The FBI electronic document that closed its Russia investigation, specifically into former President Donald Trump, spells out just how wide a berth it gave agents to find a presidential crime.
And that leeway was rooted primarily in Igor Danchenko, the Russian-born U.S. resident who became the key feeder for Christopher Steele’s 2016 election dossier. Democrats funded Mr. Steele’s London-based research project now widely viewed as a hoax. Led by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, they used it for months to sabotage, torment and disorient the Trump White House.
Mr. Danchenko goes on trial on Oct. 11 in U.S. District Court in Alexandria on five charges brought by Special Counsel John Durham for allegedly lying to FBI agents. How did Mr. Danchenko motivate the FBI? He is the one who told Mr. Steele that a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” existed between Mr. Trump, his campaign and the Kremlin. Mr. Danchenko sourced the claim to “Chamber President-1” — Sergei Millian, the former head of a Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
As Mr. Durham’s indictment states, “Indeed, the allegations sourced to Chamber President-1 played a key role in the FBI’s investigative decisions.”
The Russian conspiracy did not exist. But the Obama-appointed FBI chiefs were determined to find such a historic international crime. It must be true. It came from former British MI6 operative Steele whom the news media portrayed as the best spy ever and the FBI previously relied on as a source.
I obtained a copy of the 2019 FBI case-closing memo on Mr. Trump through an open records request last year. It’s extraordinary in how it spelled out possible crimes by an American president — mostly rooted, it seems to me, in that one phrase, “well-developed conspiracy.”
The document was titled, “Closing communication … Foreign Agents Registration Act; Sensitive Investigative Matter.”
I take it by the headline that Mr. Trump was being examined on suspicion of violating FARA, the law that requires an agent of a foreign country to register with the Justice Department.
There are more FBI suspicions. The closing document states, “On or about May 16, 2017, using predetermined criteria established by the Crossfire Hurricane investigative team the FBI opened [a counterintelligence investigation] based on an articulable factual basis that reasonably indicated that President Donald J. Trump may be or had been, wittingly or unwitting, involved in activities for or on behalf of the government of the Russian Federation which may have constituted violations of federal criminal law or threats to the national security of the United States.”
The “conclusion summary” called the action an “administrative closing.” In fact, Special Counsel Robert Mueller did not determine that Mr. Trump or any colleague conspired with the Kremlin.
Mr. Trump was not under investigation until he fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017. That kicked off a Washington storm. Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, now a CNN analyst, opened the Trump probe that month. The deputy attorney general took Crossfire Hurricane from career Justice lawyers and handed it to Mr. Mueller and a cast of Democratic-aligned prosecutors.
It was Mr. Trump’s worst presidential decision until his “Stop the Steal” came along in 2000. Mr. Comey’s troops were not finding collusion. There did not seem to be any plan to indict Michael Flynn, whom Attorney General William Barr eventually exonerated. The whole matter was destined for closure in 2017. A more patient Mr. Trump could have focused on his presidency.
Today, the Danchenko trial will close out the dossier’s last chapter, providing witnesses who will tell how the 35-page binder of a dozen felony allegations came to be. Mr. Durham on July 12 disclosed in a court filing he has sent out 30 subpoenas.
How did the dossier workforce come together? Mr. Danchenko, a former Brookings Institution analyst, was introduced to Mr. Steele in 2010 via Fiona Hill, a Brookings Russia expert. Mr. Steele eventually paid him as an investigator. Mr. Steele was hired by the Clinton campaign in June 2016. He was handled by Fusion GPS and co-founder Glenn Simpson who made sure dossier claims made their way to the FBI and into press stories.
Earlier that year, Ms. Hill introduced Mr. Danchenko to public relations executive Charles Dolan Jr. He worked in multiple camps as a Democratic Party operative and Hillary Clinton activist. The Russian government also paid him for PR.
Ms. Hill came to doubt the dossier. Yet ironically she played an unwitting role in bringing the Danchenko/Dolan/Steele network together.
When Mr. Steele gave Mr. Danchenko the Trump account, the Russian turned to Mr. Dolan and his network of Kremlin sources for dirt. The infamous Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel/Trump/Russian prostitute dossier story — the one Democrats enthusiastically repeated without proof — grew from this partnership.
Mr. Dolan told Mr. Durham’s team that no one on the Clinton campaign directed him and he also did not know all the details of Mr. Danchenko’s anti-Trump work. Mr. Danchenko said Mr. Dolan was “a bit naive in his liking of Russia.”
Mr. Danchenko hobnobbed with Mr. Dolan in Moscow, including at the Ritz, in June 2016 then went straight to London to brief Mr. Steele.
The whole cabal collapsed in January 2017 when BuzzFeed published a photographed dossier copy. Mr. Steele went temporarily back into the cold, and Trump people started exposing the claims’ ridiculousness.
The FBI tracked down Mr. Danchenko and did a series of secretly tape-recorded 2017 interviews that eventually led to his November indictment.
“Danchenko lied to FBI agents during these Interviews,” the indictment says.
Meanwhile, the FBI Crossfire Hurricane team led by agent Peter Strzok kept relying on Mr. Steele’s gems.
Mr. Danchenko lied when he told agents that he didn’t convey any of Mr. Dolan’s tips to Mr. Steele. The dossier did in fact include Dolan gossip, the indictment says, meaning that Mr. Danchenko hid the fact from the FBI that a Hillary supporter was feeding anti-Trump stuff.
But the biggie is the claim of a “well-developed conspiracy.” Mr. Danchenko told agents that item came during a phone call from Mr. Millian, a Belarus-born U.S. citizen who for a time tried to ingratiate himself to billionaire Trump’s real estate world.
Mr. Millian immediately denied he was dossier “Source E.” Mr. Durham agrees. The indictment says a Mr. Danchenko-Millian phone call never happened.
To recap, Mr. Danchenko was the source for the following: The Ritz Carlton Trump-prostitute tale; a Russian diplomat being called home because of Moscow election meddling; Paul Manafort gossip; why Vladimir Putin fired his chief of staff; and the “well-developed conspiracy” quote.
Whether or not Mr. Durham wins his case — perhaps his last Russia criminal charge — his Danchenko indictment is his legacy.
Mr. Barr appointed him to find the origins of the Trump Russia probe. Mr. Durham’s “speaking” indictment shows that there was no source for the Russian collusion claim. The dossier was a mixture of unadulterated gossip and exaggerated falsehoods.
Debriefed by the FBI in 2017, Mr. Steele said his anti-Trump mate, Mr. Danchenko, “has a very good memory.”
• Rowan Scarborough is a columnist with The Washington Times.