Jane Mayer’s 15,000-word New Yorker profile of Christopher Steele reads in part like the stuff of breathless teen girl fan magazines of old — Tiger Beat, say, or 16. Mayer presents Steele as a left-liberal heartthrob. She has fallen for the guy and she wants you to fall for him too. The profile also reads like the tendentious brief of an extraordinarily dishonest lawyer — perhaps a lawyer who has fallen for his client — or a lawyer turned politician, selling a pile of goods in the service of a blinding cause. Here Adam Schiff is the incomparable model.
Mayer drones on at eye-glazing length. Having suffered through Mayer’s profile, I want to address Mayer’s ploys and maneuvers in bite-size portions. I will take it up in pieces that struck me as representative of Mayer’s slippery dishonesty.
In this installment I want to highlight two moments in which I hear the clock striking 13. In these moments our reporter reveals herself as highly invested in her story. She all but declares that she is not to be trusted.
Mayer makes a point in passing on the adoption of “pro-Russian positions on many issues” which seemed to a Clinton foreign policy adviser to be “inexplicably outside the Republican mainstream.” Mayer swallows and regurgitates whole the canard that the Trump team “appeared to play a role in modifying the G.O.P. platform so that it better reflected Russia’s position on Ukraine policy.” Mayer quotes the Clinton adviser: “It was all beginning to snowball.”
There is at least one problem with this account. The modification of the Republican platform has been exposed by Bryon York as “one of the enduring misconceptions of the Trump-Russia affair.” York published his Washington Examiner column exposing the misconception in November 2017. A journalist peddling it as fact in March 2018 is peddling a lie; she is up to something other than journalism.
Perhaps more than anything else, Mayer seeks to vindicate the Steele dossier in her article. If you’re going to fall in love with Steele, you’re going to have to love the dossier with which he sought to save the republic. Mayer does what she can (and what she can’t or shouldn’t) on this score.
It struck me when I came across Mayer’s reference to Michael Cohen’s defamation lawsuit against Fusion GPS: On January 9th, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, filed a hundred-million-dollar defamation lawsuit against Fusion. He also sued BuzzFeed. Cohen tweeted, ‘Enough is enough of the #fake #RussianDossier.’” Here she comments: “Steele mentioned Cohen several times in the dossier, and claimed that Cohen met with Russian operatives in Prague, in the late summer of 2016, to pay them off and cover up the Russian hacking operation. Cohen denies that he’s ever set foot in Prague, and has produced his passport to prove it.”
It sounds bad. This is the best Mayer can do: “A congressional official has told Politico, however, that an inquiry into the allegation is ‘still active.’ And, since the dossier was published, several examples have surfaced of Cohen making secretive payments to cover up other potentially damaging stories.” Translation: I’m pretty sure that the truth defense won’t prevail against Cohen’s claim. Mayer’s apologetics are something worse than pathetic.
This is Mayer’s only reference to a defamation lawsuit in her profile. In England, however, Steele is himself the defendant in a defamation lawsuit or two based on that dodgy dossier. Mayer doesn’t even mention them. And the reason for her omission has nothing to do with saving space. The space devoted to her profile by the New Yorker is wide as the plains.
Faced with a defamation claim “in a forum where it was clear to him that making exaggerated or false claims could cost him dearly, [Steele] decided his allegations were not of such ‘huge significance’ after all. The quote comes from Andrew McCarthy’s National Review column (the internal quote is from Rownan Scarborough). McCarthy continues:
One of the libel suits against Steele was filed in London by Aleksej Gubarev, whom Steele accused of participating in Russian intelligence hacking. To defend against the suit, Steele and his attorneys had no choice but to respond to interrogatories. In answering, Steele markedly downgraded the seriousness of his dossier reports.
According to Steele’s courtroom version, the dossier is merely a compilation of bits of “raw intelligence” that were “unverified” and that he passed along because they “warranted further investigation” — i.e., not because he could vouch for their truthfulness. He gave them to American and British government officials, he maintains, only because they raised potential national-security threats, not because they actually established any such threats. That, he now says, was for government investigators to figure out. In sum, Steele’s defamation defense is not that what he wrote was true but that his reports “must be critically viewed in light of the purpose for and circumstances in which the information was collected.”
There is laugh-out-loud stuff here: Steele’s declamation of his profound commitment to discretion and secrecy lest his “raw,” “unverified,” and possibly false reports defame anyone. He claimed that he and Fusion GPS had a solemn agreement not to disclose his work . . . except for whenever they decided to disclose his work — including to Fusion’s clients and to major press organs during the stretch run of a contentious presidential election. But not to worry: These discussions were “off the record,” a term Steele claims to have understood to mean “to be used for the purpose of further research but would not be published or attributed.” Right. Somehow though, when his briefings to journalists about his reports were published, he kept doing the briefings.
Mayer should have been especially interested in Steele’s disclaimer of the veracity of his dossier. She represented the New Yorker among the “major press organs” who met with Steele “during the stretch run of a contentious presidential election.”