Photo Via The Kremlin / WikiCommons

The Trump-Russia story takes another turn.

John Durham's latest indictment tells us a lot about the media, the FBI and Democrats' opposition research.
Isaac Saul Nov 10, 2021

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

We're covering the latest indictment in John Durham's probe, what it means for the media and what it tells us about the Trump-Russia narrative.

Photo Via The Kremlin / WikiCommons

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. inflation numbers reached a 30-year-high of 6.2% over the last 12 months, as supply shortages and consumer demand continued to push up prices. (The numbers)
  2. The House Committee on Jan. 6 issued 10 more subpoenas of former White House officials. (The subpoenas)
  3. A federal judge denied a request by former President Trump to block the release of White House records related to the January 6 Capitol riots. (The denial)
  4. The United States is going to announce it has brokered a deal to get more doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines into conflict zones around the world. (The announcement)
  5. Anchorman Brian Williams announced he was leaving MSNBC and NBC News at the end of this year. (The announcement)

Today's topic.

The Durham probe. On Thursday last week, a Russian analyst who was a primary source for the opposition research about former President Donald Trump compiled in the "Steele Dossier" was arrested and charged with lying to the FBI. Russian-born Igor Danchenko was charged with five counts of making false statements to the FBI about, among other things, the sources of information he fed to Christopher Steele, according to an unsealed indictment in a Virginia federal court.

Back up: In 2019, then-Attorney General William Barr launched an investigation to review decisions made by intelligence and law enforcement officers during their investigation into whether President Trump received assistance from Russia during the 2016 election. Barr tapped John Durham as special counsel. Durham has spent more than two years investigating the investigation, and Danchenko is the latest person to be indicted. Durham also charged a cybersecurity attorney for allegedly misrepresenting who he was working for during a meeting with the FBI and a former FBI attorney for altering an email used to justify monitoring Trump's campaign.

Now what? Now Durham is charging Danchenko, who allegedly fed information to Steele that was sourced not from Russia-based assets, but from D.C. gossip and Democratic operatives back in the states. Danchenko was interviewed several times when the FBI began investigating claims about Trump, and is now being charged with misleading investigators about how he collected the information that was later included in the Steele dossier.

What else is important? Christopher Steele was hired by Fusion GPS, a Washington research firm that was initially hired to do opposition research on Trump by his Republican primary opponents. Once Trump won the Republican nomination, Fusion GPS sought out Democratic funding to continue their work. When they won a contract with the Democratic party, they hired Steele to investigate Trump's Russia ties. Steele got much of the information he compiled from Danchenko, who is now alleged to have in turn been sourcing some of his information from Democratic operatives like Chuck Dolan, an adviser to the Clintons, back in the states. If true, these charges would cast new doubt on some of the information about Trump and his ties to Russia that circulated in the media before and after he became president.

Danchenko pleaded not guilty to the charges. Previously, we covered the indictment of Michael Sussmann and the Durham probe here.

Below, we'll take a look at some reactions from the left and right. Then my take.


What the left is saying.

The left focused on the damage the indictment does to the media's credibility, though some also questioned aspects of Durham's investigation.

In The Washington Post, Erik Wemple said the indictment was "more bad news" for multiple media outlets, including the Post.

"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,'" Wemple wrote. "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," Wemple said. "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."

In New York Magazine, Barry Meier called it a "crippling blow" for the Steele Dossier.

"It’s hard to imagine a turn of events with more dire consequences than the new indictment for Steele, the dossier, and Fusion GPS, the investigative firm run by two ex-Wall Street Journal reporters that hired the ex-spy on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign and promoted his reports to the media," Meier wrote. "The charges against Danchenko may also force a reckoning that some journalists who embraced the dossier had hoped to avoid — an examination of their reporting about it and their ties to operatives for hire.

"Steele appears to have staked his reputation on the veracity of the reports he received from Danchenko," Meier said. "According to Crime in Progress, the book written about the dossier by Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch, the founders of Fusion GPS, the former spy never disclosed Danchenko’s name to them but instead described him as one of the most talented collectors of intelligence he had ever worked with. In Durham’s indictment, however, Danchenko comes across more like the type of paid informant often found in the world of private spying — one who tells their employer what they want to hear."

