No, ‘Russiagate’ Wasn’t the Hoax That Team Trump Claims It Was
The acquittal last week of think tank analyst Igor Danchenko is a fitting final chapter in the “Russiagate” saga, as John Durham’s three-year-old probe judders to a halt. Durham, formerly the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, was appointed in 2019 by William Barr, Donald Trump’s attorney general, to look into possible misconduct by personnel from the FBI and CIA, various federal officials, and Democratic operatives with regard to allegations of collusion between Trump associates and Russian agents in the 2016 presidential campaign. In October 2020, Barr elevated Durham’s investigation to special counsel status, ensuring that it would continue no matter the outcome of the 2020 election.
Both Barr and Durham were fairly explicit about the fact that they saw the Trump-Russia investigation, which culminated in the Mueller report, as inappropriate, based on “the thinnest of suspicions,” and politically motivated. Thus, the Durham inquiry had an unmistakable subtext of seeking to vindicate the Trumpian narrative of a “Russia hoax” and a “witch hunt” of which Trump and some of his associates were innocent targets. Inasmuch as it set out to do that, the Durham probe—which is apparently all over except for a final report that will presumably be produced in the next few months—is a bust.
Trump and his supporters have claimed that Durham has still uncovered a vast amount of FBI dirty laundry. There is no question that the probe exposed problems in the FBI’s work. To some extent, the Trump-Russia saga has been an exercise in seeing how the sausage gets made—spotlighting, in particular, the fact that surveillance warrants are often obtained on questionable bases and that intelligence-gathering is often an expedition down a rabbit hole in which it can be extremely difficult to tell whether the information you’re finding is solid, worthless, or out-and-out fake and deliberately planted to mislead. The Danchenko case, full of John Le Carré-like twists, is one such rabbit hole.
Danchenko, one of the sources for the “Steele dossier” compiled by retired British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, was accused of lying about his own sources and covering up a Democratic plot to feed him junk info smearing Trump. When the analyst, an expatriate Russian citizen currently living in Virginia, was indicted on five counts of lying to federal investigators about a year ago, even some left-of-center publications such as New York magazine suggested that the case not only dealt a “death blow” to the Steele dossier (which alleged very extensive contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russian intelligence, as well as Russian blackmail based on a supposed salacious video of Trump) but compromised the Trump-Russia investigation itself.
Now, Danchenko has been acquitted. Granted, Durham had to clear a high bar: to show that Danchenko not only knowingly lied to the FBI but that his deceptions materially affected the Trump-Russia investigation. Moreover, the dismissal of one of the five false-statement charges against Danchenko was arguably based on semantic hair-splitting (he denied “talking” to Democratic public relations guy Charles Dolan about the Steele dossier; in fact, the two had discussed the dossier in emails). Nonetheless, it seems clear that the trial unfolded in a way highly unfavorable to Durham’s case; the central claim that Danchenko had made up his contacts with Belarusian-American businessman and Trump campaign associate Sergei Millian was not only unproven but contradicted by some of the evidence. And while initial coverage of Danchenko’s arrest depicted him as an unreliable and opportunistic paid informant, two FBI agents who testified for the prosecution strongly defended the value of Danchenko’s information—leaving Durham in the awkward position of trying to discredit his own witnesses.
(A juicy side note: Danchenko’s first moment in the spotlight happened in 2006 when, as a research assistant at the Brookings Institution, he coauthored a study concluding that the dissertation Vladimir Putin supposedly wrote in the 1990s to get a graduate degree in economics was heavily plagiarized.)
The Danchenko trial was the third case brought by Durham over the course of his special counsel probe. Of the previous two cases, the first ended in a guilty plea by former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith for altering an email used to renew a wiretap warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. (Clinesmith inserted several words stating that Page was not a CIA source; in fact, he was, though Clinesmith has insisted he didn’t know it at the time.) The second ended in the acquittal of cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussman, an attorney for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016. Sussman was accused of falsely stating that he was not working on behalf of any client or organization when he approached the FBI to report possibly suspicious contact between the Trump Organization and Alfa Bank, a Russian bank with Kremlin ties. He has always claimed that he was acting on his own behalf and reporting his own concerns.
