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The Steele dossier: A guide to the latest allegations

Former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. (Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 10, 2017, BuzzFeed News took the unusual step of publishing what it described as memos containing “specific, unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump [campaign] aides and Russian operatives.” This dossier, alleging a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, was assembled by a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, working under contract for a private investigation firm at the behest of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Many of the memos, which suggested deep sourcing within Russia, had quietly circulated in media and law enforcement circles for months before BuzzFeed made them public.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 24, FBI agents sat down for the first of several interviews with Steele’s “primary sub-source” — the key person who had collected information from contacts supposedly close to the inner circle at the Kremlin. A memo of those conversations, only revealed in 2020 by a U.S. senator, show that this source, Igor Danchenko, was based in Washington, and he said his contacts for information given to Steele were an eclectic mix — including a drinking buddy, a middle school friend working in Cyprus and an anonymous caller. It was not clear whether any of the supposed sources were especially well-connected, and Danchenko said he rarely kept notes of his conversations.

The middle school friend, Olga Galkina, appears to be the person Danchenko identified as a source for a number of discredited claims, such as an alleged trip by Trump fixer Michael Cohen to Prague for clandestine meetings with Kremlin operatives. Cohen has repeatedly denied he went to Prague for any such meetings. Galkina said in a 2021 court filing she had no idea Danchenko had used “private discussions or private communications” as dossier material. “I believe that Mr. Danchenko identified me as Sub-Source 3 to create more authoritativeness for his work.”

A senior FBI official had an even earlier indication that a lot of Steele’s information did not come from sources in Russia. On Dec. 10, 2016, then-Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr met with Glenn Simpson, head of Fusion GPS, the firm that had hired Steele. “Much of the collection about the Trump campaign ties to Russia comes from a former Russian intelligence officer (? not entirely clear) who lives in the U.S.,” Ohr messily scribbled in his notes, obtained by congressional investigators and disclosed by the Hill newspaper. Ohr’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Yet FBI officials, in testimony before Congress, continued to vouch for Steele’s work as a reliable source of information. FBI officials also continued to cite the dossier in three more renewals of applications for court-approved wiretaps of a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page. “The FBI has cooperated fully with Special Counsel Durham’s review,” the agency said in a statement, referring to special counsel John Durham, who is tasked with investigating whether laws were violated through law enforcement activities during the 2016 campaign.

There is an old saying in journalism: You’re only as good as your sources. Now a Nov. 3 indictment of Danchenko on five counts of lying to the FBI has suggested that Steele’s sources were not very good at all. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer said the indictment presents “a false narrative designed to humiliate and slander a renowned expert in business intelligence for political gain.” (Update, Oct. 18, 2022: A federal jury found Danchenko not guilty on four counts; the judge dismissed one count before the case went to the jury.)

For readers who are confused about the latest twists and turns in this saga, here’s a guide to bring you up to date.

The ‘dossier’ and the Russia probes

To a large extent, the dossier has been a side show to the main event — clear evidence of the Russian government’s efforts to intervene in the 2016 election on the side of Donald Trump. A bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2020 confirmed the initial intelligence community finding.

Moreover, the FBI opened its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government not because of the dossier, but because of a tip from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had disclosed that Russia had obtained damaging information on Hillary Clinton. “This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring,” concluded a 2019 Justice Department inspector general report.

The report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III also largely ignored the dossier. He could not find evidence of a conspiracy between Trump and the Kremlin, but he concluded the campaign was opportunistic about apparent assistance from Russia.

For instance, when given a chance to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from a person they were told represented the Russian government, top campaign aides, including Donald Trump Jr., eagerly gathered to collect it — though it turned out to be nothing of importance.

Mueller’s investigation, moreover, determined that the hacking of the Democratic National Committee was directed by the Kremlin in an effort to help Trump’s campaign — further evidence of Russia’s covert backing of Trump.

But the Steele dossier has loomed large in the public imagination, in part because of media coverage of salacious elements, such as an alleged incident involving Trump and sex workers in a Moscow hotel room. Then-FBI Director James B. Comey on Jan. 7, 2017, privately briefed Trump on the Moscow hotel reference in the dossier, a discussion that quickly leaked.

BuzzFeed’s subsequent publication of the entire document brought what was presented as raw intelligence into the open. The dossier was eagerly described on cable news shows and referenced by Democrats in congressional hearings. The fact that the dossier’s funding was traced to the Clinton campaign — and that Steele had actively pitched the findings to news reporters — gave Trump and his defenders an opening to try to discredit the Russia-related investigations as partisan-inspired witch hunts.