On her blog Emptywheel, Marcy Wheeler challenged one of Durham's allegations that Danchenko was lying to associates about the extent of his work for Christopher Steele.

"If anyone at the FBI came away from these early interviews believing that Steele and Danchenko were exercising adequate operational security for this project (even ignoring Steele’s blabbing to the press), they had no business working in counterintelligence," Wheeler wrote. "Then again, Peter Strzok attempted to carry out an extramarital affair on an FBI device that (DOJ IG investigations would later disclose) happened to have a serious vulnerability built into it by a vendor. And in my own very limited experience, the FBI had uncomfortably shoddy operational security. So maybe there’s something to that.

"Durham claimed that Danchenko lied by saying that he 'never mentioned that he worked for Steele or Orbis to his friends or associates.' Durham, as is his sloppy habit, doesn’t quote either the question or Danchenko’s response," Wheeler said. "As a result, Durham hid the material fact that Danchenko was not asked whether he revealed that he worked for Orbis, but whether he told people he collected intelligence for them. And he didn’t answer, 'no;' he answered, 'yes and no.'"


What the right is saying.

The right says the indictment tells a damning story about the media, the Clinton campaign and the FBI.

In USA Today, James S. Robbins said Durham is laying bare the extent of the conspiracy to derail Trump.

"Does anyone still believe the story that Donald Trump colluded with Vladimir Putin to win the 2016 presidential election? If so, special counsel John Durham’s indictment of Igor Danchenko should put their minds at rest," James S. Robbins wrote. "The indictment exposes former Hillary Clinton aide Charles Dolan, identified only as 'PR Executive-1,' as an important Danchenko source. Dolan allegedly fed Danchenko information he claimed he had obtained when he 'had a drink with a GOP friend,' but later admitted he had fabricated the story. The indictment also shows that PR Executive-1 was an important source for reporting by The Washington Post and the Times of London when the Steele dossier scandal broke in January 2017.

"The Danchenko indictment is particularly telling in detailing how the fake story was inserted into the political ecosystem, starting with Dolan and perhaps others. Danchenko allegedly fed the falsehoods to Steele, a British former intelligence operative hired by Fusion GPS to conduct the research," he said. "Fusion GPS had been retained by Clinton campaign lawyer Marc Elias, whom law professor Johnathan Turley has called a 'potential apex target' of the Durham probe. Clinton supporters in the government slipped the information to sympathetic operatives in the Justice Department, who used it to mount a spying campaign on Trump. And the American news media spread the rumors, which undermined the Trump presidency."

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the indictment is an important step in unraveling the Russia case.

"The facts in the indictment add to the evidence that this was from first to last a dirty trick by Hillary Clinton's campaign—and that the media were its gullible promoters," the board wrote. "Most notably, the Russian hid the extent that he was working with a Democratic public-relations executive with ties to Hillary Clinton. Press reports have identified the executive as Charles Dolan, a Clinton associate who in 2016 was actively working to make Hillary the President. The indictment suggests Mr. Dolan was behind several of the salacious and derogatory claims about Mr. Trump that Mr. Danchenko fed to Mr. Steele. Mr. Dolan’s attorney told the New York Times that his client could not comment on an ongoing case.

"This Durham indictment reads like a story with more to come, but some lessons are already clear," the board added. "One question is why the country is only now learning these facts. The Durham indictments treat the FBI as the duped party, but the record shows former FBI director James Comey and his investigators knew from the summer of 2016 that Clinton campaign fingerprints were all over the dossier. A transcript in the Danchenko indictment suggests that FBI officials knew Mr. Danchenko was lying in the 2017 interviews. But they did nothing to blow the whistle, nor to tell the public or Congress everything they had learned about the origins of the Russia collusion tale."

In Bloomberg, Eli Lake asked if the FBI was manipulated by the Democratic party.