One guilty plea on a minor charge (with no jail time) over the course of three years is pretty slim pickings, and the evidence of a “hoax” or a “witch-hunt” still isn’t there.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped some in the “Russia hoax” chorus from claiming victory. Writing after the Danchenko verdict, Washington Examiner columnist Elizabeth Stauffer asserted that the Danchenko trial “delivered more evidence of the Democratic Party’s concerted effort to destroy former President Donald Trump,” evidently because the FBI offered Danchenko $1 million if he could corroborate the allegations in the dossier. (Obviously, there could be no other reason than a Democratic vendetta to look for evidence corroborating allegations that a major party candidate for president was compromised by the Kremlin.) While Stauffer claims that “Danchenko was clearly an important part of this scheme,” she also says that according to the Department of Justice inspector general report, “Danchenko told the FBI the stories in the Steele dossier had been made up in a bar.” But first, the IG report quotes Danchenko as saying that some of the information was picked up in conversation “with friends over beers,” not “made up”; and secondly, why would he downplay the credibility of this information if he were part of an anti-Trump Deep State conspiracy? But never mind that: Having concluded that the trial further proves the conspiracy, Stauffer moves to her next Q.E.D.: this conspiracy, apparently, also proves that it’s not paranoid to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
There is no question that after the 2016 election, a number of people devastated by Trump’s win eagerly jumped on what we might call a “Trump is Putin’s bitch” narrative that was at best unproven and at worst drastically overhyped. The Steele dossier with its scandalous tale of a “pee tape” supposedly used by Russian security services to blackmail Trump—who, so the story went, hired Russian hookers while staying at a Moscow hotel and got them to urinate on the bed previously occupied by Barack and Michelle Obama—played a major role in such wishful thinking.
There was plenty of other hype. Kooky conspiracy theorists—like British journalist Louise Mensch, who claimed Trump was knowingly working for the Kremlin—sometimes got platformed by respectable publications. (Full disclosure: I briefly wrote for Mensch at the short-lived website Heat Street.) Serious commentators, such as Jonathan Chait in New York magazine and Max Boot in the Washington Post, also flirted with the idea of Trump as a literal Russian agent. Not only TV talking heads but former intelligence officials and some Democratic politicians, notably Rep. Adam Schiff of California, oversold Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and promised major indictments at or near the very top of the Trump administration; again and again, a new “turning point” was said to signal “the beginning of the end” for Trump. Some “bombshells” ended up being quickly debunked and retracted, such as the ABC News “scoop” that Trump had directed Michael Flynn, his onetime national security advisor, to contact Russian officials during the campaign, not after the election.
(For the record, I cautioned against Trump/Russia hysteria in 2017 and 2018; among other things, I criticized sloppy, credulous, and biased media coverage of the dossier story and objected to facile assumptions that deliberate “collusion” was the only possible explanation for Trump’s appalling bromance with Putin.)
Disturbingly, Trump-Russia hype also morphed into myths that undermined faith in election integrity on the Democratic side. Several Economist/YouGov polls conducted from 2017 to 2019 found that as many as two-thirds of Democrats believed it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected.”
Before the publication of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report in 2019, many Trump supporters preemptively attacked Mueller in the expectation that the report would be damning for Trump. Yet while the report did compile a considerable list of instances of obstruction of justice by Trump, it found no evidence that either Trump or his campaign actively conspired with Russian agents to influence the election. Trump supporters gleefully celebrated the crumbling of Russiagate and the supposed humiliation of Trump’s critics. They were joined by left-wing contrarians such as journalist Matt Taibbi, who claimed that Russiagate coverage had been a major fail for mainstream journalism and a vindication for the skeptics. (While some of Taibbi’s critique was fair and on-target, he indiscriminately conflated outlandish Mensch-style conspiracy theories, sloppy “bombshell” reporting, commentary that was always presented as opinion, and factual reporting on the Trump/Russia investigation; he also left out instances in which mainstream media including Vox, the New York Times and the Washington Post shot down or pushed back against exaggerated Russiagate claims and conspiracy theories.)
Yet the idea that the Mueller report exposed Russiagate as a “hoax” rests on a false binary: either Trump and/or his associates actively conspired with Russia, or Trump has been the victim of a “Russia, Russia, Russia” witch hunt. But there is also another scenario: that Trump ran as a Russia-friendly candidate, Russia interfered in the election to help Trump (as the Mueller report very clearly states), and Trump and his cronies were fine with that. And that scenario is not a hoax or a concoction of the Steele dossier.
While the dossier is now widely regarded as discredited—and certainly represents a cautionary tale for both journalism and intelligence—it is worth remembering that both the FBI and the media were looking into the Trump-Russia connection before the dossier made its appearance. Even staunch Trump ally Devin Nunes conceded, in a 2018 memo highly critical of the FBI investigation, that the inquiry was triggered by junior Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos’s boasts about contacts with Russian operatives. Steele’s inquiry into Trump’s Russian connections, which began in earnest in June 2016, proceeded in parallel to the FBI investigation, which opened officially in late July 2016; while Steele had some contacts with FBI agents early on, his reports were not submitted to the FBI team in charge of the Trump-Russia investigation until September 19.
