How the ‘Steele Dossier’ confused the public and ended up helping Donald Trump

Journalist and author Barry Meier discusses how private spy agencies manipulate the media and intimidate whistleblowers for wealthy clients

Episode Summary

Five years after it was written, the so-called Steele dossier, a collection of memos compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, alleging extensive ties between Donald Trump and various Russians, is still one of the most heavily discussed pieces of writing about the ex-president.

The document has come under intense scrutiny by American law enforcement and intelligence officials. And most of its sensational allegations about Trump have collapsed under examination. It’s also become increasingly apparent that Russia’s own intelligence officials became aware of what Steele was doing and began trying to manipulate him as he did it.

And the document has become the locus of a passel of far right conspiracy theories, alleging all kinds of strange and fanciful things, even more bizarre and intricate than anything that Christopher Steele ever imagined. 

How much truth is in the Trump-Russia dossier will likely never be known, but the document is actually part of a larger issue that has received almost no attention. And that is that the Steele memos were the product of multiple private intelligence services, a growing and very secretive industry that is built on the premise of collecting information at the behest of clients. And then using that to generate news coverage without disclosing to the public where it came from. In recent years, many media outlets have been slashing their budgets for independent investigative reporting. Are private spy agencies filling this gap? And what does it mean if they are? 

Joining me in this episode to discuss is Barry Meier. He’s the author of “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies.”

The video of our discussion is below. A transcript of the audio follows.


Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Barry. 

BARRY MEIER: Thanks, Matthew. I’m really happy to be here. 

SHEFFIELD: So you have written a very intricate book, so I want people to be sure to check that out. Just for those who are not familiar with your background, Barry, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you were doing before you started getting into writing books and your background in investigations and things like that.

MEIER: I’m retired now, but I spent most of my career in the newspaper industry, mainly doing investigative reporting often in the health and public safety arena. I worked, originally for the Wall Street Journal then for New York Newsday, a sadly now defunct newspaper in New York City.

And then I went to the New York Times in 1989 and stayed there until 2018. So that’s 28 or 29 years, I’ve lost track. Over the course of time, I wrote a lot of stories I think were significant, that I think were a public benefit. I was the first reporter to report extensively about Oxycontin, Perdue Pharma and the Sackler family.

And in 2003, I published a book called “Painkiller” that first chronicled, that whole story. Subsequently, I published, almost 12 years later, I published my second book “Missing Man,” which was about the case of Robert Levinson. A former FBI agent turned private investigator who disappeared in Iran.

It was very high- profile case. People might be familiar with him from seeing photographs of this guy in an orange jumpsuit with very long hair and a beard. And sadly, the U.S. government told his family about a year ago that they believe he perished at some point in captivity.

And then when I was leaving the Times, or about to leave the Times, I did two things of note. I broke what may have been one of the crazier stories of my reporting career, which was about the NXIM cult, or that cult near Albany, New York, where women were being branded with the initials of its founder.

And, I also decided that, okay, I’m leaving daily journalism. What’s my next step. And along with, updating “Painkiller” to reflect the many developments that had happened since I first wrote the book, I decided, it’d be a good time to look at the corporate investigations industry, because there were three big stories happening in late, in 2017 and in the run-up to my retirement, one was the dossier. One was the Harvey Weinstein story. And the third one was the story of Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes. 

And the kind of thread that connected all of them was the involvement of these corporate investigations firms working on behalf of lawyers or companies or powerful people, and, I thought, wow, these people are having a kind of unseen influence on the media, business, and our personal lives. And it would be interesting and fun to investigate them. And that became the sort of operating theory behind “Spooked.” 

SHEFFIELD: Okay, let’s maybe give a little bit of background about and talk about what was in the Steele dossier? How did it come to be? And then we’ll go from there.

MEIER: Sure. Let’s set this in the context of political opposition research, which is a phenomenon that has always taken place. In years past, you’d have campaigns hiring students, volunteers to go through old clip files and find embarrassing information about an opponent. Then, during Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, you had the first real use of professional private eyes to dig up information.

And in this case, they were used by both sides, but particularly by Bill Clinton’s side to try to do background checks. And in some ways intimidate the women who are claiming that they had affairs with Bill Clinton. 

And from that point forward over the past 30 years, it’s been off to the races, and in every political campaign, you see the growing involvement of private spies. You had that in the Obama- Romney campaign where Fusion GPS, a firm that I’m sure we’ll talk about more frequently during the show, was hired by the Obama campaign to dig into Mitt Romney’s involvement with Bain Capital and generate embarrassing stories about that. 