"It’s been clear for nearly two years that Steele’s dossier was garbage," Lake wrote. "This is mainly thanks to the work of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who released a report in 2019 skewering the FBI for its use of the dossier in its warrant applications, concluding that the bureau could not confirm any of its original reporting. The main takeaway from the Horowitz investigation was that the FBI cut corners and gamed the surveillance court. Durham’s investigation has taken a different approach. His last two indictments suggest that the FBI was not a villain but a victim, conned by Democratic operatives to pursue bogus investigations into the Trump campaign.

"Durham’s indictment says Danchenko’s lies 'deprived FBI agents and analysts of probative information' 'that would have, among other things, assisted them in evaluating the credibility, reliability, and veracity' of the dossier. Again, Durham portrays the FBI as the victims of the Clinton campaign’s efforts," Lake said. "It’s a fair point as far as it goes. But FBI agents were able to discern that Steele’s information was worthless without the benefit of knowing Danchenko’s relationship to Dolan. They reached this conclusion over the course of four interviews with Danchenko in 2017. Nonetheless, much of the media treated Steele’s allegations as a credible part of an epic FBI investigation until Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced that he had no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 election."


My take.

Welcome to Washington D.C.

First, let's talk about what this is not: This is not proof that the Trump campaign was totally innocent of any wrongdoing during the 2016 campaign. The Steele dossier was barely mentioned in Robert Mueller's report, with good reason, and that report still raised alarming questions about contacts between Trump's advisors and a foreign adversary during the campaign. I'm not saying there was "collusion," but there was plenty of other intrigue beyond just the Steele dossier. This story is very complex, and features two campaigns that were clearly going to the ends of the earth to destroy each other, but taking the latest indictment as a wholesale exoneration of the former president would be foolish and premature — especially given some of the revelations from Mueller’s report that did not rely on the Steele dossier.

Now, let's talk about what this is: In late September, I wrote about Durham's indictment of Michael Sussmann, the high-profile cybersecurity lawyer who came to former FBI counsel James Baker with “evidence” that a server belonging to the Russia-based Alfa Bank appeared to be communicating with Trump organization computers. Sussmann was charged with lying to Baker about who he was working for (he was representing the Clinton campaign) and his tip was proven false. I wrote that this was "classic" D.C. dirty politics and made me think Durham's investigation was "ending with a whimper," not with a bang. "Does Durham have more?” I wrote. “Could this be the tip of the iceberg? It's possible. And if he does I'll change my tune.”

Well, I'm changing my tune.

Igor Danchenko is planning to plead not guilty, but the indictment is damning and lines up with other evidence we already have. It also does a few other things: First, it affirms that Christopher Steele was spreading little more than D.C. gossip. It was a circular festival of nonsense sold to the FBI and the public as deeply-sourced intelligence from highly placed assets. It wasn't. It was garbage, and Steele (who seems to have just taken his "source" at face value) should be embarrassed, but not nearly as embarrassed as the mainstream news outlets who regurgitated it to the public with just as little investigation.

In a straight news report on the indictment, The Washington Post said Durham's findings “cast new uncertainty on some past reporting on the dossier by news organizations, including The Washington Post." No kidding. So kudos to The Post for including this and not burying it (it was in the sixth paragraph of their story), and for also publishing Erik Wemple's criticisms of the media on this topic. But it's November 10, 2021. It's been nearly five years. It shouldn't have taken this long for a media reckoning, and there barely is one as it is. In my effort to compile today's newsletter, Wemple and Meier were the only non-right-wing mainstream columnists I could find who wrote extensively about the indictment and what it means. Many, many more mea culpas are due.

Second, the indictment draws straight lines from the Clinton campaign to the dossier. We've known the Democratic party was funding the research, but that Charles Dolan was purportedly one of Danchenko's primary sources, (and was lying to him) which was then passed onto Steele who then included in his reports, is ridiculous. It's beyond ridiculous. It's remarkable for how absolutely cynical it is: A longtime Clinton campaign operative was feeding a source for an ex-British spy who was then being paid to provide that information back to the Democratic party which then used that information to egg on an FBI investigation into Trump and his campaign.

