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Russiagate has no rock bottom
The indictment of the Steele dossier's key source newly humiliates the Clinton campaign, FBI, and US media.
It did not seem possible for the Steele dossier – the collection of Trump-Russia conspiracy theories funded by the Clinton campaign; hyped by the US media establishment; and tapped by the FBI for surveillance and investigative leads – to get more embarrassing for all of those involved.
But the indictment by Special Counsel John Durham of Steele's key source, Igor Danchenko, offers 39 pages of new evidence that Russiagate — after five years of failed innuendo, debunked “bombshells”, and humiliating revelations — has no rock bottom.
Danchenko is accused of making false statements to the FBI about his role in feeding Trump-Russia allegations to Christopher Steele, a former British spy working for the private intelligence firm Fusion GPS, which in turn was working for the Clinton campaign. Steele's so-called "intelligence reports" were planted in the media to fuel the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. The FBI also used Steele’s work as source material to chase multiple leads and obtain surveillance warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page.
Whereas Steele claimed to have access to "well-placed and established Kremlin sources," his main source was in fact Danchenko, a DC-based Russian expat who had worked for the Brookings Institution, a Beltway (and Clinton-tied) think tank.
In late 2019, Danchenko humiliated the Steele dossier's powerful champions when it emerged that he had informed the FBI, in a January 2017 interview, that corroboration for the Steele dossier's key claims was "zero." This was for good reason: instead of speaking to Kremlin officials, as Steele had claimed, Danchenko told FBI agents that he had instead relied on booze-fueled "hearsay" in his "conversations with friends."
Now it gets worse. Durham's indictment reveals that one of Danchenko's key "sub-sources" was not even Russian, but a U.S. public relations executive with deep ties to none other than Bill and Hillary Clinton. Another purported "sub-source", Sergei Millian, isn’t Russian (he’s from Belarus), but was the former head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. But there is one problem: contrary to what Danchenko told the FBI, he and Millian never even spoke.
The indictment also suggests that not only was the FBI aware in 2017 that the Steele dossier was fraudulent, but that its key source, Danchenko, was lying to them. But instead of informing the public and indicting Steele's source, the FBI continued the Trump-Russia investigation and tapped the dossier for it. Anonymous intelligence officials even told the public that Steele's farcical claims were bearing out.
Durham's indictment offers new details on how the farce came to be.
Longtime Clinton operative was key dossier source
The public relations executive revealed by Durham to be a key (yet perhaps unwitting) Steele dossier player is Charles Dolan, a longtime Democrat tied to the Clintons since the early 1990s. After two consecutive stints as the Virginia state chair for Bill Clinton's presidential campaign, Clinton appointed Dolan to an influential State Department board in 1997. Dolan also served Hillary Clinton's two presidential campaigns, as advisor in 2008 and as a volunteer in 2016. (Durham did not name Dolan, but included biographical details that made him easy to identify).
Now Dolan can add another key role to his Clinton-world resume.
According to Durham, Steele's claim that Trump cavorted with prostitutes in Moscow's Ritz Carlton was likely embellished from benign information that Dolan gave to Danchenko. During a June 2016 visit to Moscow in preparation for an upcoming conference, Dolan toured the Moscow Ritz Carlton, where he met with the hotel manager and visited the hotel's presidential suite. Danchenko then met with Dolan at the same hotel before flying to the UK to meet with Steele.
Three days after Danchenko's arrival in London, Steele produced his first report, which included the allegation about Russia possessing a pee tape of Trump in Moscow's Ritz Carlton. As Durham notes, Steele references "the Moscow Hotel, the Presidential Suite, and a Moscow Hotel manager and other staff."
According to Durham, Dolan and an associate learned from a hotel staffer that Trump had stayed in the Presidential suite. But Dolan claims that no one at the hotel mentioned anything to do with "sexual or salacious" activity.
Dolan's account suggests that Danchenko took the basic details about Trump's stay at the Ritz Carlton and added his own creative spin about the pee tape.
Whether Hillary Clinton and her campaign were aware of Dolan's role– and Dolan insists that they were not – it's yet one more embarrassing Clinton tie to the Steele dossier, revealed long after the damage was done.
Dolan's place in the Steele supply chain offers yet another glaring (and hilarious) irony: after four-plus years of fanatical and ultimately fruitless efforts to uncover any damning Trump connection, financial or otherwise, to Moscow, Durham reveals that this key Steele dossier player and Clinton ally has far deeper Russia ties than anyone in the Trump orbit.
According to Durham's indictment, Dolan, while an executive at the PR firm Ketchum, was hired by the Kremlin "to handle global public relations for the Russian government," as well as its state-owned energy company, Gazprom.