And then as the Republican campaign for the Republican nomination started heating up, Fusion GPS was hired by a conservative outlet, the Washington Free Beacon Foundation, which is funded by Paul Singer, to basically gather “oppo” about Donald Trump, because Singer was backing Marco Rubio as his preferred candidate. 

When Trump won the election, they then went and shopped their services to the Democratic Party, to the Hillary Clinton campaign. And that’s when they hired Christopher Steele, and what became known as the Steele Dossier, began to take shape. 

SHEFFIELD: And of course, Fusion GPS is not the only private intelligence service out there. There are a bunch of other ones, and obviously Christopher Steele had his own as well.

But there are, there, there are quite a few other ones. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ones you talked about in your book? 

MEIER: Yeah, sure. There, there are literally hundreds of these firms, there’s one man shops. There are smaller companies. There are major companies that have two to 300 employees. 

In telling the story of the book and trying to tell the story of this industry, I tried to keep things relatively simple and focus the story on a few characters and a few companies. So the characters and companies that I focused on were Fusion GPS, which was founded by two ex- Wall Street Journal reporters, Glenn Simpson, and Peter Fritsch; Orbis Business Intelligence, which was founded by Christopher Steele and another former MI6 operative; Kroll Associates, formed by Jules Kroll, a very seminal figure in the history of the modern- day corporate intelligence industry; and Black Cube, the Israeli firm, which became notorious because of its involvement in the Harvey Weinstein case.

SHEFFIELD: Okay, and let’s get into that, the Weinstein side. So he, just to review, Harvey Weinstein, he’s been accused of harassing and assaulting, dozens of women over the years— 

MEIER: He’s actually been convicted, yeah. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But I was going to say, he’s been accused of far more than he was convicted of.

MEIER: Right. 

SHEFFIELD: And people wondered why, how was it that he was able to get away with this for so long? And it was basically that he had hired various, private intelligence services to intimidate, the women that he had victimized.

MEIER: Harvey Weinstein, I would say if there was one particular reason why Harvey Weinstein got away with it for so long was the insularity of Hollywood, and his power in Hollywood, and the unwillingness of actors, agents, lawyers, whomever, to tangle with him for fear that they would get blackballed from the industry. But when things really started coming to a head when it became clear that he was being investigated, by Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker, by two former colleagues of mine as the New York Times, that’s where things really started to ramp up in terms of his use of private investigators. And the most aggressive of those firms was Black Cube. And what they did was, or their sort of modus operandi is to adopt these digital and actually physical pretexts where they pretend to be other people, they approach targets, in this case, some of the actresses that were making allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and they seek to get compromising information or information from them that can be used to compromise them, if they testify in a lawsuit— 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And some of these groups will also try to fish with reporters, trying to find out what they know by posing and pretending to be people pertinent to their investigation. 

MEIER: Right. Or even feed them information, one to get negative stories. There’s a whole array of techniques, which we can talk about later on, that these firms use to intersect with reporters, and glean information.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. And so, let’s get into the Steele side of things here. So Christopher Steele, give us a real quick background on who Christopher Steele is. 

MEIER: Sure. So, Christopher Steele, a Brit, product of Cambridge, toyed with the notion of becoming a journalist when he left, but decided to become a spy. During his MI6 career, he was posted for a few years in the 1990s in Moscow, kicked around. Then came back to headquarters in London and eventually rose to become the head of the Russia desk, an analytical desk. So— 

SHEFFIELD: And that’s the British equivalent of— 

MEIER: Yeah, British equivalent of the CIA, excuse me. Yes. Yeah, the overseas intelligence service.

And so he liked many former spies, FBI agents, journalists, prosecutors, you name it who were like either retiring or have left their line of work for economic reasons or to seek greener pastures, find themselves in this corporate investigations industry because they bring certain skills to it. They have connections, they may know about writing. They may have investigated stuff during their previous careers. And they have special subject areas of expertise. They may be cybersecurity experts, who knows? And he, and another MI6 guy who had just retired, formed a very small, private investigations firm in London called Orbis Business Intelligence.

And the thing to keep in mind is that London is one of the real epicenters of the global corporate investigations industry. And that’s in part because, with the fall of the Soviet Union, many oligarchs, from Russia or the former Soviet republics, moved to London to set up shop and then began to get involved in lawsuits and disputes against each other. And so there was plenty of work for corporate investigators to dig up dirt or do research on behalf of the various lawsuits and gripes these guys had. And that’s the kind of line of work that Christopher Steele found so far.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and it’s an outgrowth also that, the UK has had a very long history as being a hub of the legal industry as well, I would say. 

