Below is my column in The Hill on the recent links established by Special Prosecutor John Durham and the Clinton campaign.
Here is the column:
“To my good friend … A Great Democrat.” Those words written to a Russian figure in Moscow, inside a copy of a Hillary Clinton autobiography, may be the defining line of special counsel John Durham’s investigation. The message reportedly was written by Charles Dolan, a close Clinton adviser and campaign regular whom news reports identify as the mysterious “PR-Executive 1” in the latest Durham indictment, this time of Igor Danchenko.
Danchenko, 43, was a key figure in the compilation of the infamous Steele dossier that led to the now discredited investigation of alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential race. But Danchenko, a Russian emigre living in the U.S., seems unlikely to be the Durham investigation’s apex defendant. In fact, Durham describes him at points more like a shill than a spy, an “investigator” who was fed what to report by Clinton operatives such as Dolan.
Durham is known as a methodical, apolitical and unrelenting prosecutor. Thus far, his work seems to betray a belief that the FBI got played by the Clinton campaign to investigate the Trump team. The question is whether Durham really wants to indict just the figurative tail if he can get the whole dog — a question that now may weigh heavily on a number of Washington figures, just as it did following Durham’s indictment in September of Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann.
Danchenko’s indictment on five counts of lying to the FBI serves two obvious purposes. First, these counts — with a possible five years in prison on each — are enough to concentrate the mind of any defendant about possibly flipping for the prosecution. Second, indicting Danchenko “hoists the wretch” for potential targets to see and consider that there but for the grace of God — and Durham — go they.
The background details of Durham’s three indictments so far have assembled an impressive list of “great Democrats” who contributed directly or indirectly to the creation of the Russia collusion scandal. Indeed, the collusion case increasingly is taking on a type of “Murder on the Orient Express” feel, in which all of the suspects may turn out to be culprits. While the statute of limitations may protect some, Durham has shown that he can use the crime of lying to federal investigators (18 U.S.C. 1001) as a handy alternative. Targets must admit to prior misconduct or face a new charge.
Thus, Durham clearly seems to be making a meticulous case that the Steele dossier was a political hit job orchestrated by Clinton operatives. His latest indictment connects Danchenko to several intriguing figures and groups that, in turn, relate to the Clinton campaign.
Former British spy Christopher Steele himself has been extensively interviewed by investigators over the years — a long record that comes with inherent risks of contradictions. Notably, Steele recently defended his dossier in a bizarre interview. While admitting that it might have been used by Russian intelligence for disinformation, he stood by the accounts of its most sensational details, such as former President Trump’s “golden shower tape,” despite Durham’s findings to the contrary.
The role of former General Counsel of the Clinton campaign was featured in yet another Durham indictment. Elias’ former partner and Clinton lawyer, Michael Sussmann, was just indicted by Durham. Both Elias and Sussmann did this work through the law firm Perkins Coie, which has strong ties to the Democratic Party. Like Sussmann, Elias was accused for lying about the role of the Clinton campaign in the Russian scandal. Specifically, New York Times reporters accused Elias and the campaign of denying that the dossier was funded by the Clinton campaign. He later sat next to campaign chair John Podesta when he also reportedly denied the connection. It is not clear if Durham believes that Elias lied to investigators or engaged in other criminal conduct in his key role in the scandal.
Dolan is the latest direct connection between the campaign and the infamous Steele dossier to surface in Durham’s investigation. Dolan had close ties not only to the Clintons but to the Russians as well; he and the public relations firm where he worked had represented the Russian government and registered as foreign agents for Russia.
Durham alleges that it was Dolan, not Russian sources, who gave Danchenko key allegations to put into the Steele dossier, including some of its most salacious claims. Dolan is described as traveling to Moscow to meet with Russian officials who were paying his firm. The connection is notable because American intelligence believed that sources used in the dossier were, in fact, Russian agents and that the dossier may have been a vehicle for Russian intelligence to spread misinformation. However, Dolan reportedly admitted to “fabricating” facts given to Danchenko. Dolan’s attorney now describes him as a “witness” in the investigation.
Danchenko worked for several years at the Brookings Institution, a leading liberal think tank in Washington, as an analyst in Russian and Eurasian affairs — and, as a result, Brookings features prominently in this latest indictment. Around 2010, another Brookings employee had introduced Danchenko to Steele, who subsequently retained him as a contract investigator. (Brookings has become something of a common denominator for many of the figures discussed in indictments and recent stories related to the Russian collusion scandal).
Steele testified in London in a 2019 defamation suit that he had disclosed some of his dossier’s details to Strobe Talbott, then the president of Brookings. Talbott had his own longstanding Clinton ties. Among those, he was an ambassador-at-large and a deputy secretary of state under President Clinton; when Hillary Clinton was secretary of State, Talbott was named chairman of the State Department’s foreign affairs advisory board.
Then there is Hillary Clinton herself. Steele also has testified that it was his understanding that Clinton was aware of his work and the development of the dossier. Yet during the campaign and long afterward, Clinton never admitted that her campaign funded the dossier, despite media and congressional inquiries about that fact. No less an official than campaign chairman John Podesta denied any connection in testimony before Congress.
More importantly, before the Steele dossier was given to the FBI and the press, then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed former President Obama on Clinton’s alleged “plan” to tie candidate Trump to Russia as “a means of distracting the public from her use of a private email server.”
Now, with Danchenko’s indictment, Dolan’s name has been added to a seemingly growing array of Clinton associates whom Durham has referenced in the development of the Russia collusion scandal.
Again, it is not known whether Durham has suspicions or evidence of criminal conduct against anyone else beyond Danchenko. But many other figures are at least likely to feature greatly in the conclusions of the special counsel’s final investigative report if many of the details of the indictments to date are any indication.
One thing is clear, though: Too many “great Democrats” keep popping up in Durham’s investigation.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can find his updates on Twitter @JonathanTurley.