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‘Who paid for the dossier?’ doesn't matter; Russian meddling in our elections is what's important

Republicans are indignant over this week’s Washington Post report that the Democratic National Committee paid for the infamous “dossier” alleging that Russia had amassed compromising information about Donald Trump and sought to help his presidential campaign.

President Trump himself took to Twitter to complain (quoting Fox News) that “Clinton campaign & DNC paid for research that led to the anti-Trump Fake News Dossier. The victim here is the President." His press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, tweeted that the “real Russia scandal” was that the “Clinton campaign paid for the fake Russia dossier, then lied about it & covered it up.”

That’s absurd. Who paid for the 35-page report compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele is far less important than whether any or all of the allegations it contains are true.

As for a cover-up, it long has been known that the dossier was part of an opposition research project financed by Democrats after originally being funded by an unknown Republican client.

That said, the Washington Post added new detail when it reported on Tuesday that Marc E. Elias, a lawyer representing the Hillary Clinton campaign and the DNC, retained Fusion GPS, a Washington, D.C., firm, to continue its research about Trump. Fusion hired Steele. (The New York Times reported that Elias had “pushed back” earlier this year when asked whether his law firm was the client for the dossier.)

Clearly Democrats shouldn’t have dissembled about their role in underwriting the Steele investigation. And to the extent that the dossier was a vehicle for Russian disinformation, or an attempt by Russian authorities to help the Clinton campaign, that’s a legitimate subject for special counsel Robert Mueller and for congressional committees investigating Russian meddling in the election.

But it’s absurd to suggest that this new wrinkle vindicates Trump’s longstanding claim that the “Trump Russia story is a hoax.” If some of the allegations in the Steele dossier are accurate, it’s of small importance that they were turned up as part of an opposition research operation. And, of course, the Steele document isn’t the only source of suspicion about Russian meddling or about improper contacts between Russian operatives or intermediaries and people in the Trump orbit.

Not for the first time — remember the bogus scandal about the supposedly improper “unmasking” of Trump transition officials whose names appeared in intelligence intercepts? — the president and his allies are seizing on a sideshow to distract attention from the main event: Russian interference in last year’s election and allegations that the Trump campaign colluded in that interference — and that Trump tried to frustrate investigations of that conduct, including by firing former FBI Director James B. Comey. Neither the public nor federal investigators should be fooled into taking their eyes off the ball.

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UPDATES:

10:10 a.m.: This piece was updated to clarify the original funding source for the dossier.

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