MEIER: Yeah, that too, and the UK also has a much more, as it turns out, though it’s hard to believe, a much more lenient attitude towards the type of evidence that can be introduced in civil lawsuits than we do here in the US. They can put in hacks, paid witnesses testify. It’s really quite stark— 

SHEFFIELD: And they have much lower standards for libel— 

MEIER: Exactly. 

SHEFFIELD: Than to the United States. 

MEIER: That, too.

SHEFFIELD: So anyway, sorry, go ahead. 

MEIER: So Christopher Steele is bouncing around and one of the things he, one of the jobs he’s hired for is by a group of British businessmen who are eager to bring the FIFA, the world soccer championships to England, and they get outbid by Russia for, I forgot which games they were.

And they’re going: ‘Oh, we kind of know FIFA is sort of corrupt. We’re not sure about it, but boy, it seems like there’s a lot of money changing hands there. So they hire Christopher Steele, to work on their behalf, investigating FIFA. And Christopher Steele connects with a British journalist who actually broke the FIFA story and brings him to the attention of the FBI, which is also interested in corruption in FIFA.

And thus began a relationship between Christopher Steele and the FBI, or at least one agent in the FBI under which Christopher Steele became a paid source for the FBI and would sell them information or set up meetings between them and people with whom they wanted to speak, or people who wanted to speak to the FBI. And that often was oligarchs who wanted some favors from the FBI in exchange for information.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Okay. And then after that, he was continuing to try to get various clients and things like that. Then we can fast forward to 2015. As you mentioned earlier, Donald Trump when he ran for the presidency of the first time, the right-wing political establishment hated him, they hated him very desperately because he actually, especially in the primaries was campaigning on kind of a moderate, progressive type platform. He was saying he was going to raise the carried interest loophole. He was saying that Republican politicians were just beholden to their donors and did whatever they said. He said that he liked Canada’s socialized healthcare system. He said that it worked great and that he wanted to copy it. 

So they these right-wing American oligarchs, they never get called oligarchs, funny how only the Russians do. So these American oligarchs decided that they had to do something to get rid of Trump. Because they thought he was either going to lose to Hillary Clinton in 2016, or if he won, he was actually going to unravel some of their elaborate coalition building. So I guess one of the other things just for background, for people who weren’t aware is that on the American right, there is no— despite how they constantly are criticizing the mainstream media for alleged liberal bias, they themselves have no interest in mainstream media themselves that they operate themselves.

So like Fox News is much more biased to the right than any allegedly liberal outlet is to the left. And but one of the things that they’ve done, these American right-wing billionaires, is that they’ve created media institutions that are designed to sort of platform their ideology, their personal particular ideas. So you’ve got Phil Anschutz who created the Washington Examiner, Rupert Murdoch, who created the Weekly Standard, and then that was later sold to Philip Anschutz. And then you have other organizations, one of them, as you said earlier, the Washington Free Beacon, which is this pretty small online publication, doesn’t have a big audience, but what they do have is the money of Paul Singer, this right-wing investment banker who has been basically, he shovels money into this organization to pay for investigations. And they have some reporters who are doing investigations, but they also pay external private intelligence firms. And one of them was Fusion GPS. 

MEIER: Correct. 

SHEFFIELD: So can you talk about that background and how—

MEIER: Sure, yeah. I think that the thing that is fascinating about Fusion GPS and Paul Singer is that Fusion GPS didn’t come alive in 2015. And one of the things I tried to do in the book is, trace the firm and its activities since its founding, and which was not that long ago, in 2010, and look at its clients. And so Theranos was a client, and this Russian real estate, Russian owned real estate company called Prevezon, which got in a twist with Bill Browder, the person who brought about the Magnitsky Act was a client. And so was Paul Singer, in his capacity as the operator of this gigantic vulture fund which would buy up distressed debt from foreign governments, Argentina being one example, I believe Ghana was another example, and try to muscle them into paying as much as possible on this defaulted debt.

So you had a history of Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the operators of Fusion GPS working for Paul Singer. And when the Washington Free Beacon went looking around for someone to do oppo research on Trump, to try to torpedo him and foster the campaign of Marco Rubio, the Singer-backed candidate, Fusion GPS was a natural firm for them to turn to. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, so basically at that time, Fusion was mostly just trying to aggregate information from current news clippings and things like. 

MEIER: Correct. Correct. 

SHEFFIELD: But it is crucial to note that they actually do private investigations for Free Beacon and the Washington Free Beacon uses other services as well. 

MEIER: Yeah. Yeah. They go where the money is. That’s where all these companies, I mean, we’re not talking about people with a particularly strong moral compass. We’re talking about people who take whatever jobs are offered to them, for the most part. 