The same goes for the press: Members of the news media were given leaked versions of Steele’s work in mid-to-late September 2016, but articles exploring the Trump-Russia romance had started appearing in the Washington Post , Slate, and other publications well before that, in June and July. Based on what? Lots of things: Trump’s praise for Putin, the Kremlin-controlled Russian media’s Trump lovefest, the hacking of Democratic National Committee servers by Russian agents, Trump’s financial connections to Russia, and the presence of, as Franklin Foer put in in Slate, “advisers and operatives” in Trump’s inner circle “who have long careers advancing the interests of the Kremlin.” Add to this the fact that the one foreign policy-related change Trump’s team wanted in the Republican party platform was the removal of the call for arming Ukraine.
Then, on July 27, Trump responded to questions about the DNC hack by inviting Russia (“if you’re listening . . .”) to find Clinton’s missing emails. Even if, as his supporters claim, he was making a tacky joke and not actually signaling the Kremlin, this was a presidential candidate responding to reports that his opponent had been targeted for cyberattacks by an adversarial foreign power by jokingly cheering for the hackers.
The bottom line is that, as Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded in his own 2019 probe—to Durham’s and Barr’s displeasure—the FBI investigation was amply justified. True, it ultimately found no evidence of acts that rose to the level of criminal conspiracy, and neither did the Mueller probe. But let’s not forget what did happen: Russian agents did conspire to influence the election, undermine Clinton and help Trump, and Trump as well as people close to him eagerly welcomed the help. (We didn’t need the FBI or Mueller to tell us that Trump was thrilled by the WikiLeaks disclosures of hacked documents from the DNC and the Clinton campaign: he said so openly and more than once.) What’s more, some people in the Trump campaign actively worked to take advantage of Russian meddling. Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone states that after the first WikiLeaks dump, Stone and other “senior Trump campaign officials” made moves to find out what other compromising material WikiLeaks had. The charges against Stone, on which he was ultimately convicted, had to do with obstructing the investigation; but the only reason he couldn’t be charged with conspiracy for his attempts to establish contact with WikiLeaks is that WikiLeaks is not officially classified as a Russian asset.
Whether Russian interference ultimately did help elect Trump is something that can never be definitively established. No, Russia did not interfere in the sense of tampering with voting tallies. But Trump won several key states by extremely small margins, and surely some of those results could have been tipped by the WikiLeaks disclosures, falsely spun as “the DNC fixed the primaries to rob Bernie Sanders and hand the nomination to Hillary” and often timed in such a way as to neutralize Trump scandals. Obviously, this does not mean that Americans didn’t really elect Trump, nor does it absolve Clinton of running a bad campaign: A good candidate would have been ahead of Trump by a wide enough margin that WikiLeaks would not have made a difference. But given what we know, I don’t see how anyone can confidently say that Kremlin shenanigans weren’t among the many factors that contributed to Trump’s victory.
Let’s not forget, either, how Trump behaved after his victory—notably, the revelation in May 2017 that he bragged about firing FBI director James Comey in a White House chat with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, calling Comey “a real nut job” and saying that the pressure he had faced over the Russia story was now “taken off.” Is there any scenario in which such behavior by the president of the United States would not raise disturbing questions?
This doesn’t mean Trump was a “Putin puppet” in the White House. On some issues, notably to do with Russia’s role as a supplier of oil and gas to Europe, Trump took a Russia-unfriendly position, imposing sanctions on firms helping with the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in late 2019 and even warning that it would turn Germany into a “hostage.” (It probably helped that he also saw Russian energy dominance as bad for business where the United States was concerned.) His administration included a number of Russia hawks, from National Security Advisor John Bolton to high-level official Fiona Hill. On the other hand, some Trump-era hawkish Russia policy likely happened in spite of, not because of, Trump: The Trump White House repeatedly tried to weaken and spike Russia sanctions, despite a bipartisan congressional consensus favoring them. Trump was reportedly strong-armed into approving the sale of anti-tank missiles to Ukraine (a step he and his fans later cited as evidence of his willingness to stand up to Russia). He called for Russia to be readmitted into the Group of 7 when he attended the G7 summit in Quebec in June 2018. And a month later at the Helsinki summit, he openly endorsed Putin’s election interference denials and badmouthed the Mueller probe.
A Russian asset? No. An American president who was perfectly fine with an unfriendly authoritarian regime illegally interfering in a U.S. presidential election to assist him by stealing political documents from his opponent? Who talked about “America first” but happily sided with an anti-American strongman when it served his interests and his ego? Absolutely. Whatever the Durham report ultimately says about the FBI investigation, it won’t change those fundamental facts.
Correction: Leaked versions of Christopher Steele’s work were first given to reporters in mid-to-late September 2016—not, as a typo originally suggested when this piece was first published, in “mid-to-late September 2019.”