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Updated Jun 23, 2023, 7:40am EDT
politics

Have Republicans found their own Steele dossier?

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The News

Remember the Steele dossier? Congressional Republicans certainly do.

On Wednesday, House GOP members voted to formally censure Rep. Adam Schiff, one of Donald Trump’s most vocal Democratic critics in Congress, for spreading “false accusations” that the former president colluded with Russia to beat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among his official list of sins: Hyping the lurid document written by a former British spy that made since-discredited claims about Trump’s ties to Moscow.

As they rebuked Schiff, Republicans were also busy raising an uproar over unproven bribe allegations against Joe Biden — specifically that, during his time as vice president, he received $5 million from an executive at Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where his son Hunter sat on the board. The charge is based on uncorroborated, years-old testimony from a confidential FBI source, which was recorded on a so-called FD-1023 form some lawmakers have been allowed to view.

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Jordan’s view

It all makes for quite the split-screen. Republicans are drumming up a scandal out of a raw, unconfirmed tip, the exact same behavior they’ve accused Schiff of, and deemed worthy of censure. One could even say they may have found their own version of the Steele dossier.

Most Republicans would no doubt reject such a characterization. House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan has seemingly even tried to get ahead of it, arguing that the FBI’s source is probably “a lot more credible than Christopher Steele.” House Oversight Committee Chair James Comer described the source as a “highly credible informant who has been used by the FBI for over 10 years.” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley has noted that the FBI has paid the individual more than $200,000 in recent years for their services, suggesting the Bureau finds them reliable.

That may all be true, but raw allegations are still just raw allegations. And at the time it came to light, there were reasons to think the Steele dossier might be credible as well. Some of its claims were a bit out there (see: The pee tape). But initial coverage focused on how Steele was an experienced former MI6 agent with deep experience in Russia who had previously been paid by the FBI to help investigate global soccer corruption.

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Eventually, his credibility collapsed. It was discovered his report was essentially paid opposition research. Investigators failed to corroborate its central claims, like that Trump attorney Michael Cohen traveled to Prague to collude with Russian officials (something Cohen, now a fierce Trump critic, denies to this day). Maybe most damningly, one of his primary sources, Igor Danchenko, later told the FBI that he had never intended any of the information he provided Steele to be presented as “fact.” Rather, it was mostly “hearsay” and material from “conversation he had with friends over beers.” (Danchenko, it turned out, had also previously been a paid FBI source).

Publicly, at least, Republicans have generally taken all this as evidence Trump was the victim of a “witch hunt” over Russia, despite the fact that the Mueller investigation eventually uncovered at least 140 actual contacts between the former president’s campaign and Russia or its intermediaries.

But one could glean another, more reasonable lesson from the Steele dossier: Don’t trust everything you hear from a former spy, or FBI informant.

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There are additional reasons to question the new allegations against Biden, aside from the natural skepticism one might bring to second-hand accusations that a sitting vice president engaged in millions of dollars worth of unadulterated graft. Namely: Republicans have already subpoenaed thousands of bank records while hunting for evidence that Joe Biden was involved in corruption with his son. So far, they’ve come up empty.

Maybe evidence of a crime is still out there, waiting to be found — the Burisma exec reportedly said it would take 10 years to unravel the bribe’s money trail — but investigators have already turned over an awful lot of rocks.

To be fair, some Republicans have acknowledged that the FBI informant’s allegations may not all be true. The informant claimed, for instance, that the Burisma executive purportedly involved in the bribe also said they had taped 15 phone calls with Hunter Biden, and two with Joe Biden, as “insurance.” A handful of GOP lawmakers have admitted that they don’t know whether those tapes really exist.

But other GOP figures have skipped straight to conviction. Rep. Elise Stefanik, who sits in GOP leadership, has said she believes Biden is guilty of “multiple criminal acts,” for instance.

Then there’s Florida Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, the House Oversight Committee member who authored the resolution censuring Schiff. As she put it to Fox News after viewing the FD-1023 form: “There is no doubt in my mind that Joe Biden is guilty of bribery, 100%.”

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Notable

  • In 2021, CNN produced an extensive lookbook at the history of the Steele Dossier, and its fall from credibility. The same year, the New York Times’ Charlie Savage explained why its shortcomings didn’t necessarily undercut the Trump investigation.
  • Margot Cleveland of the Federalist offered details of how the Burisma executive at the center of the bribery claims reportedly said he was “coerced” into giving money to the Biden’s.
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