SHEFFIELD: But then Trump basically becomes the presumptive Republican nominee and Fusion GPS wants to keep making money off of this anti-Trump stuff. So then they go over to the Democrats and say, Hey, we’ve got some things here that we have on Trump. And we could do a lot more for you to go against him in the general election. And the Democratic National Committee uses a kind of a complicated arrangement to hire them without disclosing that they were hiring them. And then subsequently, Fusion GPS goes and brings in Christopher Steele and his private intelligence service as well. So it’s wheels within wheels in a sense. And Steele then goes over to meet— actually goes to United States to meet with a bunch of people. Tell us about what we know about his process at five years after the fact.

MEIER: I think what we know is that it was scant— might be the most polite and positive word you could use. Shoddy might be a substitute word. Amateurish might be another word. There’s a whole spectrum of words that you could use to describe his research gathering process and his vetting process, but none of them were particularly complimentary. So he doesn’t go over to Russia himself, in part because he can’t, he’s, a former British spy. He’s been in Russia, they know who he is. 

SHEFFIELD: And so they obviously are not going to let him in. 

MEIER: Yeah. Plus, if they do, they’re going to be monitoring him every step of the way. So what he does is that he recruits, or has already recruited for other jobs, a guy who was a one-time research analyst at the Brookings Institute, someone who was born in Russia, who speaks Russian, but is basically living in the United States now by the name of Igor Danchenko. And Igor Danchenko technically is what’s known within the corporate investigations industry as a subcontractor, someone who is not a direct employee, a salaried employee of an investigations firm, but someone who’s hired on a job by job basis, to go out and do stuff. 

And often the people who are subcontractors of corporate investigations firms are people who have failed, flunked out, whatever, in their previous career choices. Run into a dead end and are scrambling around looking to sell whatever skills they have to keep their head above water. And in Igor Danchenko’s case, it was that he was a native Russian, and a Russian speaker.

So he goes over there. And in Christopher Steele’s description of him, at least as reflected in this book “Crime in Progress” that Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch wrote, was that this guy was like the most talented intelligence gatherer he had ever worked with in his career. He was kind of super sleuth. 

And so Igor would go over there. He would talk to people. He would fly back to London, sit down with Christopher Steele, verbally relay the information that he was picking up. And then Christopher Steele would write it up into kind of like these spy world reports, they look like ‘whoa, this right out of the files of MI6’ because people were being referred to not by their real names, not even by nicknames, there was like Source A and Source B and Source D, Source E, who’s a top-tier something or other with Kremlin connections, getting across the idea that these people were heavy hitters, and they know of what they spoke. 

And those memos, of which I believe there were 16 or 17, became what we refer to as the dossier. Because they were basically sent one at a time over a period of, I believe, five months from Christopher Steele to Fusion GPS. And then at a certain point, Christopher Steele also began giving them to the FBI. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, and and before we get further into that, as I mentioned in the introduction, the documents went on to, become the subject of great interest in 2015, 2016. But I think people on both the left and the right kind of misunderstand why people regarded them as important is more important than what they actually said. Is what I would say. Would you agree with that? 

MEIER: I think they fed into people’s assumptions. I think that’s the import that they took on. They really burst into public view in early 2017 when Buzzfeed posted them online.

They had been kicking around before—

SHEFFIELD: They were privately much—

MEIER: Yeah. They were kicking around, they were being shopped to major media outlets, the New York Times among them. And, they just were, they were only, they fed peoples, they fed people’s preconceptions. Look, Trump with someone who lots of people didn’t like, and I would not exclude myself from that category. 

Here’s a guy who was a sexist, racist, horrible, long string of business failures, a business, it like scammed people, going to the stupid university, selling all these direct products, so on and so forth. And the idea that he would try to get one over by forming common cause with Vladimir Putin, like when you thought of Trump, of what Trump had done and what he was capable of doing, this didn’t seem that far off. Even today, you have a man who’s trying to damage our democracy by contending a fair and free election didn’t happen because he didn’t win it. 

So if you’re dealing with someone that perverse and that toxic and that terrible, maybe this is something he would be doing. It certainly had that appeal to many people.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And, but yeah, his practices as it’s come out, just Steele’s practices were just really terrible. And there was some indication, I think, when his memos were circulating privately. So he had written them individually for several months, 2015 through 2016. And people affiliated with the Democratic National Committee or the Hillary Clinton campaign, they kept trying to pitch reporters on them. Fusion GPS kept trying to give it to reporters. And nobody took the bait. Nobody wanted to do it.

Now you were not one of those reporters that they had contacted. But they were definitely trying to get these into the New York Times. Can you talk about that? 

