On Wednesday, not long after I posted the story, "Republicans skeptical about origin of Trump dossier," I got a note from a friend who had been thinking about the claim that a wealthy GOP donor started the infamous Trump dossier.
I had reported that the Republican operatives who ran against Donald Trump — the managers of the Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and John Kasich campaigns — had not only not heard of any GOP-funded oppo project but did not believe one existed. Neither did some of the NeverTrump activists working outside the campaigns to try to stop the GOP front-runner.
"The reason it is not at all believable that a Republican was behind it is, nobody used [any information] from it," Rubio campaign manager Terry Sullivan told me. "Everybody was pretty damn desperate at the end. If someone had a kitchen sink, they would have thrown it."
My friend thought there might be some semantics involved. "The phrase 'wealthy Republican donor' doesn't necessarily have to denote a Republican," he wrote in an email exchange. "It could refer to a Democrat who has also made occasional donations to Republicans, especially if the source of the info is trying to mislead without technically lying."
Yes, it could. And in so many investigations, misleading-without-technically-lying is the Washington way. So perhaps the dossier origin story fits in that category.
Meanwhile, staffers for the Senate Judiciary Committee are going over hours of testimony given Tuesday by the man who made the dossier happen, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Investigators are waiting for a transcript, and committee chairman Sen. Chuck Grassley said at a town hall meeting in Iowa Wednesday that he'll hold a committee vote on releasing the transcript publicly (and that he'll vote in favor of release).
But the fact is, on the question many in the public want answered — who paid for the dossier? — Simpson and his lawyers have been refusing to answer for quite a while, and after the interview Tuesday, Simpson lawyer Josh Levy said that Simpson "kept the identities of Fusion GPS's clients confidential." So the transcript will likely not tell us anything about that. The real question is whether the committee will try to force Simpson to answer, and whether he will answer even then.
On Wednesday and Thursday, there was more talk, but little enlightenment, on the source of the dossier. The Daily Caller's Chuck Ross talked to anti-Trump GOP strategists and donors and found that none of them knew anything about the supposed Republican donor who was allegedly helping bring down President Trump.
On Wednesday night, GOP strategist Rick Wilson, virulently anti-Trump, appeared on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show and added nothing to our knowledge of the alleged Republican origins of the dossier.
Maddow said that last July, "an investigative reporter in the TV news business called up Rick Wilson and said, hey, basically, you're a NeverTrump guy, have you heard anything about this private intel operation that has turned up supposedly a whole sheaf of allegations about Trump being connected to Russia? About Russia having compromising material on Trump? And Trump being involved, or at least informed about this Russia hacking the Democratic Party?"
Wilson told Maddow, "I didn't know [the dossier] was from Christopher Steele or Fusion proper until January when the 'BuzzFeed' document rolled out. But the information was certainly circulating." Wilson said nothing about the alleged Republican origins of the dossier.
It's probably a good idea to take a closer look at how everyone seems to believe that Republicans started the Trump dossier. First, it's worth looking at which news organizations Fusion chose to tell about the dossier in the weeks before last year's presidential election.
In a British lawsuit over the dossier, lawyers for Christopher Steele, the former MI6 spy whom Fusion recruited to dig dirt in Russia, described how Steele revealed the dossier's findings to a selected group of journalists in the last weeks of the general election campaign:
The journalists initially briefed at the end of September 2016 by [Steele] and Fusion at Fusion's instruction were from the New York Times, the Washington Post, Yahoo News, the New Yorker, and CNN. [Steele] subsequently participated in further meetings at Fusion's instruction with Fusion and the New York Times, the Washington Post and Yahoo News, which took place in mid-October 2016. In each of those cases the briefing was conducted verbally in person. In addition, and again at Fusion's instruction, in late October 2016 [Steele] briefed a journalist from Mother Jones by Skype.
Most of the journalists involved did not write anything about the dossier at the time. (Mother Jones' David Corn was the exception.) But some have described the dossier's origins.
In a story published Oct. 31, 2016 — "A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump" — Corn described "an opposition research project originally financed by a Republican client critical of [Trump]."
In January, after the dossier became public, the Times said the dossier research began in September 2015 and was the work of "a wealthy Republican donor who strongly opposed Mr. Trump." The Times reported that the identity of the Republican donor is "unclear."
Also in January, Yahoo's Michael Isikoff wrote about the dossier but did not describe its origin. Christopher Steele, Isikoff wrote, "had been hired originally to investigate Trump by his political opponents" and "was hired by a Washington political research firm working for Democrats looking for damaging material on Trump." But that was the hiring of Steele, which apparently took place in early summer 2016. The alleged Republican phase of the dossier research, months earlier, went unmentioned in the Isikoff piece.
It's not clear how many people, other than Glenn Simpson himself, know who originally funded the dossier project. And now Simpson has officially refused to tell Senate investigators who it was. If the Judiciary Committee votes to make the transcript public, we'll know more about what Simpson said. But we still won't know the origin of the dossier.