Disintegration of Russiagate
Daniel Lazare delves into the murky world of dossiers, secret agents and pro-Democrat conspiracies
The best way to think of American politics is as a mixed martial-arts fight that keeps on going. Just when you think that the warriors have delivered their last kick or body slam, a roar goes out, as Joe Biden, Kamala Harris et al stagger back into the cage for more.
The latest round involves the Steele dossier - the 35-page report cooked up by an ex-MI6 agent named Christopher Steele. This triggered such a massive storm in early 2017 that it nearly capsized the incoming Trump administration and the reason it was so explosive can be summed up in two words: “golden showers”. Late-night comics could not stop talking about the “pee tape” for the same reason they could not stop talking about Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky and that famous cigar a couple of decades earlier. It was an image that stuck in the mind and would not let go. Whenever Donald Trump was nice to Vladimir Putin, assorted bigwigs would announce that the only possible explanation was that the Kremlin had some kompromat that it was using to keep the president in line and that Steele was the proof.
“I really do wonder if the Russians have something on him,” former director of national intelligence James Clapper announced after Trump and Putin appeared overly chummy at a summit meeting in Helsinki in July 2018. “He is wholly in the pocket of Putin,” added ex-CIA chief John Brennan. Then New York Democrat Chuck Schumer declared on the Senate floor:
Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous and inexplicable behaviour is the possibility - the very real possibility - that president Putin holds damaging information over President Trump.
They said it so often that it had to be true - except that it wasn’t. Not only does The New York Times now classify the dossier as “a compendium of rumours and unproven assertions”,1 but a special prosecutor has indicted two people for lying to the FBI about their roles in creating it in the first place. If true, the charges indicate that top Democrats were present at the creation, as they financed the dossier, helped to formulate its contents and then covered up their role, as they sought to cut Trump off at the knees before he even took office. Indeed, one top Democratic operative may have planted the seeds for the golden-showers report itself. All in all, it is the dirtiest political trick since the Tories used the notorious Zinoviev letter forgery to undermine Labour and win a landslide victory in 1924.
Not that readers will be able to work up much sympathy for poor Trump. But the allegations suggest two or three things about the nature of US politics. One is that Democrats are second to none, when it comes to slimy tactics. Another is that not all conspiracy theories are false and that a few well-placed individuals can still manipulate politics by pulling wires behind the scenes.
But a third is that political destabilisation is not something that began on January 6, but a process that has been building for decades. Depending on how you count them, the last half-dozen years or so have seen not one US coup attempt, but three: the effort to use the Steele dossier to drive Trump out of office beginning in January 2017; the Capitol Hill insurrection in January 2021, and general Mark Milley’s post-insurrection efforts to bend military protocol, so as to ensure that “the Nazis aren’t getting in” during the final countdown to Joe Biden’s inauguration two weeks later. Each occurred, as the underlying constitutional machinery continued to buckle and sway under the weight of accumulated stresses and strains. Now that the argument over the Steele dossier is entering a new stage, the process can only intensify until the system continues with its slow-motion collapse.
John Durham, the special prosecutor who issued the indictments, was appointed by Trump attorney general William Barr in April 2019 as a follow-up to the less than damning report that Robert Mueller (yet another special prosecutor) issued a month earlier. Although the Trump association is enough to damn Durham in Democratic eyes, Mueller’s conclusion that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” cried out for an explanation. How could years of sound and fury end up signifying virtually nothing?
Durham was thus tagged with getting to the bottom of it all, and his indictments are the first attempt at an answer. The first concerns an incident that occurred around the time that Steele was seeking to interest reporters and FBI agents in his freshly minted dossier. In September 2016, a Washington attorney named Michael Sussmann - a former federal prosecutor, who now represented the Democratic National Committee - approached the bureau with a report that the Trump campaign had established a secret communications link with the Moscow-based Alfa Bank. The report caused a sensation, when it was leaked to the press, because Alfa’s owner, Mikhail Fridman, reportedly has close ties to Putin. But the charges soon turned out to be bogus - although CNN broadcasting channels continued flogging it for months after.2
The problem with Sussmann is not that he approached the FBI, but that he allegedly lied about why he was doing so. According to the indictment, he let the FBI think that “he was acting as a good citizen”, when in fact he was doing it at the behest of the Hillary Clinton campaign and an unnamed high-tech executive, both of whom were paying him for his services. He thus tried to cover his tracks, while supposedly using the FBI to set off a false alarm. Sussmann is also interesting for at least two other reasons:
- Following reports in April 2016 that Russians had hacked the DNC’s computers, he contacted an old friend named Shawn Henry - a former FBI chief of cyber-security, who now led a California firm known as CrowdStrike - and asked him to investigate. Unsurprisingly, CrowdStrike quickly concluded that Russian intelligence was guilty as charged. Curiously, though, the DNC never granted the bureau access to its servers, so it could verify for itself that Russia was indeed responsible.
