroneous” (in fact accurate) reporting about whether or not the Steele memos had been physically presented to Trump—as opposed to merely present in the room and available for presentation—during one of his intelligence briefings? Could it be that NBC and MSNBC believed that overstating the case against the memos would draw in Trump supporters who, because of those two networks’ reputations for left-leaning commentary, would not otherwise watch those channels? Could it simply be an overreaction to the fact that “everyone” in Washington had these memos for months and wasn’t able to corroborate them—likely because no one in the Washington media establishment has the necessary clandestine Russian sources to confirm intelligence like this, not because the intelligence was bunk?
We can’t know. But we should be starting to ask.
Because if America doesn’t investigate the validity of the information in the Steele memos in the next week, that investigation may never occur. And the consequences of that failure to doggedly pursue the truth on our nation’s standing in the world—even on our allies’ ability and willingness to work with us to keep the world safe—could be devastating.