MEIER: Absolutely. Sure. Most people think, and I won’t say, maybe it is a right-wing media meme that there’s this media conspiracy on the left or mainstream, the New York Times is part of some media conspiracy.

And it’s absurd as someone who worked there, because number one, half the time, people in one office, the New York Times have no idea what people in another office of the New York Times are working on. And that was the perfect example, was the dossier. I was in New York, my colleagues and I were working on the story about Paul Manafort, the story that about the “black ledger” that led to Manafort’s dismissal from the campaign in 2016. None of us had any idea about the dossier. There was a small group of people in Washington, in our Washington office, who it had been pitched to, but we knew nothing about it. I think what happened, and I tried to reconstruct this in the book, the New York Times, the Washington Post ABC News, others were like: ‘Oh, wow, This is interesting. Maybe it’s true.’ 

And they set out to find out, to report this out, to try to see if they could independently confirm some of the most significant aspects of the dossier, such as Michael Cohen’s supposed meeting in Prague with Russian operatives. And they came up crap. Everything crapped out. There was nothing that they could find. In fact, they were finding, and I know I, I write about this in the book. ABC was finding that there was stuff in the dossier that was just factually wrong. There was a contention that Michael Cohen’s father-in-law had a dacha outside of Moscow.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, what’s that? What’s a dacha. 

MEIER: Oh, it’s like a resort home, a second home, I guess it’s the Hamptons of Moscow, this area where they’re wealthy, second homes, weekend homes, and so they send someone there to check it out and it turned out, yeah, there was someone who owned a home in the area who had the same last name as Michael Cohen’s father-in-law, but it was just someone with the same last name as Michael Cohen’s father-in-law and, it’s that kind of sloppiness, just to close a bow on Christopher Steele, I’m not saying this is, our last comment about him, one of the things that I’ve spoken about that I wrote about that, I remain continually amazed by. As a reporter, we make it our effort to try to get to the original source of information. We don’t deal whenever possible in secondhand information. So if you tell me: ‘Hey, Barry, I’ve heard something.’ So I’m going to say to you: ‘Who did you hear that from, Matthew? And could you put me in touch with that person?’ 

And then I will go and see that person and see one, are they credible? And two is what you’re telling me they said to you what they actually said to you. And in no case that I’ve been able to find, did Christopher Steele ever do that with any of the people that were giving information to his, collector, Igor Danchenko. And in many ways, Christopher Steele finds himself now in this sort of embarrassing and catastrophic situation with this, with the indictment of Igor Danchenko because he didn’t do the simplest thing, which was basically go and check up on the people that were providing Danchenko with information. That’s like Reporting 101, and he was unwilling to do that.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Although I would say, I think it does illustrate the difference in his background versus in investigative reporting. So intelligence agencies, they just simply collect information as something that is circulating, or something that people are considering, in a particular community or whatever it is. That’s what they do. 

And then only higher up the chain do you have people, in the actual administrative level who have to say: ‘Okay, now we have to see, is this true? Are these things true?’ And then the highest standard of proof, of course, is when you’re in a court, where if there’s a crime that you’re pursuing as the prosecutor, you actually have to have concrete, evidentiary standards that you have to follow, like their formal rules of procedure.

And so these are things that Christopher Steele as a person never really had any experience at any of this stuff. And so he had lower standards from the beginning and, as people get more and more into his work, that becomes more and more apparent. 

MEIER: It’s clear that he had lower standards. I guess what I would take exception with is the idea that Christopher Steele— and I have no reason to doubt this, I’m accepting it— Christopher Steele, Glenn Simpson, Peter Fritsch, they all claim that: ‘We did what we did because we believe this represented a real threat to democracy. We felt we were duty-bound to take this information and get it into whatever channels we could be it government channels, or media channels, or whatever the case may be.’

But if you believe in your heart that an individual is a puppet of a foreign government and a threat to our democratic way of life, I would argue that regardless of what your background or training is, that you might want to get up off your ass and get out of your office and start doing some on the ground reporting.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I think that’s a good point, and it’s relevant in another context here because Steele’s work and Fusion GPS’s work was so shoddy, it completely overshadowed a lot of legitimate, confirmed facts about Donald Trump. It is a fact that Donald Trump was trying to get a Trump Tower in Moscow. It is a fact. 

MEIER: Yes. 

SHEFFIELD: And he was doing that while he was running for president and that he lied about not having business ties to Russia. 

MEIER: Interestingly, it was well known for many years and well- publicized for many years that Donald Trump was trying to get a development in Moscow. What is phenomenal also about Steele’s dossier is that his sources were so bad, so ill informed, that they didn’t pick up the effort that Trump was doing to try to get a deal going in Moscow. They were so ill-informed and disconnected, they knew nothing about the Trump Tower meeting between this Russian lawyer and Donald Trump Jr. 

