clock menu more-arrow no yes

Fox News has normalized a lie about the origins of the Russia investigation

They want you to believe it began with the Steele dossier. It didn’t.

Fox News

As America awaits special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report, Fox News has gotten in the habit of pushing a false talking point about the origins of his investigation — that it began after Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2016 alerted the FBI to the Steele dossier, an unverified intelligence document that contains a number of claims, some of them far-fetched, about the Trump campaign’s dealings with Russia.

“Keep in mind that all of this seemed to have started with this dossier that was essentially an oppo research paper funded by the Democrats, after the Republicans originally started it — dirt on Donald Trump,” Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy said on Friday.

Doocy’s not alone. Hosts and guests alike on Fox News have been pushing this talking point with impunity. Trump ally Dan Bongino made the claim during Tuesday’s edition of Fox & Friends. Last Saturday, host Ed Henry falsely claimed the FBI relied on the dossier “to get this whole thing going” — the “whole thing” being the Russia investigation. On March 10, Fox News contributor Andrew McCarthy said of the dossier, “I think that’s the way the investigation got kicked off.” Trump himself tweeted out a video clip on Monday from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show in which Carlson framed “the Russia hoax” as stemming from the “dirty dossier.”

It is a politically convenient lie. If what Doocy and others were saying were true, it would mean the investigation that has roiled the Trump presidency is based on a document commissioned by Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that hired ex-British spy Christopher Steele. The dossier includes outrageous claims — such as that the Russian government taped Trump watching prostitutes urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow in 2013. It would suggest that the FBI’s efforts to link Trump with Russia may have been motivated by anti-Trump sentiment instead of hard evidence.

This all comes as reports that Mueller is wrapping up his investigation keep coming up from journalists covering the story closely, so it’s not surprising that Trump and his allies are pushing their narrative that the investigation has been a political “witch hunt” from the start. But unfortunately for Fox News and Trump, their new favorite talking point is false.

The FBI’s investigation originated with George Papadopoulos, not Christopher Steele

We’ve known since December 2017 that the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign began in July 2016 — months before the FBI was even alerted to the existence of the Steele dossier.

The inciting incident, according to Sharon LaFraniere, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo at the New York Times, had to do with WikiLeaks, which published hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in July 2016. Those emails prompted Australia’s top diplomat in Britain to inform his American counterparts about a conversation he had two months earlier with George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.

During a night of heavy drinking in London, Papadopoulos bragged to the Australian about his knowledge that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails that would embarrass Mrs. Clinton, apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign,” as the Times put it. Papadopoulos has since agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation and was sentenced to just 14 days in jail, even though Mueller’s team in a court filing said he “did not provide ‘substantial assistance.’”

You don’t have to take the Times’s word for it. Even the so-called “Nunes memo,” prepared by then-House Intelligence Committee chair and staunch Trump ally Devin Nunes (R-CA) and released about a year ago, acknowledges that the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign was “triggered” by evidence presented to American officials about Papadopoulos having secretive contacts with Kremlin agents when it was released about a year ago.

In short, the Russia investigation would have existed even if the Steele dossier never did. But Trump and Fox News are not about to let the facts get in the way of their preferred narrative.

Why are we talking about the Steele dossier again?

The dossier is back in this news this week for a couple of reasons. First, a snippet of a deposition with Steele, the former British spy who put together the dossier, was unsealed last week. The deposition makes clear that Steele “used internet searches and unverified information to support details he had gathered about a web company mentioned in the dossier,” CNN reported — a revelation buttressing the notion that the document wasn’t reliable enough to form the basis of an FBI investigation.

But it’s also in the news because Trump is putting it there. He’s making it a central part of his bizarre, one-sided feud with the late John McCain — in which Trump has slammed him for the role he played in alerting the FBI to the dossier.

“They gave it to John McCain, who gave it to the FBI for very evil purposes. That’s not good,” Trump told Fox Business in an interview that aired Friday morning. “I’m not a fan.”

Last Sunday, Trump tweeted that McCain “sent the Fake Dossier to the FBI and Media hoping to have it printed BEFORE the Election.”

Trump’s tweet is incorrect. McCain did alert the FBI to the dossier, but he did that in December 2016 — one month after the presidential election, and five months after the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign was first opened.

While Trump and Fox News are now trying to revise history, the underlying facts of the FBI’s involvement in the 2016 election do not support the allegation that bureau brass had it out for Trump. Consider that during the 2016 campaign, the FBI investigated both Hillary Clinton and the Trump campaign. Yet the bureau only publicized the investigation into Clinton — a fact that’s now highly inconvenient for those who want to argue that anti-Trump bias motivated the bureau’s decisions.

Furthermore, if FBI higher-ups were so anti-Trump, then it’s hard to explain the decision then-Director James Comey made to send Congress a letter announcing the discovery of new emails pertinent to the investigation of Clinton’s email practices just days before the election. Prominent pollsters have concluded that Comey’s letters, which resulted in Clinton’s emails once again becoming a major story, may have cost her the election.


The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.