The latest indictment by Special Counsel John Durham has created a stir in Washington as the investigation into the Russian collusion scandal exposed new connections to the Clinton campaign. The indictment of Igor Danchenko exposes additional close advisers to Hillary Clinton who allegedly pushed discredited and salacious allegations in the Steele dossier. However, one of the most interesting new elements was the role of a liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution, in the alleged effort to create a false scandal of collusion. Indeed, Brookings appears so often in accounts related to the Russian collusion scandal that it could be Washington’s alternative to the Kevin Bacon parlor game. It appears that many of these figures are within six degrees of Brookings.
The fact is that Washington remains a small town for the ruling elite where degrees of separation can be quite small as figures move in and out of government. Moreover, think tanks are often the parking lots for party loyalists as they wait (and work) for new Administrations. The Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation play a similar role for conservative figures.
However, even in Washington’s inbred environment, the layers of connections to Brookings is remarkable in the Durham indictments and accounts of the effort to create a Russian collusion scandal. The effort was hardly a secret before anyone knew the name of the former British spy Christopher Steele. On July 28, former CIA Director John Brennan briefed then President Obama on Hillary Clinton’s alleged “plan” to tie Donald Trump to Russia as “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.” Notes from the meeting state the plan to invent a collusion narrative was “allegedly approved by Hillary Clinton a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security service.” That was three days before the Russian investigation was initiated.
Durham is detailing how this plan was carried out and many of those referenced are within not six but two degrees of separation from Brookings.
Brookings played a large role in pushing the Russian collusion narrative, hiring a variety of experts who then populated media outlets like MSNBC and CNN stating confidently that Trump was clearly incriminated in a series of dubious criminal acts. While no such crimes were ever charged, let alone prosecuted, Brookings maintained a deep bench of enabling experts like Susan Hennessey (now a national security adviser in the Biden Administration), Ben Wittes (who defended James Comey in his leaking of FBI memos) and Norm Eisen (who then become counsel in the Trump impeachment effort). This included the Brookings site, LawFare, which ran a steady stream of columns on how Trump could be charged for crimes ranging from obstruction to bribery.
However, that type of media cross-pollination is common. What is most surprising is how the indictment seems to map out roads that keep leading back to Brookings.
The latest indicted figure, Danchenko, worked at Brookings. He proved to be the key unnamed source for Christopher Steele and later admitted to the FBI that the information attributed to him was not just “unsubstantiated” but, after being reworked by Steele, was unrecognizable from the original gossip or speculation.
It appears that Danchenko was introduced to former British spy Christopher Steele by Brookings employee Fiona Hill. If that name seems familiar, Hill secured a position on President Trump’s National Security Council and later became a key witness against him in the first Trump impeachment over the Ukraine scandal.
Steele also testified in London that his friend and then Brookings President Strobe Talbott was involved in briefings and inquiries on the development of the dossier. Talbott is also a former Clinton administration diplomat and Clinton friend who served in a high-ranking position under Hillary Clinton. (Another figure, Cody Shearer, who has been mentioned in accounts developing and spreading his own collusion claims, was the brother of Talbott’s late wife).
When Steele was called to the State Department for a briefing on his dossier, Talbot sat next to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, who is currently at Brookings. The role of figures at Brookings in the dossier is still developing but all roads seem to lead back to the think tank.
Even when it became clear that false statements made in the secret FISA applications targeted Trump associate Carter Page, the secret court selected David Kris, who wrote for Brookings’ LawFare despite his prior denial that the FBI misled the court and criticism of Trump).
Brookings has long been viewed as effectively the research arm for Democratic figures and liberal causes. Yet, even in the Baconesque world of Washington insiders, it is rare to see a think tank connected on so many levels to a criminal investigation. Like much in our politics, these connections will mean different things to different people. For conservatives, Brookings looks like the mothership for this scandal with associates coordinating meetings and roles in the metastasization of the scandal. For liberals, the connections simply show the influence of the liberal think tank and any highlighting of the think tank is gaslighting a new “Trilateral Commission” narrative.
With the exception of Danchenko, there is no evidence that any of these Brookings-related individuals have committed criminal acts or are suspected of such acts by Durham. However, these connections have already factored in the investigation and are likely to be addressed in any final Special Counsel report. Brookings Institution’s influence on the Russian collusion scandal will likely remain central to Durham’s unravelling of how the FBI was duped into the Russian investigation and the role of Clinton operatives in that effort. Notably, on September 9, 2015, Hillary Clinton appeared at Brookings and stressed there are “a lot of long-time friends and colleagues who perch here at Brookings including Strobe.” The question is whether that perch will become increasingly precarious as Durham continues his investigation.