A stupid PR guy for a Russian rock musician knew about it. So why didn’t Christopher Steele? It’s absurd. The things that he didn’t know about were very important things, and the things he claimed to know about, were in many cases, bogus.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And let’s maybe talk a little bit about some other bonafide facts about Trump and Russia that have gotten overshadowed besides the Trump Tower, if you want to get into that. 

MEIER: I think, they are, in my mind, things that are indisputable: number one, that Russia tried to influence or meddle in the 2016 election. That was bipartisan finding of the Senate. That was also a finding of the Mueller report. 

SHEFFIELD: And even Trump himself actually has admitted that a couple of times. 

MEIER: Right. What I find it very disheartening is that, commentators or maumauers on the right and on the left are now taking these controversies over the accuracy of the dossier and trying to rewrite history by saying that: ‘I guess this means that the Russians didn’t try to meddle, or that Trump didn’t invite their meddling. You have this, particularly on the right wing, but to some degree on the left wing, this effort to sanitize it, like: ‘Oh, the Russians, that must’ve just been a fantasy, so that was damaged. That is the continuing damage of this episode.

It was very damaging during the Trump administration, because Trump could then turn around and say: ‘Oh, it’s the Russia stuff. It’s just another example of how there after me, another hoax, and use that to cover up all the horrible things he actually was doing, like lying to us about the pandemic.

I think it had a very damaging effect, both on politics, the media, and public and civic discourse. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think so. Now I guess I would say though that this kind of did not just with Steele’s work, but the mainstream media, some outlets also did in their pursuit of stories about Trump did seem to have some lower standards sometimes on some stories, like for instance, early on, before he had taken office, there was this claim, in the Washington Post that Russia had tried to hack the American power grid of the United States. And turned out it was just some schmuck had a virus on their computer.

And then it wasn’t a computer that was even connected to the grid in any way. And there were several stories like this that had been reported with big fanfare and just ended up fizzling. And it’s important, I think, for people who are Trump critics, to understand that when you are dealing with somebody who attacks the concept of objective truth entirely, tells people: ‘The only time that you can get the truth about me is from me.’ When you’re dealing with somebody who has that sort of totalitarian vision to his followers, you have to have everything, line— 

MEIER: You’d better be right. 

SHEFFIELD: You have to dot every I and cross every T and you have to be right, as you said. And because otherwise you’re actually helping him. 

MEIER: We are, and I don’t know to what degree this is a product of Trump or the Trump era— although I suspect it’s a major contributor to it— I’ve given up on, on cable news for the most part, because I don’t want to hear people hectoring about stuff, lecturing about stuff. Bloviating about stuff, commentating about stuff. These people, they have got their followers and their audience is not going to learn anything from them that they don’t want to hear, they’re not going to tell their audience anything that’s actually going to inform them. They’re just going to feed their audience stuff that feeds into their preexisting ideas and beliefs. And it’s terrible. It really is terrible. This does not represent public discourse in any way, at least in my opinion.

SHEFFIELD: There’s even still some people who are trying to hold out hope for Steele that ‘maybe his stuff is still right.’ Unfortunately, I’m seeing people who are still saying that.

MEIER: Let’s have them on.

SHEFFIELD: But on the other side, some people might say: ‘You’re engaging in both sides, inappropriately casting aspersions on an authoritarian, vision of reality versus some cable TV hosts. What would you say to that accusation? 

MEIER: I don’t know what you have to interpret what that accusation means. I’m not quite sure what you’re saying by that.

SHEFFIELD: In other words, if you’re telling people to not just watch things that confirm your prejudices. You’re not saying that various hosts on CNN or MSNBC or anywhere morally the equivalent of Tucker Carlson—

MEIER: No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m not saying that at all. I’m not saying that. Look, you can have, ideologues, and you can have horrible ideologues. Okay. They’re all ideologues.

One might be like really a lot more toxic and horrible than another one, but the people on CNN or MSNBC, they’re also ideologues. And I’m just not gonna endorse them as I prefer these ideologues to this horrible, toxic ideologue. I just, I don’t— 

SHEFFIELD: You’re saying people need to think for themselves.

MEIER: I think— we are in this situation because we are, we’ve become creatures of teams, right? We’re playing on a team. We think we’re part of this team. We have people that reinforce our beliefs, that we’re part of the team and it’s damaging. We see the destruction of it in our lives and, debates over vaccination, debates over school policies, debates over voting rights, debates over you name it. It’s like out there everywhere. And it’s— I’m an old guy right now. When I was young, I thought: ‘Wow, there’s going to be peace and love, somewhere in the future.’ That I would become an old man when there was hatred and anger as a prevailing sentiments, afflicting our society.

