Wednesday, November 17, 2021


Mr. Bret Stephens is just such a hack ("The Federal Bureau of Dirty Tricks"):

This month’s bombshell indictment of Igor Danchenko, the Russian national who is charged with lying to the F.B.I. and whose work turns out to have been the main source for Christopher Steele’s notorious dossier, is being treated as a major embarrassment for much of the news media — and, if the charges stick, that’s exactly what it is.

Put media criticism aside for a bit. What this indictment further exposes is that James Comey’s F.B.I. became a Bureau of Dirty Tricks, mitigated only by its own incompetence — like a mash-up of Inspector Javert and Inspector Clouseau. Donald Trump’s best move as president (about which I was dead wrong at the time) may have been to fire him.

"Bombshell indictment" is a matter of perspective, but readers would be better prepared to judge for themselves if Stephens would reveal exactly what Danchenko is alleged to have lied about and how many lies he told, but Stephens only says he is

accused of repeatedly lying to the F.B.I. about his own sources while also having been investigated a decade ago for possible ties to Russian intelligence.

Is that supposed to be an aggravating circumstance? "Lying while having been previously investigated"? (The investigation in question, from 2010 when Danchenko was an analyst at the Brookings Institution working alongside, among others, Fiona Hill, arose when he is said to have told a couple of colleagues that "they could 'make a little extra money' if they were able to 'get a job in the government and had access to classified information'", and was dropped without further action in March 2011, presumably because the Bureau determined there was nothing there.)

So there are five counts in Durham's indictment, referring to what amounts to approximately two specific alleged lies:

  • telling the FBI that he had not gotten any material for the Steele dossier from Charles Dolan, Jr., a public relations executive who has been active in Democratic politics; and
  • telling the FBI that he had gotten some material for the dossier from "an individual who DANCHENKO believed to be" Sergei Millian, the Belarus-born chairman of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce and a figure who has claimed associations with Donald Trump, Michael Cohen, and George Papadopoulos.

Which might lead the casual reader to suppose they're saying that the material Danchenko didn't get from someone he believed was Millian was the material he did get from Dolan, but that's not exactly the case. 

What the indictment says Danchenko got from Dolan was some insider gossip from the Trump campaign that had little to do with Trump-Russia relations, which came out in the Steele report of 22 August like this:

an American political figure associated with Donald TRUMP and his campaign outlined the reasons behind MANAFORT’s recent demise. S/he said it was true that the Ukraine corruption revelations had played a part in this but also, several senior players close to TRUMP had wanted MANAFORT out, primarily to loosen his control on strategy and policy formulation. Of particular importance in this regard was MANAFORT’s predecessor as campaign manager, Corey LEWANDOWSKI, who hated MANAFORT personally and remained close to TRUMP with whom he discussed the presidential campaign on a regular basis.

Except the American political figure is fictional, according to the indictment, which says Dolan actually got this idea from the newspapers (presumably stories like this one from The Guardian a little after Lewandowski was fired and Manafort hired in April 2016), so it wasn't even news at all.

It also drops an elaborate set of hints to the effect that Dolan must have been the source of the famous peepee tape story, but nowhere says so (I'll get back to that) and, similarly but not as excitingly, that Dolan was probably responsible for the story (report of 14 September) that Mikhail Kalugin (misspelled "Kulagin" in the dossier), a staffer in the economic section of the Russian embassy in Washington, had been pulled out of the US in August 2016 because his close association with the Trump campaign could cause trouble for Moscow—one of the claims in the dossier that has been strongly corroborated, by McClatchy and BBC, which reported (in March 2017) that he'd been identified as a spy by the FBI.

As for the material Danchenko allegedly did not get from "an individual he believed to be" Millian, who knows what that was? Since Durham says he didn't get it? There's been a lot of speculation about Millian's possible role in the dossier ever since BuzzFeed published it, but not from Danchenko himself. It comes from close readers who think he might have been the person designated in the first first report, 20 June, as Source D, "a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow" (which Millian has convincingly said could not have been him; "Millian told ABC News he was in Moscow during Trump's 2013 visit but that he did not travel with Trump or meet with him there"), who claimed that the Kremlin had been feeding Trump "dirt" on Hillary Clinton for some years and was one of the first sources for the peepee episode. Or he might more probably have been Source E, "an ethnic Russian close associate of Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump," another source for the peepee episode who introduced the writer to a hotel staffer who also told the writer in a report from July about different Russian measures in the election campaign, in working with Wikileaks (another corroborated allegation), among assets in the Russian émigré handled by diplomats, and among intelligence personnel working in Russia (also corroborated, applying to the hackers who stole the emails and the social media manipulators of the Internet Research Agency). 

