Vladimir Putin must be overjoyed. The latest charge of Igor Danchenko, the major source for former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele’s 2016 dossier alleging links between Donald Trump and Moscow, has fueled the Trump-Russia denialists’ frenzy. They have slammed the media for its coverage of Steele’s memos, claiming that further weakening of his claims proves the Russia issue was a fake.
Certainly, Steele’s memos’ reliability has been seriously questioned once again. (I’ve been chastised for being the first journalist to announce their existence; more on that later.) However, the debate over these papers is apart from the dark and disturbing heart of the Trump-Russia scandal. It is, in reality, a distraction and a diversion. The Steele dossier, and how it was presented by the media, is really a sideshow to the main event: how the Kremlin secretly assaulted the 2016 election to help Trump win, and how Trump and his team helped and abetted that assault on American democracy.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump’s connection with Putin and Russia was a hot topic. He often talked enthusiastically, even effusively, about Russia’s authoritarian leader. In June 2016, it was revealed that Russian hackers had breached the Democratic National Committee’s systems. Weeks later, at the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Wikileaks published papers stolen by Russian cyber-thieves.
Dumps aimed at undermining Democrats followed in the weeks that followed. Despite cybersecurity experts’ unanimity that the Kremlin was behind the assaults on America’s election, Trump and his closest advisers denied any Moscow involvement—even as Trump openly urged Russian hackers to target the Democrats. Roger Stone, a Trump associate who claimed to be a source, argued that the Russians’ flimsy cover story—that a Romanian hacker was to blame—was correct.
The entire Trump-Russia situation was a shambles. They were rejecting the obvious while, as we subsequently discovered, concealing what they knew. Here are some of the details that were concealed from the public at the time:
Trump had been discreetly pursuing a skyscraper contract in Moscow that might have netted him hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Trump Organization (through Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen) had informally contacted Putin’s administration for assistance in getting the business.
Donald Trump Jr. was notified in early June that the Kremlin intended to assist the Trump campaign in a clandestine manner. As part of that attempt, a Russian agent allegedly bringing information to the Trumps was quickly sent to Trump Tower, where Trump Jr., campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner met with her.
The Trump supporters then stated that her information was insignificant. This private meeting, however, suggested to the Trump campaign that Moscow intended to aid Trump on the sidelines, and it also signaled to the Kremlin that the Trump team did not object to Moscow’s covert interference in the election.
During the campaign, Manafort maintained covert communications with Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, as well as a former business partner named Konstantin Kilimnik, who was identified as a Russian intelligence officer in a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report (approved by Republicans and Democrats on the committee.)
During the campaign, Manafort maintained covert communications with Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs, as well as a former business partner named Konstantin Kilimnik, who was identified as a Russian intelligence officer in a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report (approved by Republicans and Democrats on the committee.) Manafort gave the oligarchs and Kilimnik internal campaign polling data.
According to the article, Kilimnik was potentially linked to Putin’s hack-and-leak operation aimed at bolstering Trump. It also indicated that the committee has “two pieces of information” that “raise the possibility” that Manafort was involved in “hack-and-leak operations.” According to the investigation, “Kilimnik likely served as a channel to Manafort for Russian intelligence services.” The Treasury Department went on to say in April 2021, “During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, Kilimnik provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.”
These major Trump-Russia contacts were not made public. To those paying attention, though, there was a Trump-Russia story to be had—and it felt significant.
In August 2016, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid sought a probe into “connections between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign” in a letter to FBI Director James Comey. This added to the mystery.
Reid was alluding to what? Unknown to the public at the time, the FBI had initiated such an investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, on July 31, and Reid had been told by CIA Director John Brennan that Moscow was behind the DNC breaches and that there had been questionable communications between Trump aides and Russia.
Though the FBI’s criminal investigation into Clinton’s handling of emails while she was secretary of state had become public, the existence of the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into Trump associates’ links to Russia (which included an inquiry into Manafort) remained a state secret.
There was a lot of smoke around Trump and Russia. And without access to the Steele dossier. According to intelligence individuals I talked with at the time, word was circulating that national security insiders were concerned about this relationship, whatever it was. But no one had any information. When Democratic members of Congress questioned Comey whether the FBI was looking into Trump-Russia ties, he played it straight, saying, “We don’t confirm or deny investigations.”