In the most charitable telling possible of this story, one that requires suspending your disbelief, the Clintons and Democrats just wasted a ton of money paying for "deeply embedded" source info they could have gotten just gossiping with Dolan over coffee in the DNC headquarters. In a far less charitable telling, one that is almost certainly closer to reality, the Clinton campaign helped bring the Steele dossier to life by supplying the gossip that filled its pages and then holding it up as proof Trump was a Russian stooge.

The FBI should be embarrassed, too, but at least (for now) they can claim they were simply incompetent rather than malicious actors. I wouldn’t blame you for not buying that story and I’m certainly not sure I do either. We'll see if that excuse still holds up by the time Durham is done, but — at this point — I wouldn’t bet on it.


Your questions, answered.

Q: It seems to me nothing gets done except in massive catch-all efforts, like the twin infrastructure bills currently struggling their way through the system. Why can't small, common-sense, "kitchen table issues" like updating or eliminating Daylight Saving get passed on an a la carte basis?

— Ren, Boston, MA

Tangle: There are so many forces at work to produce these kinds of outcomes it is hard to know where to begin. For one, polarization: Anytime a bill comes up for a vote, it's an opportunity to amend it with other stuff to pass some of what you want. Members of Congress serve different constituencies with different needs, so their priorities are used as negotiating tools. "Want Daylight Savings changes? Yeah, sure, I'll vote for that, if you include funding for this laboratory in my district!"

There's also just the simple process of how a bill is made and how many opportunities there are to change it along the way. The House.gov website actually has a very good (and simple) explanation of the process that illuminates this:

Laws begin as ideas. First, a representative sponsors a bill. The bill is then assigned to a committee for study. If released by the committee, the bill is put on a calendar to be voted on, debated or amended. If the bill passes by simple majority (218 of 435), the bill moves to the Senate. In the Senate, the bill is assigned to another committee and, if released, debated and voted on. Again, a simple majority (51 of 100) passes the bill. Finally, a conference committee made of House and Senate members works out any differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The resulting bill returns to the House and Senate for final approval. The Government Printing Office prints the revised bill in a process called enrolling. The President has 10 days to sign or veto the enrolled bill.

At every step in this process, another person with their own interests gets to insert themselves into a bill and, generally, that helps it grow.

Finally, there's the money and political pressure. Donors and voters want both progress, so legislators are being pushed from all sides to do something for these interests, which often means joining legislative pushes that have a high chance of succeeding in order to add in their own priorities (remember, the vast majority of proposed legislation never becomes law). There's a lot more to it, but these are the basics.

Want to ask a question? You can reply to this email and write in (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.


A story that matters.

Facebook says it is planning to adopt new restrictions on ad targeting that will have a huge impact on political advertising on the social media network. Meta, Facebook's parent company, said it will eliminate the ability to target based on users' interactions with content related to health, race and ethnicity, political affiliation, religion and sexual orientation, according to Politico. The changes will go into effect on Jan. 19, 2022. Facebook acknowledged the change will negatively impact some businesses, but said it was trying to improve the experiences of people in underrepresented groups on its platform. Politico has the story.


Numbers.

  • 77%. The percentage of Americans who have an unfavorable view of Russia.
  • 22%. The percentage of Americans who have a favorable view of Russia.
  • 66%. The percentage of Americans who had a favorable view of Russia in 2002.
  • 27%. The percentage of Americans who had an unfavorable view of Russia in 2002.
  • $100,000. The cost of Igor Danchenko's bond.
  • $168,000. The amount Christopher Steele was paid for his now-infamous dossier, according to a 2017 statement by Fusion GPS.


Have a nice day.

When Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson was a homeless teenager, he was taken in by Bruno Lauer, who looked after him when his parents couldn't, and twice helped him land on his feet as he pursued an acting and wrestling career. Yesterday, Johnson — now 48 years old and one of the wealthiest actors on the planet — posted himself buying Bruno a brand new Ford F-150 pickup truck as a thank you. He also promised to take care of Bruno whenever he decided he wanted to retire from being a wrestling manager. "I got you covered," Johnson wrote on Instagram. The story — and Johnson's post — quickly went viral.



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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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