If James Comey and Andrew McCabe were aware of the numerous problems with the Steele dossier when they led the FBI in early 2017, they didn’t let on during all of the interviews they conducted after being fired from the bureau.
A review of television interviews that the two former FBI leaders gave in 2018 and 2019 shows that they defended dossier author Christopher Steele as credible, and suggested that there were some elements of truth to the ex-spy’s salacious reports.
Never did Comey or McCabe indicate that the FBI had information in late 2016 and early 2017 that Steele was viewed by some former colleagues as having poor judgement. The former FBI chieftains also did not mention that investigators received information in January and February 2017 that Russian operatives might have fed disinformation to Steele.
Comey and McCabe likely had some awareness of the myriad of problems with Steele’s work, which he carried on while on the payroll of the Clinton campaign.
They were heavily involved in the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign, and signed off on the FBI’s applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders to conduct surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page. The FBI cited Steele’s information extensively in the applications.
Information from a Justice Department inspector general’s (IG) report declassified over the past week shows that the FBI received evidence on Jan. 12, 2017, two days after BuzzFeed News published the dossier, that Russian disinformation was behind the dossier allegation that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen met with Kremlin operatives in Prague in August 2016.
The FBI received information on Feb. 27, 2017, that Russian operatives might have been behind Steele’s most jarring claim: that the Kremlin had video of Donald Trump in a Moscow hotel room with prostitutes in 2013, the IG report stated.
McCabe was acting director of the FBI — he took over after Comey was fired — when investigators received another bombshell piece of information about the dossier. A footnote in the IG report declassified on Wednesday said the U.S. intelligence community provided the FBI evidence that two affiliates of Russian intelligence were aware that Steele was investigating Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
If Comey and McCabe knew about those red flags, they would likely not have been allowed to discuss them outside of a classified setting. But in interviews after their respective firings, neither Comey nor McCabe ever criticized the dossier, or let on that some of it might be completely wrong.
Comey has said in multiple interviews since his May 9, 2017, firing that he did not know one way or the other whether Steele’s allegation about Donald Trump with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel in 2013 was accurate.
In an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on April 13, 2018, to tout his book, Comey described his Jan. 6, 2017, briefing to then-President-elect Donald Trump regarding the dossier’s Moscow prostitute claim.
Comey said Trump vehemently denied the allegation but did not provide any hint in his interview with Stephanopoulos that there was evidence that the salacious dossier claim could have been tainted by Russian operatives. Instead, he left open the possibility that the allegation had merit.
“It’s very difficult to prove something didn’t happen,” Comey said.
“I don’t know whether the current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It’s possible, but I don’t know,” he added.
Comey told The New Yorker’s David Remnick in an interview published April 23, 2018, that he considered Steele a “reliable” source of information.
He asserted that the dossier came from a “credible person with a reliable track record with a known experience and source network in Russia, so it was something to be taken seriously.”
“Doesn’t mean it was all true, but it was to be taken seriously. And its core assertion was corroborated by other sources.”
Comey also provided no hint that he was aware of information that would undercut the dossier.
“I don’t believe it less,” he said.
“The work that was underway to try to replicate it, try to understand the source network and all the information that was in there, but I hadn’t gotten an update on it by the time I was fired.”
Comey was still FBI chief when Steele’s primary source of information for his Trump investigation told FBI agents that Steele had embellished or mischaracterized information in the dossier.
Comey maintained in an April 30, 2018, interview with PBS that “the core allegation of the dossier was credible,” without acknowledging its laundry list of problems.
He said that Steele’s reports were “consistent with the other intelligence that the intelligence community had gathered, that is that the Russians had engaged in a sophisticated, comprehensive effort aimed at our election.”
“That turned out to be true.”
“There were lots of spokes in the dossier off of that central hub, but the central hub was consistent with other intelligence. An effort was underway to try and understand whether the other spokes could be ruled in or ruled out, and I don’t know where that ended up.”
What Comey failed to reveal is that the FBI already had much of the information that Steele shared about Russia’s election meddling efforts. And Steele’s main contribution to the FBI’s investigation was the material he provided alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian government.
The IG report and special counsel’s report debunked most of those allegations.
Comey was given an opportunity in an April 19, 2018, interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper to acknowledge that parts of the Steele dossier had been “debunked.”
Instead, he avoided admitting to the problems with Steele’s information, saying the FBI was still investigating the material when he was fired.
“All I can say is a core part of it was consistent with lots of other intelligence,” Comey said. “A core part of it being the Russians are engaged in an orchestrated campaign to influence the election.”
McCabe, who served as acting director of the FBI from Comey’s firing to Aug. 2, 2o17, told veteran reporter Carl Bernstein in an Oct. 3, 2019, interview that Steele had a “very solid track record” of providing information to the FBI. The FBI had used information from Steele to obtain other search warrants and to start other investigations, he said. The IG report disputed that claim.
Like Comey, McCabe implied that Steele’s information was largely accurate, and that he was transparent about the possibility that some of it was inaccurate.
But nowhere in McCabe’s defense of Steele did he let on that some of the dossier information was totally wrong.
“Some of it he felt was pretty solid, others he made clear, like, ‘Hey, I’m getting this from one person, and I can’t vouch for this sourcing chain, and I’m just giving it to you for your information,’” McCabe told Bernstein.
Neither Comey nor McCabe could be reached for comment.