WaPo media critic: Maddow has a lot to answer for with Steele dossier obsession

Plenty of people need to answer for their embrace of the Steele dossier — the FBI, James Comey, Adam Schiff, Christopher Steele himself. A number of media outlets need to provide accountability, especially Buzzfeed for its inexplicable decision to publish what turned out to be a salacious package mostly consisting of rumor as misinformation. But when it comes to the worst offender, Erik Wemple declared yesterday, no one surpasses MSNBC’s biggest prime-time host.


“Name a host on cable news who has dug more deeply into Trump-Russia than MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow,” Wemple writes. And no one got it more wrong, either — and no one ran as fast from it when it fell apart. “She was there for the bunkings, absent for the debunkings,” Wemple concludes, “a pattern of misleading and dishonest asymmetry.”

It began with the Buzzfeed publication of the dossier, fueled by the absence-of-evidence fallacy:

Sorting through the silence from the FBI and the unverified claims in the dossier, Maddow riffed on her Jan. 13, 2017, program: “I mean, had the FBI looked into what was in that dossier and found that it was all patently false, they could tell us that now, right?” said Maddow. “I mean, the dossier has now been publicly released. If the FBI looked into it and they found it was all trash, there’s no reason they can’t tell us that now. They’re not telling us that now. They’re not saying that. They’re not saying anything.”

That line of analysis has gained some important context via the Horowitz report. The FBI did, in fact, find “potentially serious problems” with Steele’s reporting as early as January 2017. A source review in March 2017 “did not make any findings that would have altered that judgment.”

So why didn’t the FBI admit that publicly, as Maddow apparently expected? For one thing, the agents running Operation Crossfire Hurricane hadn’t told the FISA court (FISC) that their prime evidence for the warrant on Carter Page had major holes in it. They didn’t want people to know it was already getting debunked. Instead, the FBI or maybe Congress leaked info to CNN about the warrant as a means to bolster their public case about Russian penetration of Team Trump, and Maddow pounced, so to speak:


On May 3, 2017, Maddow cited a CNN report that “parts of this dossier passed muster even in federal court when the dossier was used in part to justify a secret FISA court warrant for U.S. surveillance on a Trump campaign adviser.” Thanks to Horowitz, we now know that officials misused the dossier in this process, failing to disclose to the FISA court dossier-debunking information. Never place blind faith in the FBI!

“The Republican claim today was that the dossier has been increasingly discredited. That’s not true in terms of the public record about the dossier. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. As time goes on, more and more pieces do get independently corroborated,” Maddow said.

As it turns out, the Republicans were correct, and it was Maddow was spinning conspiracy theories — with the help of the FBI and/or Congress. The timing of this leak is interesting, too. Six days after this leak about the FISA warrant and the dossier, Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, primarily for not doing precisely what Maddow expected — going public to debunk the conspiracy theory. When that happened, Comey then engineered his own leaks from the investigation in order to force the appointment of a special counsel, leading to two years of hyperbole and hysteria over what turned out to be … nothing much at all.

“If it was all patently false, they could tell us that now, right?” was a good question in January 2017. The better question, as Michael Horowitz has now asked, is why they didn’t, including James Comey, at the very time Maddow first asked the question.


Rather than treat the document with some journalistic distance and objective analysis, Wemple accuses Maddow of “rooting” for the dossier to be proven true:

The case against Maddow is far stronger. When small bits of news arose in favor of the dossier, the franchise MSNBC host pumped air into them. At least some of her many fans surely came away from her broadcasts thinking the dossier was a serious piece of investigative research, not the flimflam, quick-twitch game of telephone outlined in the Horowitz report. She seemed to be rooting for the document.

And when large bits of news arose against the dossier, Maddow found other topics more compelling.

The timeline Wemple provides — surely more of a highlights list than a comprehensive log — is damning. Maddow went neck-deep into the Steele dossier pool, only to claim later she never got wet at all. She claimed in an interview with Michael Isikoff that she wasn’t “making the case for the accuracy of the Steele dossier,” when in fact she’d been making that case literally since Day 1.

