- A talking point comparing Democrats’ work with the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer has reemerged in the wake of revelations about who funded a controversial dossier.
- Experts say the talking point is dubious given the distinct origins of the information in the dossier and the information apparently offered by the Russians directly to the Trump campaign.
- “It’s a very different thing for a government, particularly an enemy, to somehow offer opposition research as a way of saying ‘we want to help you win and someone else lose,” said one longtime Republican strategist.
Conservative commentators and allies of President Donald Trump have begun to recycle a dubious talking point comparing the opposition research funded by Democrats compiled in an explosive dossier to Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer.
A source familiar with the matter confirmed to Business Insider on Tuesday that the opposition research firm that produced the Trump-Russia dossier, Fusion GPS, was retained by a lawyer representing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
It had been previously and extensively reported that Democrats — albeit unidentified ones — had paid for the research that led to the dossier after anti-Trump Republicans stopped funding Fusion in the spring of 2016. The dossier contains extensive, mostly still-unverified claims that the Russian government collected compromising information on Trump and actively supported his campaign.
Trump’s supporters and right-wing media allies more broadly have characterised the Clinton campaign’s involvement with Fusion as akin to, or worse than, the kind of collusion with a foreign government of which the Trump campaign has been accused.
Trump Jr. on Wednesday retweeted several commentators making that point.
“Love the hypocrisy,” wrote one Trump supporter and Fox News commentator. “The people who complained about Don Jr’s 15 minute nothing meeting payed $$$ for the Fusion file.”
“We’re About To Find Out If Dems Really Care About Russian Interference,” tweeted Federalist writer Mollie Hemingway.
“Hard 2read this w/o concluding Clinton campaign colluded w Russia 2interfere in US election,” wrote former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who worked under President George W. Bush.
The comparison first emerged over the summer, when Trump Jr. sought to deflect criticism of his meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower last June by embracing that its purpose was to collect opposition research on Hillary Clinton for his father’s campaign.
Echoing his son, Trump said at the time that “most people would have taken that meeting. It’s called opposition research.”
The argument quickly spawned a new talking point among the president’s allies and the Republican National Committee — that Democrats, too, worked with a foreign government to dig up dirt on Trump when they started working with Fusion last summer.
“We now know that Democrats actually used a foreign agent to disseminate phony information to the American mainstream media that allegedly came from inside the Kremlin,” RNC rapid response director Michael Ahrens wrote in an email sent out to the committee’s mailing list at the time.
Fusion GPS hired Christopher Steele — a former British spy who founded his own opposition research firm in London — to collect information about Trump’s ties to Russia from the high-level government sources he had developed during his years working for MI6 in Moscow. The raw intelligence memos Steele wrote between June and December 2016 citing Kremlin officials were sent back to Fusion and compiled into a dossier that was published in full by BuzzFeed in January.
Scott Olson, a former FBI agent who spent 20 years at the bureau and specialised in counterintelligence, told Business Insider in an interview earlier this year that he believed the Trump Jr. episode with Veselnitskaya and the Steele dossier to be “very nearly equivalent.”
“The only distinction is in who initiated: Jr. accepted an offer and the Democrats made a request,” Olson said. (On the Steele dossier, Republicans made the initial request and Democrats took over later.)
“But fundamentally both were interacting with Russians to gain information,” Olson said. “Those who claim the situations are different should be asked to explain how.”
Others, however, said there are some key differences between the opposition research apparently offered to the Trump campaign by the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and the research compiled by Steele on behalf of Democrats.
Perhaps the most significant difference, they said, is that Steele brought his findings about potential collusion between Trump associates and Moscow to the FBI. On the other hand, Trump Jr. and the other campaign advisers present for the meeting with Veselnitskaya did not alert authorities to an offer by a “Russian government attorney” for potential dirt on Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.
“Uncovering information as Steele did (and so many other intel services!) of a Russian intelligence operation, and then reporting it to the proper authorities is not the same thing as meeting with Russian intelligence officers so as to collude in secret to support their covert action to undermine and alter the US election,” veteran CIA operative Glenn Carle said in an email.
Reports soon surfaced that a Russian lobbyist who has been accused of serving as a Soviet military intelligence officer also attended the meeting with Trump Jr., Veselnitskaya, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and current White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.
As many as five other people were in the meeting, too, including a translator and a representative of the Agalarov family. Russian pop star Emin Agalarov, a family friend of the Trumps, had asked publicist Rob Goldstone to set up the meeting.
Steele, Carle said, “became so alarmed they immediately alerted the appropriate authorities.” The FBI reportedly did not act on the information quickly enough, so it was passed along to Republican Sen. John McCain. But McCain handed it over to the FBI, too.
Rick Tyler, a longtime Republican strategist who worked on Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, said in an interview earlier this year that the Steele dossier and Trump Jr.’s meeting with Veselnitskaya are “apples and oranges.”
“Getting opposition research from a qualified professional, even if it’s a foreign national, is one thing,” Tyler said.
“There are lots of foreign nationals in the US and abroad who work on political campaigns. But it’s a very different thing for a government, particularly an enemy, to somehow offer opposition research as a way of saying ‘we want to help you win and someone else lose.’ That is very serious, and would essentially be allowing a foreign government to help influence an election.”
Steele, Tyler said, was not representing a foreign government whose interests he was trying to insert into the election process. Even if Veselnitskaya was not directly connected to the Kremlin, she was presented to Trump Jr. as a “Russian government attorney” who wanted to help the campaign as part of the Russian government’s support for Trump’s candidacy.
“In my opinion, it’s a difference based on the fact that a state is volunteering information in the latter case [of Veselnitskaya],” Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert who is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said in an email.
“The Russians supposedly used for the Steele dossier were just sources, passing on information because they were paid or otherwise induced,” Galeotti said. “But this is a case in which (also supposedly: we have nothing more than a publicist’s email claim that this was the case) the Russian government itself was intervening for, presumably, its own purposes.”
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