Veteran journalist Bob Woodward revealed in a new interview that Washington Post reporters essentially ignored his warnings about the shortcomings of the infamous Christopher Steele dossier, amidst the feverish Russiagate media coverage that dominated the Trump administration.
In a lengthy report for Columbia Journalism Review, Jeff Gerth interviewed media and political figures wrapped up in Russiagate – the sweeping term for the allegations of Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election – including Donald Trump himself, finding in particular where the media went wrong. Woodward, one of the reporters famous for breaking the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, told Gerth that viewers and readers had been "cheated" by the coverage.
"Bob Woodward, of the Post, told me that news coverage of the Russia inquiry ‘wasn’t handled well’ and that he thought viewers and readers had been 'cheated.' He urged newsrooms to 'walk down the painful road of introspection,'" Gerth wrote.
The Steele dossier came in for a particular shellacking. The series of memos by ex-British spy Christopher Steele containing unproven allegations of Trump-Russia coordination to defeat Hillary Clinton, as well as salacious sex tape rumors about Trump in Russia, was funded by the Clinton campaign and circulated among intelligence officials, journalists and political figures for weeks in 2016 before BuzzFeed News published its full contents in January 2017.
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Then-FBI Director James Comey briefed Trump on the 35-page file's contents shortly before he took office. Then-President Obama was also given a summary of the file, which was reported on uncritically by various left-wing media figures who became enthusiastic proponents of the Russiagate conspiracy. It was also used by the FBI to obtain a surveillance warrant for former Trump aide Carter Page, and read into the congressional record by Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.
By the time BuzzFeed printed the dossier, Russiagate media coverage was in launch mode, but Woodward stood out with his declaration in a Fox News appearance on Jan. 15, 2017, that it was a "garbage document" that never should have been part of an intelligence briefing, Gerth wrote.
Woodward told Gerth that he then "reached out to people who covered this" at the Washington Post. When asked how they reacted, Woodward said, "To be honest, there was a lack of curiosity on the part of the people at the Post about what I had said, why I said this, and I accepted that and I didn’t force it on anyone."
Years later, the Washington Post was forced to issue lengthy corrections to several stories around the Steele dossier. The paper didn't respond to a request for comment.
The Steele dossier is now widely considered discredited, and media outlets that heaped credibility on it have come in for a reckoning from critics. The Michael Horowitz Inspector General report in 2019 found some of the only corroborated aspects of the dossier were publicly available information, and some aspects were specifically proven false, like the accusation that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen once visited Prague as part of a collusion scheme.
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The Washington Post's Erik Wemple published a series of reports on the media failures surrounding the dossier, and the New York Times "Daily" podcast concluded it was "profoundly flawed." The indictment of Steele sub-source Igor Danchenko for lying to the FBI – he was later acquitted – in the John Durham probe revealed one of his sources was longtime Democratic spin doctor and Clinton supporter Charles Dolan, lending what Wemple termed a twisted circular logic to the dossier; a Democratic-funded ex-spy was compiling information in part from a Democratic source who was supporting the funder of the dossier herself.
Steele told Gerth for his CJR report that his "raw intelligence reports" were meant only "for client oral briefing, rather than a finished and assessed written intelligence product." But in the years after its publication by BuzzFeed, figures on MSNBC and CNN often gushed that much of Steele's material had not been disproven.
"A lot of it turned out to be right on the money," MSNBC's Nicolle Wallace said in 2017.
CJR spent 18 months investigating the coverage of Trump and Russia before publishing its report on Monday, and editor-in-chief Kyle Pope stated in an introduction to Gerth's lengthy treatise that neither the press nor Trump came out well.
"The story, which included the Steele dossier and the Mueller report among other totemic moments, resulted in Pulitzer Prizes as well as embarrassing retractions and damaged careers," he wrote. "For Trump, the press’s pursuit of the Russia story convinced him that any sort of normal relationship with the press was impossible."