About a year ago, I met a man named Christopher David Steele. It was unusual for him to be speaking with a journalist. He had spent most of his adult life in the shadows, as a counterintelligence officer for MI6, the British foreign intelligence service. His specialty was Russia.
More recently, he had been something of a spy-for-hire, running a corporate intelligence business based in London that did hush-hush work for private clients. He was, he told me, not accustomed to chatting with outsiders. But Steele was worried. He had spent several months, as the world now knows, researching connections between Donald Trump and Russia, and he had unearthed information (which was then unconfirmed) indicating that Russia had been trying to co-opt and cultivate Trump for years, that the Trump camp had been trading information with the Russians, and that Vladimir Putin’s regime had gathered compromising material on Trump. (Yes, including the infamous supposed “pee tape.”)
All of this so frightened Steele—imagine a man tied to Moscow in this fashion winning the White House!—that he was willing to talk to me and be quoted, though not named.
By the time Steele and I spoke, Putin’s meddling in the 2016 campaign—with Russian intelligence hacking Democratic targets, stealing sensitive material, and then publicly dumping the material via several cut-outs, including WikiLeaks—should have been a massive scandal. But it wasn’t. Nor were the odd relationships between Trump, his associates, and Russia drawing great notice.
Already, the FBI was digging into the Trump crew’s interactions with Russia and looking for any instances of collusion between the Trump camp and Moscow, though the American public had not yet been informed the bureau was doing so. Steele believed this was absolutely critical information for voters to have and he wanted the word out—even if that put him at risk of exposure.
I wrote a story—after confirming Steele’s bona fides—and emphasized that the FBI had requested information from him and apparently was investigating the allegations his memos contained. It was published on October 31, just a week before the election. (I did report that Steele’s research was being funded by a Democratic source. This week we learned that it was a law firm that had been working for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.)
The story drew a measure of attention, but it never gained traction in the major media. American voters ended up hitting the polls with the Russia matter far lower on the list of major campaign issues than Hillary Clinton’s email server troubles—especially after FBI director James Comey revived that controversy 11 days before the election.
So now, after a year of revelations on this scandal, it’s worth taking a step back to consider why and how political journalism failed so badly prior to the election. In all of my years reporting in Washington, I’ve never seen a story this significant for American democracy play out quite like this. (And spoiler alert: At the end I’m going to ask you to support Mother Jones with a donation during our fall pledge drive.)
During the campaign, the fundamentals of the Russia scandal emerged and were confirmed: Vladimir Putin’s regime mounted a covert campaign to subvert the election by cyber-attacking Democratic targets. Private cybersecurity companies declared that Russians were behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee as soon as that assault was publicly disclosed in June 2016. By early October, the Obama administration officially attributed to the Moscow government the hacks and subsequent dumps of stolen documents and emails and noted this operation had been orchestrated by Russia’s “senior-most officials.” That was easy-to-read code for “Putin.”
Yet this received far less attention than other key campaign stories. A study by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard examined media references during the campaign and found nearly 70,000 references to Clinton and emails—an important story, to be sure—but just over 5,000 to Trump and Russia. Mentions of “Trump” and “women,” including reporting on his history of sexual harassment and assault, registered just 10,000.
With the Russian meddling relegated to a side show, Trump’s role in it was an even more tangential topic. And when I say “role,” I don’t mean to suggest there was hard evidence that Trump and his associates were directly in cahoots with the Russian scheme. What we do know—as I’ve written elsewhere—is that Trump and his campaign aides did aid and abet Putin’s plot.
Despite the mounting evidence, Trump kept denying that Russians were involved in the hack-and-dump operation. He did so even after he received an intelligence briefing in mid-August 2016 that noted the U.S. intelligence community had identified Russia as the culprit. At the first presidential debate, he famously said, “It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, okay?” He continued to downplay or deny Russian involvement after the intelligence community in early October officially and publicly blamed Moscow.
It was obvious at the time that these were flat-out lies and textbook examples of disinformation and media manipulation. Here was a presidential candidate providing cover to a hostile regime’s covert effort to undermine an American election. (Not to mention Trump’s bromantic remarks about Putin and the financial links between Putin allies and Trump aides, including campaign chief Paul Manafort and foreign policy adviser Carter Page.)
How was that not an oh-shit scandal?
The Biggest Trump-Putin Highlights
What has happened since the election further impeaches Trump and his lieutenants. In a truly better-late-than-never situation, more reporters began plowing this field. There have now been multiple news stories disclosing pre- and post-election meetings between Russians and key Trump people, including Michael Flynn, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner. Sergei Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., told the Washington Post that he met with Flynn prior to the election. What exactly was the Trump campaign’s top national security adviser telling Putin’s man in Washington even as Russia was actively trying to subvert the election? No one is saying—yet.
Trump and his defenders kept claiming there was no collusion even after Donald Trump Jr.—with the New York Times hot on the trail—disclosed emails showing that he, Kushner, and Manafort met with a Russian emissary in June 2016 in an attempt to colloborate with what they were told was a secret Russian plan to aid the Trump campaign with derogatory information on Clinton. (And let’s not forget that the White House and Trump Jr. brazenly lied about this meeting when it was first disclosed.) The evidence is also strong that Flynn schemed with Kislyak to undercut the sanctions Obama imposed on Russia for messing with the election.
Trump viciously attacked the intelligence community for presenting its assessment on Russia’s information warfare against the United States, and pummeled the media for covering the story. He fired FBI Director James Comey at least partly because he was leading an aggressive investigation of the Russia scandal. He has been recklessly slow in appointing key officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the main federal agency in charge of protecting the nation’s elections from new cyberattacks.