And, but that’s my personal view. It’s just, it’s constantly eyeopening. 

SHEFFIELD: Well, let’s maybe rewind the discussion here a bit in terms of looking at, some of these private research entities and from the right putting stuff into the media. So one thing that almost has evaporated from the public discourse is how Steve Bannon, the Trump advisor, had set up this non-profit organization that was basically doing the same thing as Fusion GPS, the Government Accountability Institute. And, basically they did a bunch of digging of information and released it actually in a book and with collaboration of the New York Times, through this book that was called “Clinton Cash.” And it turns out a lot of the things that they were alleging did not really hold up to scrutiny either. Can you talk about that episode a little bit. 

MEIER: Sure. I can’t talk about it from any position of knowledge or authority—

SHEFFIELD: Because you were not involved with it. 

MEIER: I wasn’t involved in it. I wasn’t part of the reporting on it or the writing of it. All I can say is that as a reader of the New York Times, I was to see it. And as an employee of the New York Times, I certainly didn’t feel it represented our finest hour. Why they did it, whether they, that sometimes news organizations feel that— I’m hypothesizing here— they feel like, okay, people perceive us as liberal. They perceive us as pro-Hillary. They perceive us as pro-Democratic, whatever the case may be. Maybe we got to give them a little slack. We got to slap him a little once in awhile just to let everyone know that we’re not. So God knows if it was a, a reflection of that. I don’t know. 

I think there’s always this feeling like, I had, I was doing a story one time with a very fine reporter, who is fortunately still at the Times. And an editor came up and, this was, this report was about a horrible person affiliated with the Trump administration.

And this editor came up to us and said, you know, Barry, I think that we’re going to have to edit this piece a little bit because people are going to expect us to be critical of members of the Trump administration. And, this is just like playing into stuff. I’m going: ‘What the fuck are you talking about? We reported to the story, this guy’s has like a checkered history, and that’s what this is about.’ 

And there’s this, this second guessing that goes on with, how is the reader, the public going to perceive us as a news organization, for running a story, right? And that’s an unfortunate place to be, because we should only run the stories that are worthy of running, regardless of whether they are pro- or anti- or whatever, the administration or particular political party.

So that’s my basic feeling. I’ve never, I saw, that’s probably the only experience of that I had at the Times, but, it was a memorable one. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. What was the reaction in the building after that came out?

MEIER: I don’t know because I, to be totally honest, I don’t know. That’s number one. I would guess that— I don’t want to compare it to the dossier reaction, I think reporters like many people, when a story kind of fizzles, they go: ‘Okay, let me just walk away from that one and move on. And maybe no one is going to really call me out on it.’

SHEFFIELD: Okay. So I’m bringing that up in, you’re talking about that maybe they thought they should throw the right wing a bone by doing it. So you’re talking about how journalists need to be pursuing truth and not be beholden to various sides or partisans.

But at the same time, they should, the Times shouldn’t have done this collaboration with Steve Bannon. So like how can you trot that line? 

MEIER: I think, without speaking too specifically to that story, because to be frank again, I wasn’t involved with it. I have no idea what the thought process was. I don’t know. I have no idea about what the decision process was. More broadly and generally, and this is something I read about in the book, I think it’s very important for news organizations to reframe its interactions with private operatives and private spies. Part of the big embarrassment that the Washington Post is experiencing now, and others are going to experience with the dossier is that they didn’t attribute this information to Fusion GPS or Christopher Steele or whomever they were getting it from. They were just saying, like to “sources” or to “a person familiar with the situation.” And it was clear to anyone with half a brain that they were getting this stuff from Fusion. And, I think— 

SHEFFIELD: Well, and the Post has actually having had, they’ve been having to go back through there.

MEIER: Yes. But there’s still not identifying the sources, which I can understand. They’re still not identified, they’ve written large corrections on those stories, but for the reporters, getting back to maybe they thought they could walk away from those stories without any backlash, I wrote about all those stories in my book and raise questions about Danchenko’s claims in my book and the sources, how those stories were being sourced, both in the Washington Post and in the Wall Street Journal. And you know, I basically got, they blew me off, but now, here we are, it’s a couple of months after my book appeared, and the reporters who were involved, they’re probably wishing to themselves, I wish I’d never agreed to what Fusion asked of me, which was don’t disclose us, keep us away from this article. Don’t mention our name in this story. 

