An analyst who was a primary source for a 2016 dossier of allegations against Donald Trump has been arrested on charges that he repeatedly lied to the FBI about where and how he got his information, officials said Thursday.
Steele presented the dossier to the FBI, and it was part of the basis for secret surveillance court orders targeting former Trump adviser Carter Page as the FBI investigated possible ties between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
A 2019 report by the Justice Department inspector general found major problems with the accuracy of Danchenko’s information. But the 39-page indictment unveiled Thursday paints a more detailed picture of claims that were allegedly built on exaggerations, rumors and outright lies. The indictment is likely to buttress Republican charges that Democrats and FBI agents intentionally or accidentally turned cheap partisan smears into a high-stakes national security investigation of a sitting president.
The indictment also suggests Danchenko may have lied to Steele and others about where he was getting his information. Some of the material came from a Democratic Party operative with long-standing ties to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, according to the charges, rather than well-connected Russians with insight into the Kremlin.
The allegations cast new uncertainty on some past reporting on the dossier by news organizations, including The Washington Post.
Danchenko appeared briefly Thursday in federal court in Alexandria, Va., where his lawyer tried to enter a plea of not guilty on his behalf for five counts of making false statements. The judge did not accept the plea because the hearing was not an arraignment, and Danchenko was released.
His lawyer declined to speak to reporters outside the courtroom.
Durham’s probe into the FBI’s Russia investigation has also led to the indictment of a lawyer connected to Democrats, on a charge that he lied to the FBI. In addition, a former FBI lawyer who worked on the Page surveillance application later pleaded guilty to altering an email related to that case.
Former FBI officials have said the dossier did not launch their Trump campaign investigation, nor was it a factor in the conclusions reached by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. But the dossier did play a critical role both in how the FBI sought court-approved surveillance and, after it was published by BuzzFeed News in 2017, the public debate about Trump and Russia.
Trump and his supporters have accused FBI officials of trying to discredit or defeat him through an unfair investigation premised on false accusations. The FBI’s defenders, however, say the agency was obligated to examine allegations of Russian interference and possible collusion with the Trump campaign during the election.
Then-Attorney General William P. Barr appointed Durham in 2019 to investigate the origins and handling of the Russia investigation.
Steele’s reports on Trump were based in large part on a person he called his “primary sub-source,” which was Danchenko, according to people familiar with the matter. Danchenko, a 43-year-old Virginia resident and Washington-based researcher, was hired by Steele to talk to people he knew in Russia about any possible ties Trump may have had to the Kremlin.
Steele, in turn, was paid by a research firm, Fusion GPS, that had been hired by a law firm that represented Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. A lawyer for Fusion GPS declined to comment on the indictment on Thursday.
Lawyers for Steele did not immediately reply to requests for comment, though ABC News recently aired an interview with him in which he insisted much of the dossier was accurate and would be proved so eventually.
The indictment charges that Danchenko repeatedly lied to the FBI in interviews in 2017 as agents sought to get to the bottom of claims made in the dossier. It also notes that the FBI “was ultimately not able to confirm or corroborate” most of the dossier’s substantive claims.
An FBI spokeswoman referred questions about the indictment to Durham’s office.
Danchenko allegedly lied to agents when he said he had never communicated about the dossier allegations with a U.S.-based public relations executive “who was a longtime participant in Democratic Party politics.”
The indictment does not identify that individual, but it is Charles Dolan Jr., according to Ralph Martin, a lawyer representing Dolan. Martin said in an email Thursday that his client was a witness in the case; he declined to comment further, and a spokesman for Durham declined to comment on the claim that Dolan is a witness.
The indictment charges that in fact, Danchenko used Dolan as a source for some of the dossier’s allegations.
Dolan had served as a state chairman of Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign and a volunteer on her 2016 campaign.
While in the White House, Bill Clinton appointed Dolan to two four-year terms on a State Department advisory committee, according to the legal filing.