This is far from the Clintons’ only inconvenient Russia tie, right to the top of the chain. Although much was made of a Trump Tower Moscow project that ultimately involved zero dollars exchanged and never got off the ground, the Clintons have a lucrative Russia tie that their campaign worked hard to memory-hole.
Back when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, the Russian firm Renaissance Capital paid Bill Clinton $500,000 to deliver a speech at a Moscow conference. At the time, Renaissance openly opposed the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials. Hillary Clinton came out against the sanctions during that same period. Campaign emails later released by WikiLeaks show that Clinton staffers "killed a Bloomberg story trying to link HRC's opposition to the Magnitsky bill" to Bill's half-a million-dollar payday.
If Russiagate's conspiratorial, moronic and Russophobic standards were applied across party lines, then these established Clinton-Russia ties would have left Hillary deeply compromised by the Kremlin.
Because of Dolan's deep ties to Russia, Durham adds, the longtime Clinton operative "frequently interacted with senior Russian Federation leadership whose names would later appear" in the dossier. Indeed, the pee tape is not the only instance where Dolan's connections to Russia created dossier fodder. According to Durham, Dolan's personal relationship with a Russian diplomat, Mikhail Kalugin, led to another embellished Steele dossier claim.
In a September 2016 entry, Steele claimed that Russia had just withdrawn Kalugin (misspelled by Steele as "Kulagin") from its Washington embassy "because Moscow feared his heavy involvement in the US presidential election operation… would be exposed in the media there."
But according to the indictment, Kalugin's return to Moscow was not some hasty measure taken by the Kremlin, but in fact a long-planned move that Dolan and an associate were informed about weeks before. Following a May 31st meeting at the Russian embassy, an embassy staffer sent Dolan an email mentioning that Kalugin would be returning to Moscow in September. In August, Kalugin himself personally wrote to Dolan to inform him of his impending departure the following month. Durham then notes that Dolan and Danchenko spoke by phone one day before Steele wrote his report containing the allegation about Kalugin.
Steele's claims about the Russian diplomat, Durham says, "like the allegation concerning the Presidential Suite of the Moscow Hotel — bore substantial similarities to information that [Dolan] received during the 2016 time period." In short, Danchenko took innocuous, Russia-tied information from Dolan, and then embellished it with his own creative spy thriller spin.
Steele – the supposed James Bond-level sleuth – either added his own creative touches as well, or simply reproduced it in his dossier, no questions asked (and no brain cells used).
For another allegation that ended up in the Steele dossier, this time about Paul Manafort, Dolan even informed Durham's team that he "obtained the information… from public news sources."
As I have argued for years, this should have been obvious to anyone reading the dossier chronologically.
Writing in The Nation, I summarized Steele's conspicuous timing:
If the Steele dossier’s far-fetched claims were not enough reason to dismiss it with ridicule, another obvious marker should have set off alarms. Reading the Steele dossier chronologically, a glaring pattern emerges: Steele has no advance knowledge of anything that later proved to be true, and, just as tellingly, many of his most explosive claims appear only after some approximate predication has come out in public form.
…In short, far from having access to high-level intelligence, Steele and his “sources” only had access to news outlets and their own imaginations.
Steele's media and Congressional accomplices
Rather than notice Steele's obvious pattern – coming out with an explosive allegation after a predicate has already been publicly reported, and failing to report anything later substantiated that wasn't yet publicly known at the time of his "reporting" – prominent media and political figures treated Steele's creative spin on public events as evidence of intrepid sleuthing.
Accordingly, on top of the Clinton campaign, the Danchenko indictment offers new humiliation for many prominent media figures who treated Steele as the Pee Tape Pied Piper. I have previously called out some of the worst offenders. I will keep here to some of those who, somehow, are continuing to dig in.
Guardian reporter Luke Harding repackaged Steele's gossip for his best-selling book, Collusion, and promoted him at every turn. It was thus no surprise that Harding was unable to defend any of his claims when I interviewed him in December 2017.
What should be a surprise – assuming that the Guardian is interested in minimal journalism standards – is that Harding is still allowed to cover anything to do with Steele or Russia.
Harding's report on the Danchenko indictment downplays its significance and even resorts to outright fabrication. In an apparent bid to vindicate himself and Steele, Harding declares that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has "noted that there were multiple contacts in 2016 between Russian spies and Trump aides." Mueller has never made such a claim.
(An accurate description of what Mueller and the FBI actually found was recently offered in passing by CNN's Marshall Cohen. The Russia probe, Cohen wrote, "uncovered contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians." That is correct. The most hyped scandal in US history uncovered contacts with Russian passport holders. To fabulists like Harding, that translates to "spies.")
As Matt Taibbi notes, the most prominent and embarrassing offender was MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. Steele's allegation that Russia had withdrawn Kalugin from Washington, for example, was the centerpiece of a March 2017 segment from Maddow titled "More Pieces Of Donald Trump Russia Dossier Check Out."