There also have been more revelations about Manafort’s relationship with multiple Russian oligarchs. And information continues to come out suggesting Flynn and Manafort engaged in improper, if not illegal, actions related to lobbying and financial activities that may or may not have been connected to the Trump campaign.
That’s a modest recap of just the top highlights of this scandal. Much more has transpired. But the fundamentals have stayed the same for a year: Putin meddled, Trump assisted (if not colluded). Yet the president and his defenders still contend this does not even qualify as a story, claiming it is a nothing-burger, a hoax, or fake news.
To some extent, they have succeeded. If we’re actually arguing over whether this is a true scandal—and not over what should be done in response and who should be held responsible—then Trump and Co. win. They win because that question muddies the picture.
Steele’s fear, back when he agreed to talk to me—that the United States was not seriously confronting the Russian threat to American democracy—still resonates. Mueller is mounting a vigorous investigation, but the congressional probes have yet to prove their mettle, as most Republicans on Capitol Hill say and do little about the scandal. (These days, they seem more intent on distracting from the core elements of the controversy and concocting false or less-relevant counter-narratives.) GOPers aren’t scared into doing more because too many Americans (or too many Republican voters), in this time of tribalism-driven politics, follow Trump’s lead and dismiss the story. (By the way, gerrymandering and attacks on voting rights help keep many Republican seats safe.)
It could be that many Americans are too cynical or too numb to care. After all, Trump has normalized outrageousness on multiple fronts. He has politicized what should be a nonpartisan issue, doing all he can to ensure that his supporters view the scandal as a political hit job produced by his foes, rather than an attack waged by a foreign autocrat on all Americans. He has supplanted basic patriotism—the desire to protect the nation and its citizens from threats—with fealty to Trump.
So why wasn’t this a big scandal when it could have mattered the most—during the campaign? The answer is a bit mundane: political journalists were obsessed with… politics. They were not focused on policy or global affairs, and they did not fix upon the Russian assault as a main feature of the campaign. Far more attention was devoted to the details of the stolen DNC and John Podesta emails than to Moscow’s information warfare operation. And gripes about Putin’s covert schemes from the Clinton campaign and its Democratic allies were easily dismissed as partisan whining from politicos embarrassed or inconvenienced by the disclosed emails and documents.
The leaked emails—which yielded minor but not game-changing scoops—were part of the spectacle of a campaign that was already, thanks to Trump, playing out with more spectacle than any before it. With his reality-TV antics dominating coverage, a great many important matters were shortchanged. The list included Trump’s past business dealings, his massive conflicts of interests, his habit of screwing contractors and employees, his history of lying about his connections to organized crime, his financial ties to corrupt or politically-connected players overseas, his campaign links to white nationalists, and more. The Russian operation was one of many significant stories involving Trump that the political media industry neglected. (One point of pride: after the election, a senior editor at a major newspaper told me that her paper had now been prodded to investigate Trump’s financial conflicts of interest by the stories we published before the election.)
Mother Jones, I am glad to say, didn’t get sucked into the Trump craziness at the expense of what our readers expect from us: in-depth investigative reporting. We didn’t ignore the horse race, but we zeroed in on the bigger stories—many of which involved following the money.
Case in point: the Steele memos. I had been trying for weeks to get a handle on the Russian story. Prominent Democrats—including congressional leaders who had obviously been briefed by the intelligence community—kept saying that there was something important that the voters should know regarding the Russian operation. Yet they could not share what they knew.
When I met Steele and saw his material, I realized this was a piece of what was probably the most important story of the campaign. The information in his explosive memos was not verified. But the fact that the FBI was probing this topic was newsworthy—and voters had a right to know (especially since they had been told about the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email server).
So after some careful discussion and fact-checking, we published the story. As the New York Times’ public editor later noted, in chastising her own newspaper for having let the Steele story slip by:
If you know the F.B.I. is investigating, say, a presidential candidate, using significant resources and with explosive consequences, that should be enough to write. Not a “gotcha” story that asserts unsubstantiated facts. But a piece that describes the nature of the investigations, the unexplained but damning leads, with emphasis on what is known and what isn’t.
She went on to say that our coverage “offered a model” for how others might have treated the Russia story. And that’s what we need in the age of Trump—new models for how to cover a story that is far is outside the norm. We need independent reporters willing to take risks and depart from conventional practices, while remaining accurate and fair.
In the past nine months, much of the media has caught on, as Trump has routinely resorted to lies and distortion and attacked the FAKE NEWS MEDIA in order to duck public accountability. But at Mother Jones we’re still doing what we have always done: looking for the important stories others have missed. And I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that there has never been a more important time for this kind of journalism.
Which brings me to asking you—I told you this was coming—to support Mother Jones’ journalism before our fall pledge drive ends on October 31. Our team of reporters in Washington spends every day pursuing stories that can make it harder for Trump and his allies to get away with deceiving the American public. We aren’t captive to the minute-by-minute news cycles (which, face it, can drive all of us nuts).
Most of all, we don’t hold back for fear of controversy. We didn’t do it in the fall of 2016, and we won’t now. What could be more vital for journalism at this point than to keep digging, no matter the obstacles or threats?
In a less polarized world, Trump and his crew by now would have been burdened with the blame for helping to enable an attack on the United States and for failing to defend the country from a future assault of this kind. Yet in many ways, the nation, just as Steele saw it a year ago, has not fully come to terms with the gravity of this attack. Which means it can happen again. And that may be the real tragedy of the Trump-Russia scandal.