And I think first and foremost to prevent this kind of stuff from happening, those rules of engagement have to be dictated now by journalists, not by private operatives or private spies, we can’t let them set the rules of the game. We set the rules of the game, and if they want to play in our space, they have to follow them.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And since Steele’s work has just collapsed, the far right has now embraced the Steele dossier but in a different way, creating all sorts of elaborate conspiracy theories about— 

MEIER: Yeah, it’s all, it’s all toxic, garbage. It’s all crazy. 

SHEFFIELD: For those who haven’t seen that stuff, what are they saying about it? It’s even more fanciful—

MEIER: Oh that it was an FBI— put this up to begin with, that the FBI wrote all of Steele’s memos. That reporters, that this is all intentional on the part of the media, these weren’t mistakes. This was part of a plot. 

SHEFFIELD: And then they’re lying about the role of the dossier in the FBI originally.

MEIER: Oh yeah. That the FBI would never started this without the dossier, but the main theme is the media sucks. Which you’re allowed, certainly, to have that opinion, and I’m very critical of the media in my book, this now goes one step further, which is: ‘You know what? All these people were in on this to begin with, they were all part of the conspiracy. This was not an accident. These are not errors. This was all a plot. And it’s all fucking crazy. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. 

MEIER: It’s crazy. 

SHEFFIELD: And yeah, and this is the sort of the circumstance that Steele and, to the extent his research was embraced, that’s the circumstance that people have created. That in trying to harm Trump, they actually are enabling him because they were so sloppy and because Fusion was so dishonest.

MEIER: Yeah. And I think, unfortunately the media has enabled that because they allowed Fusion to set the rules of the game. And that was the media’s big mistake, but to jump from that, to say: ‘They didn’t make a mistake. They were in on this from the beginning.’ That’s, in my view, total bullshit. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. But, to some degree why this situation happened is that a lot of media organizations have cut back their spending on investigative journalism. And so now you have groups like Fusion— but not just Fusion, there’s lots of these organizations— and they’re getting paid by people who have lots of money to come up with dirt true or not. And news organizations, in many cases, are buying it or falling for it, not just with this document. 

MEIER: Unfortunately, yes. Unfortunately, there’s a market for information that is gathered by corporate investigators. And I don’t— I’m not one that’s saying that reporters shouldn’t look at this. They shouldn’t accept information from corporate investigators. Sometimes, corporate investigators have spent six months investigating something that may be of public interest. What I am saying is that if a news organization decides to use information from, that’s been gathered by a public investigator or confirms it, if they confirm it independently even, that they owe it to a reader, to a viewer, a listener, whomever, to the public, to make them aware that there is someone in this story with an ax to grind, who’s being paid to gather information. This story did not happen because Barry Meier or some other reporter woke up in the morning with a bright idea to go, let’s say, investigate Matthew Sheffield. This story is happening because just so happens that Matthew Sheffield has a lot of enemies or one very rich enemy, who’s been paying these investigators to dig up information because he wants to torpedo Matthew Sheffield.

And I think we need to be clear that, there are people involved in this story. There’s a dispute going on related to this story and that— there people are gathering information. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Now what’s been the reaction that you’ve had from people in the media to your points here on the—

MEIER: Most of it has been favorable. There’ve been a couple of people who, particularly some of my former colleagues at the Wall Street Journal that are very close to Fusion who had been very unhappy with me, such is life. But, I think there is an awareness, and I think it’s sinking in. If it hadn’t sunk in before, it’s certainly sinking in now with these latest Danchenko revelations, there was an op-ed just the other day, two days ago in the New York Times by Bill Grueskin, who used to be at the Wall Street Journal, and now is a professor at Columbia Journalism Review, basically saying that, look, if the media wants to reclaim its credibility, it needs to basically put its cards on the table. And do autopsies, public autopsies, of how it handled the dossier. And he pointed to other cases like the reporting on weapons of mass destruction on the Wen Ho Lee story about the alleged Chinese spy and, and I believe that also, I believe that the longer— look, I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Durham investigation. That is the new investigation by this council as appointed by Bill Barr to look into the Trump-Russia probe. But none of it, whatever happens, none of it is going to be good for the news media. I think we saw that with the Igor Danchenko indictment and the best way for the media to exorcize itself, exorcize this episode, put it behind itself is simply to come clean. Here’s what we did. Here’s what we did wrong. Here’s what we’re not going to do going forward. It’s not that complicated. 

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right. I appreciate you coming on the show today, Barry. 

MEIER: Thanks Matthew. It was a real pleasure. 

SHEFFIELD: It’s been a great discussion. So Barry Meyer is the author of “Spooked: The Trump Dossier, Black Cube, and the Rise of Private Spies.” And he is on Twitter at BarryMeier

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.