Recall that Maddow was such a fervent believer in Steele's sleuthing powers that she even speculated, just days before Trump's 2017 inauguration, that Putin might use the pee tape to blackmail Trump into withdrawing US forces near Russia’s border.
Maddow: Here’s the question – is the new president going to take those troops out? After all the speculation, after all the worry, we are actually about to find out if Russia maybe has something on the new president? We’re about to find out if the new president of our country is going to do what Russia wants once he’s commander-in-chief of the U.S. military starting noon on Friday. What is he going to do with those deployments? Watch this space. Seriously.
True to form, Maddow devoted her coverage of the Danchenko indictment to dismissing it as a "Trumpian" ploy, as part of Durman's "mission to demonize the investigation of Trump's associations with Russia."
Just last month, ABC News released an entire special featuring Steele's first on-camera interview since Russiagate began. The 68-minute documentary, hosted by former senior Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, goes to great lengths to portray Steele as credible.
George Stephanopoulos: And today, do you still believe that that tape exists?
Christopher Steele: I think it probably does, but I wouldn't put 100 percent certainty on it.
Stephanopoulos: So you stand by the dossier?
Steele: I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had, and the professionalism which we applied to it.
It's only in the closing minutes that we learn about the 2019 Department of Justice Inspector General report that "eviscerated" the dossier. But that is soon countered with a parting offering from ABC News' Matthew Mosk: "Now looking back on it, there are people who will say Christopher Steele’s dossier has been debunked. And there are other people who will say it’s mostly held up. Maybe it's somewhere in between."
These examples only scratch the surface of the US media's Steele stenography. And although ABC News, Maddow, Harding et al. remain in apparent Steele denial, there are signs that the dam is breaking elsewhere. Most notably, the Post's Devlin Barrett and Tom Jackman responded to the Danchenko indictment by acknowledging that its allegations "cast new uncertainty on some past reporting on the dossier by news organizations, including The Washington Post."
The same could be said not only for the Post's media contemporaries, but for Democratic members of Congress. Adam Schiff and Bill Pascrell were such Steele-Believers that they even read the dossier into the Congressional Record.
"Is it a coincidence that the Russian gas company Rosneft sold a 19 percent share after former British Intelligence Officer Steele was told by Russian sources that Carter Page was offered fees on a deal of just that size?," Schiff intoned in March 2017. "Is it a coincidence that Steele’s Russian sources also affirmed that Russia had stolen documents hurtful to Secretary Clinton that it would utilize in exchange for pro-Russian policies that would later come to pass?"
No, it wasn't a coincidence: in the summer of 2016, Steele's "sources" had managed to successfully read in the news media that Page had visited Moscow, and that Russia was accused of stealing the Democratic Party's emails.
"I include in the Record the link to the entire Trump/Russia dossier produced by Christopher Steele, so future generations will know the truth of how we got here today," Pascrell declared the following year, just before Trump's meeting with Russian President Vladmir Putin in Helsinki.
Pascrell presumably did not anticipate that future generations would also be able to read indictments and Justice Department reports showing Steele and his key source to be frauds.
"A lot of it is bearing out"
While the Danchenko indictment brings new embarrassment to Steele's media and political dupes, it offers new evidence of negligent and potentially even criminal behavior on the part of the FBI.
The FBI conducted a series of interviews with Danchenko starting in January 2017. Even after he informed them that the Steele dossier was based on alcohol-fueled hearsay, the FBI continued to cite it in surveillance warrants on Carter Page. Anonymous intelligence officials even proceeded to feed the media with the lie that Steele's dossier was being corroborated.
In February 2017 -- just weeks after the FBI's first interview with Danchenko -- CNN reported, based on intelligence sources, that "US investigators corroborate some aspects of the Russia dossier." The FBI is "continuing to chase down stuff from the dossier, and, at its core, a lot of it is bearing out," an unidentified intelligence official told The New Yorker later that month.
We now know that Steele's main source had told the FBI the precise opposite. And we also learn from Durham's indictment that the FBI appears to have been aware, at least in June 2017 if not earlier, that Danchenko was lying to them when he denied speaking to Dolan about anything that later showed up in the dossier.
Yet instead of indicting Danchenko for false statements, the FBI let him walk, all while pursuing its investigation of the Trump campaign based on the innuendo that Danchenko and Steele had fueled.
The new Durham indictment accordingly raises fresh questions about the FBI's handling of the Russia investigation.
Whether or not any FBI officials are ultimately held to account, the Danchenko revelations underscore that there is a lot of humiliation to go around, and likely a lot more humiliation to come.
Correction: an earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Sergei Millian is a Russian national. He is in fact from Belarus, and is the former head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
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