In November, U.S. attorney John Durham indicted the primary source for the so-called Steele dossier—a document that supposedly offered proof of a conspiracy between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Kremlin. Igor Danchenko, a Russian national living in the United States, has been charged with five counts of perjuring himself to the FBI. The indictment alleges that a major source of information for the Steele dossier was an unregistered American lobbyist for Russia named Charles Dolan, who has been a close associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton for years.
This revelation has compelled some observers to look back critically on the behavior of the media these past five years. Erik Wemple, the media columnist of the Washington Post, said that “key claims in the indictment…[raise] specific concerns about reports in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and ABC News—as well as more general concerns about how outlets such as MSNBC, CNN, McClatchy and Mother Jones handled the story.”
Even so, the Paul Reveres of the Trump-Russia scandal are digging in. Even if former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier was fake, they tell us, Russiagate was real.
“The Steele dossier undertook to answer the question ‘What the hell is going on with Trump and Russia?’” David Frum writes in the Atlantic. “But the disintegration of the dossier’s answers has not silenced the power of its question.” Indeed, he claims, Durham was actually appointed in 2019 by Trump-administration attorney general William Barr with the specific intention of silencing that question.
Max Boot, Jonathan Chait, David Corn, and Charlie Savage have offered similar arguments, contending that the recent focus on the fraudulence of the Steele dossier only plays into Trump’s effort to discredit the broader investigations into his campaign’s ties to Russia. There’s a kernel of truth to this argument. As I wrote in the January 2021 issue of Commentary, when it comes to Russia, Trump was both framed and guilty. Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation did uncover impressive details about Russia’s operation to hack and publicize the emails of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. Furthermore, a 2020 report from the Senate Intelligence Committee confirms that one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s relationship to a man named Konstantin Kilimnik, who the report says is a Russian intelligence officer, presented a major counterintelligence threat.
We also know that Manafort’s deputy on the campaign forwarded internal Trump polling data to Kilimnik. Meanwhile, Trump fixer Michael Cohen was pursuing a Moscow Trump Tower deal into the summer of 2016, something Trump lied about during the campaign. Trump consigliere Roger Stone tried (and failed) to get advanced copies of the hacked emails from WikiLeaks. Donald Trump Jr. was eager to meet a Russian lawyer who promised (and failed) to deliver dirt on Hillary Clinton. And Trump publicly denied Russia’s role in the email hacks, even after the intelligence community warned that the Russians had done the hacking.
According to Frum and his fellow Russiagaters, these factoids provide a retrospective defense of the investigations into Trump world’s ties to Russia. At the very least, Vladimir Putin could have used Trump’s lie about having no business in Russia as leverage over him. And given what was known in 2017, there was enough smoke to justify the FBI’s search for a fire.
But there are more than a few problems with this argument. To start, Trump’s actual foreign policy (as opposed to many of his public statements) foiled Russia’s strategic ambitions. From arming Ukraine to recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate president, Trump often took a harder line on Moscow than his predecessor had.
Moreover, the record presented about Trump’s near-collusion is selective. So while it’s true that Manafort directed his deputy to share polling data with Kilimnik, the Senate Intelligence Committee also says Kilimnik was at the same time a regular source for the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. The State Department granted Kilimnik a visa to travel to the United States at the end of 2016. And before linking up with Manafort’s political-consulting shop, Kilimnik worked for 10 years in Moscow for the International Republican Institute. In other words, if Kilimnik was a Russian agent, then it looks as if the FBI didn’t know it during the 2016 election.
Further context also weakens other claims from Russiagate’s defenders. Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone says that Stone told the Trump campaign that he could get hold of the hacked emails. But if Stone had been colluding with Russia, why would he need to pressure intermediaries to get in touch with WikiLeaks instead of going directly to the source? Donald Trump Jr. was indeed eager to receive dirt from a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya. But she already had a longstanding contract with Fusion GPS (the research firm that hired Steele) to lobby against the imposition of human-rights sanctions on Russia. Veselnitskaya provided research prepared by Fusion GPS in her meeting with the younger Trump.
All of these facts were thoroughly investigated, first by the FBI and later by the Mueller team. They were not found to be evidence of the conspiracy alleged by Trump critics at the beginning of Trump’s presidency. Chait argues that Stone’s and Manafort’s decisions not to cooperate with Mueller or the Senate committee meant that investigators were “left with suggestive but not conclusive evidence of the full extent of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia.” But Mueller did obtain full cooperation from Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, as well as the people Stone tried to enlist in his scheme to obtain the emails from WikiLeaks.
Another problem with the defense of Russiagate is that it overlooks the pernicious role Steele’s dossier played in both the public perception of Trump’s legitimacy as president and the FBI’s actual investigation. Well into 2018, top journalists and Democratic politicians insisted that Steele was a credible source. This view was bolstered by former FBI director James Comey’s decision to brief both Trump and Barack Obama about the dossier’s core allegations during the presidential transition. The fact that Comey took Steele seriously was the hook that the website Buzzfeed used to justify publishing the dossier after Trump had been sworn in. And countless news organizations followed Buzzfeed’s lead.