But what has been clear since Danchenko's interview first showed up, in July 2020 (when he was still known as Primary Subsource or PSS), is that Millian could not have been a very important source, since Danchenko only had the one phone call, never finding out whether it was actually Millian or not, failing to connect in a planned meeting:

[PSS] recalls that this 10-15 minute conversation included a general discussion about Trump and the Kremlin, that there was “communication” between the parties, and that it was an ongoing relationship. [PSS] recalls that the individual believed to be [Millian] said that there was an “exchange of information” between Trump and the Kremlin, and that there was “nothing bad about it,” Millian said that some of the information exchange could be good for Russian, and some could be damaging to Trump, but deniable. The individual said that the Kremlin might be of help to get Trump elected, but [PSS] did not recall any discussion or mention of Wikileaks. (snipped by Emptywheel)

That wasn't much! And I don't see how Durham's team could be positive he was lying about it. They might have real evidence that Millian didn't call him, but Danchenko didn't say he did! He could only go so far as to say that he thought it was Millian at the time. Is Durham saying he really knew it wasn't Millian? Or the phone call didn't happen at all? Why doesn't the indictment say?

And the part about the Ritz-Carlton is even weaker:

30. On or about June 13, 2016, PR Executive-I [Dolan] and Organizer-I [who hasn't been publicly identified] traveled to Moscow for the June 2016 Planning Trip. PR Executive-I and Organizer-I stayed at the Moscow Hotel. On or about June 14, 2016, DANCHENKO, who, at the time was already present in Russia working on behalf of U.K. Investigative Firm-I, met with PR Executive-I and Organizer-I in Moscow. DANCHENKO did not stay at the Moscow Hotel during the June 2016 Planning Trip. 

31. During the June 2016 Planning Trip at the Moscow Hotel, PR Executive-I and Organizer-I participated in, among other things, (I) a meeting with the general manager of the Moscow Hotel ("General Manager-I") and a female hotel staff member ("Staff Member-I") to discuss the October Conference, (2) a lunch on or about June 15, 2016 with Staff Member-I and other members of the Moscow Hotel staff who assisted in the preparations for the October Conference, and (3) a tour of the Moscow Hotel, including the Presidential Suite. 

32. In addition, and as described in further detail below, references to the Moscow Hotel, the Presidential Suite, and a Moscow Hotel manager and other staff would all later appear in the Company Reports.... 

(Note how that female staffer melts together with the housekeeper who appears in the dossier, as if only one woman had been employed by the entire hotel since 2013.)

34. On or about June 17, 2016, DANCHENKO flew from Moscow to London. While in London, DANCHENKO met with U.K. Person-I [Steele] to provide him with information that would later appear in the Company Reports. 

But Danchenko had talked to other people while he was in Moscow! The implication that Dolan had been quizzing the hotel staff about Golden Showers as he was working with them on the October conference arrangements is silly (though if it's true, come to think of it, that would mean a greater likelihood that the Golden Showers story is true as well). The notion that Dolan is the only person from whom Danchenko could have heard the story is idiotic. The reason Durham doesn't say so is that he'd be laughed out of court. That's why he merely spreads these hints.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that this bombshell is a dud. It doesn't suggest anything whatever about the conduct of Comey and the FBI. It doesn't touch on either of the most problematic aspects of the Steele dossier—the allegations against Carter Page and the story of Michael Cohen's Prague visit, both of which increasingly look like disinformation planted by Russians to distract investigators from the close investigation of the main perpetrators, Manafort and Stone. The only "lie" it actually demonstrates (a conversation with Dolan, the one about Corey Lewandowski, actually did make it into the dossier in spite of Danchenko's denial) is ridiculously trivial in spite of Durham's efforts to make it "material" (if the FBI had known Danchenko was lying about this, he argues, they might have questioned the peepee matter more, not to mention the issue of Kalugin). 

There's certainly nothing in indictment to justify Stephens's outburst:

Comey used [the dossier] as a political weapon by privately briefing President-elect Trump about it, despite ample warnings about the dossier’s credibility. In doing so, Comey made the existence of the “salacious and unverified” dossier news in its own right. And, as the University of Chicago’s Charles Lipson astutely notes, Comey’s briefing “could be seen as a kind of blackmail threat, the kind that marked J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure.”

The dossier became news on 31 October 2016, when David Corn's first article about it appeared in Mother Jones, not when Comey warned Trump about it at Trump Tower on 6 January 2017. Charles Lipson may be astute (Stephens directly plagiarizes his sentence, "That reticence changed with Comey’s briefing, which was news in its own right") but nobody knew about the briefing until months later; what made it really news was BuzzFeed publishing the thing four days later. It certainly couldn't be used as for blackmail after that (through Trump, perhaps understanding what kind of threat Comey posed better than Stephens can, kept trying hopelessly to bribe him through 11 April.

I could wish BuzzFeed hadn't done it, or it hadn't been shown to the FBI, or hadn't been compiled at all. The FBI's case as it began with the story of Papadopoulos in the wine bar, and the crazy behavior of the Trump campaign and Ambassador Kislyak at the Cleveland convention, and the WikiLeaks publication of the DNC emails, was completely well-founded, and the dossier didn't really contribute anything in the end but misdirection.

But that has little to do with these increasingly desperate attempts, from Barr through Horowitz to Durham, to find something indictable to hang on the FBI and Mueller teams. This one is the lamest yet, and it's not going anywhere, for all Mr. Bret's frothing.

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