Wemple doesn’t lay the whole debacle on Maddow, however. This the fifth installment in a series of analyses by Wemple about how the mainstream media got suckered into promoting the Steele dossier’s nonsense as corroborated information. McClatchy, for instance, is still insisting that Michael Cohen went to Prague even after Horowitz thoroughly debunked that claim in his report.

Better yet, there’s the case of CNN after the release of the Horowitz report. Thanks to its weird decision to hire Comey deputy Andrew McCabe, whose own actions in the Crossfire Hurricane probe might result in prosecution at some point, CNN essentially interviewed its own tainted employee for “analysis” of Horowitz’ findings:


How did CNN nail this riveting interview with a former FBI official at the center of the Horowitz report? Well, as CNN disclosed at the top of the interview, McCabe is a CNN contributor. Meaning, the network essentially paid for the exclusive.

Announcement of McCabe’s contributor deal with CNN came in late August, just days before news reports indicating that prosecutors were approaching a decision on whether to indict him in connection with another Justice Department inspector general’s report — this one from February 2018 regarding McCabe’s actions in an FBI disclosure in 2016 to then-Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett. On four occasions, the IG report found, McCabe “lacked candor” in his discussions with investigators. That’s a bureaucratic term for lying.

The possibility of an indictment continues to hang over McCabe, though Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes points out that such a prosecutorial step would depart from precedent.

Grilling former bureaucrats on their shortcomings makes for good television. “I was wrong,” admitted former FBI director James B. Comey on “Fox News Sunday” regarding the findings of the Horowitz report. The Blitzer-McCabe clash, too, earned its share of attention. On Dec. 12, CNN “New Day” hosts John Berman and Alisyn Camerota did a superlative job of pushing McCabe on the nitty-gritty of the Horowitz report. Per his contract as a CNN contributor, McCabe hasn’t done any non-CNN broadcast interviews since the Horowitz report surfaced, according to a spokeswoman.

So we’re not arguing here that CNN’s anchors are going easy on McCabe because he’s a colleague — just that the underlying arrangement is offensive, awkward and corrupting.


Did anyone come out of this looking good? Actually, yes:

“Over months of work, FBI agents painstakingly researched every claim Steele made about Trump’s possible collusion with Russia, and assembled their findings into a spreadsheet-like document,” reported [John] Solomon, who went on to say that the evaluation wasn’t favorable. “Multiple sources familiar with the FBI spreadsheet tell me the vast majority of Steele’s claims were deemed to be wrong, or could not be corroborated even with the most awesome tools available to the U.S. intelligence community,” Solomon wrote, adding that the “over-under isn’t flattering to Steele.”

Compare that reporting with a passage from the Horowitz report. “To evaluate Steele’s election reporting, intelligence analysts on the Crossfire Hurricane team created a spreadsheet identifying each statement that appeared in the Steele election reports in order to have a record of what the FBI learned during its assessment regarding those statements. The intelligence analysts also attempted to determine the true identities of the sub-source(s) responsible for each statement in Steele’s election reporting, and made assessments of each sub-source’s likely access to the type of information described.”

As for the accuracy of the reporting, Horowitz is scarcely encouraging: “The FBI concluded, among other things, that although consistent with known efforts by Russia to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, much of the material in the Steele election reports, including allegations about Donald Trump and members of the Trump campaign relied upon in the Carter Page FISA applications, could not be corroborated; that certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent with information gathered by the Crossfire Hurricane team; and that the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available,” says the report. …

In his July article, Solomon cited a “source” as estimating that “the spreadsheet found upward of 90 percent of the dossier’s claims to be either wrong, nonverifiable or open-source intelligence found with a Google search.”


Wemple’s not impressed by some of Solomon’s other work, but Solomon got this one right. That might be why Adam Schiff was so interested in Solomon’s phone records last month. Schiff apparently wanted to know who Solomon’s source was for this and other information, a move that Wemple curiously leaves out of this analysis.

Nevertheless, Wemple is the only media critic to my knowledge who is systematically holding people accountable for their dissemination of misinformation and bad reporting on the Steele dossier. Will the media outlets that employ these people hold them accountable as well?

Update, 12/28: Changed “denied” to “claimed” in relation to Maddow’s response to Isikioff; I inadvertently applied a double negative to her denial, which confused the issue. Thanks to Dan C on Facebook for catching my error.

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