The new indictment

The Danchenko indictment has further bolstered the perception, especially on the right, that the dossier was a smear campaign orchestrated by Trump’s opponents. The indictment alleges that a source for Danchenko was a longtime political operative who was a supporter of Clinton and that another source, who had no role, was falsely identified by Danchenko.

Here are the key players in the indictment — with accompanying analysis.

Igor Danchenko

A Russian citizen living in the Washington area who had worked as a Russian analyst for the Brookings Institution, the 43-year-old Danchenko was exposed as Steele’s “primary sub-source” in 2020, when the FBI memo of his interviews was released and an Internet sleuth figured out his name from the redactions. Doubts about how the dossier had been assembled had already been raised by the Justice Department inspector general report, and the disclosure of the FBI interviews further undermined the dossier reporting.

Danchenko had worked with Steele for many years and, starting in March 2016, he was tasked by Steele to investigate important individuals in Trump’s orbit, though he admitted to the FBI that he was “clueless” about one name — Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort.

Danchenko would brief Steele alone about his findings. He told the FBI he was surprised to read Steele’s reports after they were made public by BuzzFeed, suggesting Steele may have misstated or exaggerated his reporting. (For instance, the alleged Moscow hotel incident was described in Steele’s memo as “confirmed,” but Danchenko claimed he told Steele it was just “rumor and speculation” and he had not been able to confirm it.)

In an interview with ABC News on Oct. 18, Steele disputed that. “I stand by the work we did, the sources that we had, and the professionalism which we applied to it,” he said. He added: “We knew some of it was right, and we suspected some of it may never be provable.” An attorney for Fusion GPS did not respond to a request for comment.

The indictment charges that Danchenko lied to FBI officials about the sources he used for his reports to Steele. Danchenko was voluntarily interviewed in exchange for immunity, the New York Times reported, but he was supposed to answer questions truthfully.

A footnote in the 2019 Justice Department inspector general report, declassified in 2020, states that Danchenko “was the subject of an FBI counterintelligence investigation from 2009 to 2011 that assessed his/her documented contacts with suspected Russian intelligence officers.” The investigation was closed with no action taken, and Danchenko has dismissed it as “false, baseless allegations.”

Analysis: With immunity, Danchenko would have every incentive to answer truthfully. In his FBI interviews, he appeared relatively open about his reporting methods and his sources. Some, including in the FBI, have theorized that Steele’s methods were so sloppy that Russian disinformation could have infected into the final product. The indictment raises questions about whether some sources were too close to the Democrats or would benefit from a Clinton victory.

Charles Dolan Jr.

Identified in the indictment as “PR Executive-l,” Dolan is a 71-year-old public relations executive who had long been involved in Democratic politics. (A lawyer for Dolan confirmed his identity but declined to comment because he was a “witness in an ongoing case.”) He was Virginia chairman for President Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 campaigns, advised Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign and served as a volunteer for her 2016 campaign, according to the indictment.

The indictment charges that Danchenko denied that Dolan “was otherwise involved in the events and information described in the reports” — which, given his partisan background, the indictment says was important for the FBI to know in assessing the reliability of the dossier. At one point, in the FBI interviews, an agent noted that Danchenko did not appear to be Steele’s only contributor and asked: “You had never talked to [PR Executive-1] about anything that showed up in the dossier right?” Danchenko replied: “We talked about, you know, related issues perhaps but no, no, no, nothing specific.”

Dolan was well-connected in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, the indictment said, and thus would be in a position to pass on high-grade gossip. But it’s not clear that Danchenko received much of value if he had used him as a source. Dolan said he was unaware of Danchenko’s “project against Trump,” according to the indictment.

The most specific reference to information from Dolan that is alleged to have ended up in a dossier memo, dated Aug. 22, 2016, turns out to have a hyped origin. Dolan allegedly claimed to Danchenko that a “GOP friend” had passed on rumors that Manafort would be dismissed as Trump’s campaign chairman. The details were sourced in the Steele memo to “an American political figure associated with DONALD TRUMP and his campaign.” Manafort resigned on Aug. 19, three days before Steele’s memo was issued.

The indictment says Dolan admitted to the FBI that there was no such friend; he had just summarized material in news reports.

The indictment alleges that other various bits of information in the dossier appear to have come from exchanges Danchenko had with Dolan, but Danchenko was only charged with lying about the Manafort item.

Meanwhile, Galkina, in her court filing, made as part of a bank’s lawsuit against Fusion GPS, says Danchenko introduced her to Dolan in 2016 when she was seeking to run a PR campaign in the United States. The indictment says Dolan and Galkina began regular communication and “discussed their political views and their support for Hillary Clinton,” with Galkina expressing hope to associates for increased access if Clinton won the election. Dolan would “take me to the State Department if Hillary wins,” she wrote in a message to an associate that is quoted in the indictment. Galkina did not respond to a request for comment.