There were exceptions. Bob Woodward dismissed the dossier shortly after it was published. Frum notes that investigative journalist David Satter was an early critic of the dossier as well. But those voices were few and far between. The consensus in 2017 and 2018 was that Steele was a hero. Jane Mayer’s 2018 New Yorker profile of the former British spy is a useful example. She presents Republican efforts to discredit the dossier as nothing less than slander. Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democratic senator from Rhode Island, told her, “To impeach Steele’s dossier is to impeach Mueller’s investigation.” Mayer also interpreted the string of early victories for Mueller’s team in forcing various officials to plead out to lesser charges as evidence that Steele’s research was checking out. “It’s getting harder every day to claim that Steele was simply spreading lies, now that three former Trump campaign officials . . . have all pleaded guilty to criminal charges, and appear to be cooperating with the investigation,” she wrote.
This brings us to the FBI’s role in this debacle. By the time Mayer wrote her profile of Steele, FBI agents knew that the dossier was garbage. We know this from a report issued by the inspector general at the Department of Justice, Michael Horowitz, in December 2019. First, Horowitz revealed that the bureau had determined by the end of 2017 that Steele’s supposed value as a source for earlier FBI investigations was far less meaningful than FBI personnel had initially been led to believe. And Horowitz found that the FBI proved unable to verify anything in the dossier aside from what had already been publicly known. Steele’s primary source, Danchenko, had backed away from several of its most explosive claims.
Considering that James Comey, who served as FBI director from 2013 to 2017, had broken precedent and announced ongoing investigations into both Clinton in 2016 and then Trump three months into his presidency in 2017, it’s a mystery why the FBI didn’t bother to tell Congress or the public that its own reporting on Steele had turned up nothing. Instead, Comey (and later his deputy, Andrew McCabe) allowed Steele’s slander to linger.
It’s also important to note that Steele’s unverified allegations were the key evidence that the FBI used to obtain a warrant to conduct surveillance on Trump aide Carter Page—something that is not supposed to happen in the case of an American citizen unless the agency has evidence showing “probable cause” to believe that the American citizen is involved in espionage. Even more shocking, the FBI renewed that warrant three subsequent times without informing the surveillance court that investigators could not confirm any of its core allegations.
Comey also fought to include the dossier’s allegations in the 2017 intelligence-community assessment of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 election. He was blocked by the CIA, which suspected that the document was little more than a collation of Internet rumors. The Senate Intelligence Committee says the bureau had assigned a team of analysts and agents to try to verify it.
All of that said, Horowitz concluded that the Steele dossier did not play a role in opening the FBI’s investigation in 2016. He says that the bureau initiated the investigation after former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer alerted the U.S. government about something he heard over drinks with a low-level Trump-campaign staffer, George Papadopoulos. Downer said Papadopoulos had told him that Russia was planning to release damaging information about Clinton during the campaign.
Durham disagrees with Horowitz about this. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened,” Durham said in a statement two years ago.
Since then, it’s been an open question what exactly he meant. Durham’s two indictments don’t show much of his hand. They do, however, expose the role that Clinton’s campaign played in influencing the FBI. Both indictments allege that Democratic operatives ginned up bogus investigations into Trump with the apparent goal of generating press coverage of the investigations themselves.
The first of these indictments, against Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann, says Sussmann presented a white paper detailing unusual communications between the computer servers of the Trump organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. The bureau determined that there was nothing to it. Durham alleges (and Sussmann’s lawyers have disputed) that the researchers who helped produce the white paper found its claims to be overblown. Sussmann is charged with lying to the FBI’s general counsel, James Baker, because Durham says Sussmann concealed the fact that he was billing the Clinton campaign when he brought the white paper to Baker’s attention.
The indictment of Igor Danchenko alleges that Danchenko fabricated a source. Danchenko claimed that a Belarussian real-estate developer named Sergei Millian had revealed the Trump-Russia conspiracy to him. But it turns out Danchenko never spoke to Millian. And Durham says Danchenko deceived the bureau about his relationship with Charles Dolan, the Clinton insider, who appears to be at least one of the sources for the infamous allegation that the Kremlin has a video of Trump consorting with prostitutes (the “pee tape”). Another dossier source was a Clinton supporter who had hoped to get a job in her administration after the election. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Durham argues that the lies of Danchenko and Sussmann were consequential because they hindered the FBI’s proper evaluation of the sources of the Steele Dossier and the Alfa Bank white paper. His indictment of Danchenko says these deceits “deprived FBI agents and analysts of probative information . . . that would have, among other things, assisted them in evaluating the credibility, reliability, and veracity” of the dossier. That in itself is a damning indictment of not only Danchenko and Sussmann, but also Comey and other FBI leaders who were determined to give so much credibility to a document based on the word of a fabricator in the first place.
Those who continue to insist that the only scandal is a relationship between Russia and the Trump campaign that has been the subject of five years of relentless investigation are in danger of indicting themselves. Durham will soon complete his narrative report on the involvement of the Clinton campaign in this apparently dirty trick that wreaked unjustified havoc on the lives of people like Page and Papadopoulos and that has smashed the FBI’s credibility to smithereens. We might then see how much the Russiagate clingers care about norms when it is Trump’s opponents who have violated them.
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