- Even more strangely, Henry later told the House Intelligence Committee that, while his team found evidence that Russians had infiltrated the DNC, “we did not have concrete evidence that data was exfiltrated from the DNC” - meaning that there was no evidence that Russian intelligence had extracted thousands of emails and passed them along to WikiLeaks, as the Mueller report would later charge.3
So Sussmann helped shape the emerging Russiagate scandal from the beginning, which makes his indictment doubly important.
The second indictment, issued on November 3, concerns a US-based Russian named Igor Danchenko, who it says served as Steele’s primary source for the dossier, and Charles Dolan Jr, a public-relations executive with close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton going back to 1992. Remarkably considering Hillary’s anti-Russian paranoia, Dolan also served as a top PR advisor to the Kremlin from 2006 to 2014.
While arranging a Moscow business conference two years later, the indictment says that Dolan was invited on a tour of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton and was informed by a staff member that Trump had once stayed in the hotel’s presidential suite. The indictment adds that “the staff member did not mention any sexual or salacious activity” and says that it is unknown whether Dolan passed on the information to Danchenko. But, since Danchenko allegedly lied to FBI agents about where he got his information from - he told them that he also stayed at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in June 2016 and that it came from the hotel manager and other employees - it raises the possibility that the real source was Dolan. As for Trump cavorting with prostitutes, it is not clear how that particular titbit emerged. But the indictment places Dolan close to the scene of the crime.
If the shoe was on the other foot - if, for example, a top Trump official turned out to be closely associated with a Russian-based rumour mill producing dirt on Hillary - Democrats would be in a frenzy. But for now there is mainly silence as professional Russophobes like MSNBC TV host Rachel Maddow accuse Durham of trying “to smear Christopher Steele’s intelligence reports as things that were deliberately made up and concocted by rascally Democrats”. But that could change, as the slow-moving but methodical Durham uncovers more information.
So Steele’s top source lied about where he got his information from, while a top Democrat lied about what he told the FBI. But that is only the beginning. Even though the Dems lost the 2016 election, they still derived incalculable benefits. Since Steele had worked with the FBI on a previous investigation, the bureau regarded him as a reliable source and felt obliged to check out his findings in full - a process that took months. But that meant ignoring clear and obvious warning signs that the document was nonsense. For example, it opens with a straightforward claim: “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years. Aim, endorsed by Putin, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.”
But that means that Trump was a force to be reckoned with back in 2011, when he was in fact a laughing stock - a game-show host whom Barack Obama mercilessly skewered at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner for his role in promoting the absurd Birthergate scandal.4 Rolling Stone magazine made fun of him for sporting a hairdo “that’s the patriotic shade of amber waves of grain”.5 A presidential bid the same year turned into a royal flop. The idea that the Kremlin had the foresight to pick out such an apparent nonentity as someone capable of splitting Nato in two and reversing years of anti-Russian policies is laughable as well.
Other discrepancies were equally glaring. Yet official Washington failed to toss the dossier in the wastebasket, as any normal person would do. Instead, the FBI dawdled as various “experts” struggled to determine if Steele’s findings were true. (Deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe testified that the bureau’s directorate of intelligence concluded that they were “credible and accurate” - an indication of the bureau’s awesome level of incompetence.6) While still director of national intelligence, according to the Mueller report, Clapper disclosed in an email that Trump “asked if I could put out a statement”, once the dossier was made public. “He would prefer, of course, that I say the documents are bogus - which, of course, I can’t do.”
The effect was to leave Trump twisting in the wind, vainly insisting that the dossier was untrue and reviled for spreading Russian dezinformatsiya for so much as trying. Democrats had a field day, as did the press. The New Yorker ran a 15,000-word article defending Steele as “very efficient, very professional and very credible”,7 while The Guardian’s Luke Harding went one better by claiming that the KGB had been cultivating Trump not since 2011, but since 1987 - the year Trump first visited Moscow.8 The BBC’s Paul Wood continued defending the dossier as late as August 2020.9
Cold warriors endorsed Steele’s charges for one reason: they were gearing up for conflict with Moscow and therefore wanted them to be true. Clapper testified that Russians are “an existential threat to this country that is not interested in furthering our interests, certainly, or cooperating with us”. FBI attorney Lisa Page texted that the Russians “are probably the worst. Very little I finding redeeming about this. Even in history. Couple of good writers and artists, I guess.” To which, her boyfriend, Peter Strzok, the FBI’s chief of counterintelligence, replied: “fucking conniving, cheating savages. At statecraft, athletics - you name it. I’m glad I’m on Team USA.” Christopher Steele assured them that Russia was even worse than they imagined, and so they embraced his findings and used them to try to defenestrate a sitting president.
But now the entire conspiracy is disintegrating, as Durham proceeds with his work.
‘Birthergate’ was the allegation that Obama was born in Kenya and was therefore not a natural-born citizen, as required by article 2, section 1 of the US constitution. For shots of Trump writhing in discomfort, as Obama continued with his monologue, see: www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9mzJhvC-8E.↩︎
See page 46 of McCabe’s December 2017 testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, available at: www.dni.gov/files/HPSCI_Transcripts/2020-05-04-Andrew_McCabe-MTR_Redacted.pdf.↩︎