There are other intriguing connections. Fiona Hill, the British-born former national security aide to Trump — who testified against him in the hearings that led to his first impeachment — is described in the indictment as the person who connected Danchenko to Dolan. She thanks Dolan in her 2013 book on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hill, who has long worked at the Brookings Institution, also connected Danchenko to Steele, whom she had met in the mid-2000s when they were both working in intelligence.

During unsuccessful defamation proceedings in London, a lawyer for Russian technology executive Aleksej Gubarev asserted that Strobe Talbott, at the time president of Brookings and a friend of Bill Clinton since they were both Rhodes scholars at Oxford, contacted Steele “out of the blue” in August 2016 and offered his assistance on the dossier. Talbott said he was not offering assistance but was trying to learn more about Steele’s findings.

Hill, who has declined to comment on the indictment, testified to Congress that Talbott shared a copy of the dossier the day before it was published by BuzzFeed.

Analysis: Dolan’s involvement as a possible source for the dossier makes the document appear even more partisan. Dolan was a longtime Clinton supporter — and the Clinton campaign was underwriting the project to which he allegedly contributed. The fact that Danchenko allegedly played down Dolan’s role is suspicious, given the other Clinton connections surrounding Steele’s efforts. But the indictment is vague about whether Dolan played a substantial role in the dossier, especially because the only charge in the indictment that refers to Dolan concerns the gossip about Manafort’s firing — which was relatively accurate, given it drew from news accounts.

Sergei Millian

Identified in the indictment as “Chamber President -1,” the avid Trump supporter and president of the Russian American Chamber of Commerce since 2017 has been cited in news reports as an unwitting source for some of the most salacious material in the dossier. That’s because Danchenko suggested to the FBI that Millian, a Belarusian American who had sold condos for Trump, was one of his sub-sources. (Danchenko would use imprecise phrases such as “I was under the impression it was him” or “at least someone who I thought was him.”)

Millian has strenuously denied he had anything to do with the dossier. “Steele’s work product is political propaganda, not real intelligence,” a Twitter account bearing his name tweeted on Oct. 10 as part of a 94-part Twitter thread condemning how the dossier put Millian in the public eye. Millian did not respond to a request for comment.

Fusion GPS had also conducted its own research into Millian, Simpson told the House Intelligence Committee in 2017. When Ohr met with Simpson on Dec. 10, 2016, Ohr reported later to the FBI that “Simpson still thinks that Sergei Millian is the key figure connecting Trump to Russia.”

The indictment charges that Danchenko made up his alleged contacts with Millian. The indictment alleges that Danchenko “never spoke to” Millian at all, even though he had told the FBI that Millian anonymously called him and they had arranged to meet in New York. Danchenko had claimed he believed Millian was the anonymous caller because he later “listened to online videos” of Millian and he sounded like the person on the call. After the indictment and fresh reporting, The Washington Post corrected and updated articles that had identified Millian as a sub-source for the dossier. Four of the five charges in the indictment relate to Danchenko claiming he used Millian as a source. (Separately, in yet another odd connection, Millian contacted Papadopoulos in 2016 and the two men discussed doing business deals together.)

Analysis: With the removal of Millian as source for the dossier, much of the material must be discarded as highly suspect. The inspector general report noted how important a certain sub-source — supposedly Millian — was to many of the reports: “The reports describe this sub-source in varying ways: Report 80 (‘Source D, a close associate of TRUMP ….'); Report 95 (‘Source E, an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP ….'); Report 97 (‘a Russian emigre figure close to the Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald TRUMP’s campaign team ….'); and Report 102 (‘[A]n ethnic Russian associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald TRUMP …’).”

Indeed, “Source E” supposedly described the “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin — which the indictment says was the underpinning of the court-approved wiretaps of Page.

The media’s role

The Steele dossier has raised uncomfortable questions in media circles about whether some news organizations and TV pundits too quickly embraced sketchy opposition research that shaped their coverage.

Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor in chief who made the controversial decision to publish the dossier, has steadfastly defended that move.

After a defamation case against BuzzFeed related to the dossier was thrown out in 2018, Smith took a victory lap. He said the dossier was newsworthy and it was in the public’s interest to read it because the FBI took the document so seriously. “The broad outline of what Steele was writing is unquestionably true, and he was writing that in the summer of 2016, which is extraordinary,” he told Vanity Fair.

After the Danchenko indictment was unveiled, Smith, now a New York Times columnist, told Axios: “My view on the logic of publishing hasn’t changed.”

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How is Fusion GPS connected to the Trump dossier, Donald Trump Jr.'s Trump Tower meeting and the 2016 election? The Fact Checker explains. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)