Dolan’s ties to the Democratic Party were so extensive that they bore upon his “reliability, motivations, and potential bias as a source of information” about Trump, the indictment says. Danchenko “gathered some of the information . . . at events in Moscow” organized by Dolan, who invited him to attend, the indictment charges.
The indictment also suggests — but does not say outright — that Danchenko may have relied on information provided by Dolan to fuel the most salacious accusation to come out of the dossier: that Trump supposedly had a liaison with Russian prostitutes in a Moscow hotel and that a video existed of the encounter that could be used to compromise the presidential candidate.
The indictment notes that in June of 2016, the executive received a tour of the Moscow hotel, including a presidential suite in which Trump had once stayed. According to another person who was on the tour, the indictment said, the hotel employee who led the tour never suggested anything sexual or untoward about Trump’s stay. Trump has always denied the allegations.
The indictment suggests that while Danchenko allegedly misled people about his conversations with Dolan, the executive also misled Danchenko. Dolan allegedly told Danchenko in 2016 that a Republican friend described internal Trump campaign discussions surrounding the ouster of a senior campaign official.
That allegation became part of the dossier. But when the FBI spoke to Dolan, he claimed the anecdote was just supposition on his part and there was no Republican friend who had said that to him, according to the indictment.
Dolan also wrote an email in early 2017 that suggested he knew that Danchenko was assembling allegations for the dossier, according to the indictment.
“I’ve been interviewed by the Washington Post and the London Times — three times over the last two days over the Dossier on Trump and I know the Russian agent who made the report (He used to work for me),” Dolan allegedly wrote. It was not immediately clear to what conversations the executive was referring.
The indictment also accuses Danchenko of lying to the FBI about interactions he claimed to have had with the then-president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce in the USA. The indictment doesn’t identify that person, but people familiar with the case have previously said it is Sergei Millian.
Danchenko falsely claimed to have had a phone conversation with a person he thought was Millian as part of his information-gathering for the dossier, according to the indictment, which says the two agreed to meet later in New York. “Danchenko fabricated these facts,” it alleges.
While leading others to believe he was in contact with Millian, Danchenko had allegedly been unsuccessful in trying to speak with him, according to messages that Danchenko sent at the time that were cited in the indictment.
Early in the Russia investigation, law enforcement officials were told Millian was the source of a key claim in the dossier that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump and Russia. But the indictment charges that Danchenko didn’t speak to Millian. It notes that Danchenko sent an email to a Russian journalist in late August 2016 asking for help connecting with Millian because he “doesn’t respond.”
For his part, Steele told the FBI that Millian was one of Danchenko’s sources, according to the indictment. Danchenko told the FBI that he knew Steele believed that he had direct contact with Millian and that he “never corrected” Steele about that “erroneous belief.”
Efforts to reach Millian on Thursday were unsuccessful, but a Twitter account bearing his name posted a message calling on news organizations to correct their past reporting about him.
The Post and other news organizations reported in 2017 that Millian was a source of key information in the dossier, including the anecdote about the Moscow hotel room. The Post reported that Millian had shared the information with an associate, who passed it on to Steele.
“The indictment raises new questions about whether Sergei Millian was a source for the Steele dossier, as The Post reported in 2017,” Post executive editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement Thursday. “We are continuing to report on the origins and ramifications of the dossier.”
Danchenko’s alleged lies were material to the Russia investigation because chasing them down consumed a significant amount of the FBI’s time and resources, the indictment says. It adds that Danchenko’s claims “played a role in the FBI’s investigative decisions and in sworn representations that the FBI made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
A Justice Department inspector general report issued in late 2019 was highly critical of how the FBI used Steele’s allegations. The report found that when the FBI later questioned Danchenko about the allegations contained in Steele’s dossier, Danchenko tried to distance himself from some of the claims, saying the dossier overstated the information he had originally provided to Steele.
Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.