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Opinion Indictment of Steele dossier source is more bad news for multiple media outlets

Igor Danchenko leaves the U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Nov. 4. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

MSNBC host Rachel Maddow in December 2017 aired a special report on the Trump-Russia dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. That document, claimed Maddow, relied on information coming from Steele’s “deep cover sources inside Russia.”

A federal indictment unsealed Thursday has something to say about the quality of those “sources.”

It charges Igor Danchenko, the dossier’s primary intelligence collector, with making false statements to the FBI about his interactions with sources consulted for the dossier. Danchenko isn’t a deep-cover type; he’s a Russian national living in the United States and a former Brookings Institution analyst who “focused on analyzing business and political risks in Russia,” as the New York Times put it.

The charges against Danchenko are the work of John Durham, the Justice Department special counsel whose mandate is to investigate the investigation into Donald Trump and Russia. He has been on the case for 2½ years.

The Danchenko indictment doubles as a critique of several media outlets that covered Steele’s reports in 2016 and after its publication by BuzzFeed in January 2017. As discussed in this series, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the McClatchy newspaper chain and various pundits showered credibility upon the dossier without corroboration — and found other topics to cover when a forceful debunking arrived in December 2019 via a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

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The indictment provides further insight into why the FBI had concluded that the dossier was mostly a jumble of claims that were inaccurate, unconfirmed or already publicly reported. Sourcing for the dossier was threadbare in the most charitable of depictions.

For example: According to the indictment, Danchenko denied to the FBI that he’d discussed dossier material with a person described in the document as “PR Executive-1,” since identified as Charles Dolan Jr., a longtime Democratic operative who volunteered for the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign. The indictment traces at least one allegation in the dossier directly to exchanges that Danchenko had with Dolan. “Any thought, rumor, allegation. I am working on a related project against Trump,” wrote Danchenko in an email to Dolan.

The timing for this interaction was August 2016, when Paul Manafort resigned from his position as Trump campaign chairman. According to the indictment, Danchenko asked Dolan for information about the campaign’s shakeup, and Dolan responded that he’d had drinks with a “GOP friend” who said people on the campaign wanted Manafort out. The dossier revised the wording here and there, but provided a report that was “substantially the same” as what Dolan had passed along, in the words of the indictment. Talk about circular logic: The dossier was funded by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee — via research group Fusion GPS — yet here was a career Democrat feeding information to its primary collector.

It gets more embarrassing: The indictment alleges that Dolan never actually had drinks with a Republican pal; instead, he “fabricated the fact of the meeting,” in the words of the indictment, and pieced together the gossip from news sources. That looks pretty bad, especially alongside Steele’s recent defense of the dossier to ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos. “I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had and the professionalism which we applied to it,” Steele said, speculating there would be more revelations down the road.

Another key claim in the indictment relates to an alleged dossier source identified as “Chamber President-1,” also known as Sergei Millian, former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. In January 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that “key claims” from the dossier originated from Millian, although not directly; they were “relayed by at least one third party to the British ex-spy who prepared the dossier." ABC News published a similar story a week later.

The Washington Post in March 2017 reported on a conversation in which Millian “shared some tantalizing claims about Donald Trump” — namely, that “Trump had a long-standing relationship with Russian officials … and those officials were now feeding Trump damaging information about his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.” Another claim that purportedly came in part from Millian was the dossier’s most infamous — about Trump allegedly participating in activity at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton with prostitutes.

The Danchenko indictment, however, challenges the idea that Millian fed information to Steele’s project, wittingly or unwittingly. It claims that Danchenko “never spoke” to Millian, and that his claims of a phone call were fabricated. That’s particularly troublesome to fans of the dossier, because Steele believed that Danchenko had “direct contact” with Millian, according to the indictment. Danchenko “never corrected [Steele] about that erroneous belief,” the indictment states.

The Wall Street Journal on Friday published a story noting that the indictment contradicted the newspaper’s original reporting on Millian. "We will continue to follow the Danchenko case closely and report updates as they develop,” a Journal spokesperson said in a statement. We asked the Journal if it intended to add an editor’s note/correction/retraction to the January 2017 story. A spokesperson declined to elaborate.

The Post also covered the indictment’s implications for its previous story. Executive Editor Sally Buzbee said in a statement: “The indictment raises new questions about whether Sergei Millian was a source for the Steele dossier, as The Post reported in 2017. We are continuing to report on the origins and ramifications of the document.” In a follow-up inquiry, we asked whether The Post is reviewing its previous work on Millian and whether it would publish its findings. A spokesperson for the newspaper declined to comment beyond Buzbee’s statement.

ABC News issued this statement: “We are reviewing this in light of new developments.”

News organizations may face a mismatch as they place their reporting alongside the indictment. Where the indictment relies on emails, interviews and other powerful investigative tools, the Journal’s initial scoop cited a single anonymous source. The sourcing for the The Post’s reporting about Millian’s alleged conversation is unclear, while ABC News attributes its primary assertion to “a person familiar with the raw intelligence provided to the FBI.”

These news outlets now face a steep journalistic challenge — that of returning to their source(s) in an effort to back up the original claims that Millian was an unwitting source for the dossier. If that effort doesn’t produce enough evidence to surmount the allegations in the indictment, there’s only one option: Retract the stories. Allowing one version of events to sit awkwardly alongside another — and leaving it to the reader to decide — won’t cut it.

On her Thursday night program, Maddow cast the Danchenko indictment in political terms, wondering whether the goal of Durham’s work is to “try to discredit the whole Russia investigation by arresting various sources for that investigation, to discredit the Steele dossier because so many people have been led to think that was the reason for the investigation.”

There is, indeed, far more to Russia-Trump than the dossier. Just spend some time with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report, a nearly 1,000-page document that lays out the whole mess. “The Russian government disrupted an American election to help Mr. Trump become president, Russian intelligence services viewed members of the Trump campaign as easily manipulated, and some of Mr. Trump’s advisers were eager for the help from an American adversary,” noted the New York Times in its summary.

Just as Durham can’t use the dossier to deflect from the larger Trump-Russia tableau, however, people such as Maddow and others can’t use the larger Trump-Russia tableau to deflect from their coverage of the dossier. A reckoning is years overdue.