When Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, media was brimming with stories about how he had somehow colluded with Russia to gain some sort of unfair election advantage. Plenty of journalistic effort went toward confirming these allegations, and a so-called special counsel, Robert Mueller, spent almost two years investigating the matter.
Mueller found no evidence of Trump ever colluding with the Russian government or any other Russian entity. That was the beginning of the end of the “Russia collusion” accusations against Trump.
Now, those accusations are boomeranging back to those who fabricated them in the first place. Trump recently filed a lawsuit against Hillary Clinton for her role in furthering the lies about his “collusion” with Russia.
The Steele Dossier
One of the key ingredients in the soup of collusion allegations was the so-called Steele Dossier. Christopher Steele, the discredited former British intelligence officer who created the dossier, presented it as damning evidence of Trump being compromised by the Russian government.
The dossier began its life long before Trump had become the Republican presidential candidate. Even before he announced his candidacy in late 2015, Trump had fierce opponents within the Republican party establishment. They saw him as an outsider who threatened their grip on the party—and on political power. They began plotting against him. According to a 2017 report by New York Magazine, in September 2015, “a Republican donor with deep pockets and a deep distaste for Trump” hired Fusion GPS, an investigative firm, to build a document that would accuse Trump of scandalous behavior, and more.
It is understandably difficult from a European viewpoint to see how people within the same political party can hate each other to the level exemplified by this “deep distaste” comment. The Democrat and Republican organizations do not have quite the same top-down structure that characterize European political parties. If anything, American parties are coalitions of more or less like-minded individuals, although the Democrat party has become more formalized and top-run in recent years.
At the same time as they are loosely structured, the two big party organizations do control large amounts of money. This makes them convenient vehicles for those who seek political power and influence. Therefore, a politician who is economically independent to the level that Donald Trump is, represents a threat to less wealthy, power-hungry characters. Wealthy people, such as the person referred to in the New York Magazine article, have learned to bankroll political candidates who can further their own interests.
Trump, a self-made billionaire, was beholden to nobody and therefore could not be controlled by others. Before he ran for president he was also careful about his political affiliations and contacts. He socialized with both Democrats and Republicans, but even though he was generally known as a Republican he never made any firm commitments until the early 2010s when he first started hinting at a presidential run.
People like Trump are called “mavericks” in American politics, or at least they used to be. In recent years, with European terminology influencing the American public discourse, mavericks have become “populists.” Even though the term itself is void of meaning, “populist” has become the word of choice for those who despise Trump and look down their noses at his voters.
Thanks in no small part to their lack of respect for ‘populist’ voters, the establishment in both the Democrats and the Republicans under-estimated Trump right from the start. They failed to grasp the powerful nature of his rhetoric, which is refreshingly void of talking points. In both words and deeds, he is practical and relatable; his definition of patriotism is centered around building a prosperous and peaceful America.
By contrast, his Republican enemies cling to a definition of patriotism that puts the military and its wars at the center. This definition has its roots in neoconservative ideology, and has increasingly alienated the Republican party establishment from the grassroots connections it built during the Reagan presidency. As a result, they had no effective, honorable political means to counter him.
In 2015, when the neocon establishment realized that Trump was a credible presidential candidate, they panicked. Hence, the 2017 story from New York Magazine. It does not matter who the Republican donor was who got the ball rolling on what eventually became the Steele Dossier. What matters is that there were Republicans plotting against Trump already before he had announced his presidential candidacy.
When Trump emerged as the victor in the 2016 Republican primary elections, the preamble to the Steele Dossier was already well underway. While this shameful, shadowy branch of politics forged on, the Republican establishment put their fury over Trump on full display by boycotting their own party’s convention in July of 2016.
The hoax unravels
At some point in the summer of that year, the dossier-developing firm, Fusion GPS, made contact with the Democrat camp in the presidential campaign. Back to the 2017 New York Magazine story:
As Trump went from primary hopeful to GOP nominee, Fusion GPS continued working on the report—digging through lawsuits, compiling news reports, delving into his business dealings—but with new financiers. Hillary Clinton supporters began footing the bill in hopes of derailing Trump.
The dossier salaciously suggested that Trump had compromised himself with prostitutes in a hotel room in Moscow. It was implied in the Steele Dossier that the Russian government had tapes with Trump participating in lewd activities, and that they were holding these tapes over his head.
It was all lies. Fast forward to October 2021, and a report from RealClearPolitics:
There was and is no evidence to back up the damning claim that the Kremlin had the goods to blackmail Trump. … Days before Trump took the [presidential] oath of office, Buzzfeed published the “dossier,” which was used to poison the White House well as Trump entered office. Nearly two years later, the inspector general reported that the more salacious items in the Steele memos were “minimally corroborated.”
It gets worse. Already in August 2020, according to the Washington Examiner, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee had found the Steele Dossier to contain Russian disinformation and therefore was Kremlin propaganda—the exact opposite of what it had been presented as. The source of the “information” was in fact a Russian by the name of Igor Danchenko. Living in the United States, Danchenko was a research analyst on Eurasian defense policy.
Trump, knowing all along that the Steele Dossier was a hoax, did not take the accusations sitting down. He appointed a special counsel, John Durham, who under the Department of Justice went to work to investigate the origins of the dossier. In November 2021, according to CNBC, Durham’s investigation led to the arrest of Igor Danchenko. He was charged with providing false information to the FBI regarding his involvement with the Steele Dossier.
In short: Danchenko had sold Steele a pack of lies, and Steele—former intelligence officer he is—did not bother to corroborate any of the information he paid for.
As an example of his fantasies, CNBC reported that Danchenko had told the FBI
that he received an anonymous phone call in July 2016 from a person he believed to be the then-president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce about information that was later described by Steele as a “conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.
Danchenko, CNBC explains, “never received such a phone call or such information.” Special counsel Durham has found no evidence to support Danchenko’s “substantive allegations” against Trump.
The spread of moral corruption
Yet despite the apparent falsehood of what became the Steele Dossier, the FBI initiated surveillance of the Trump campaign, including but not limited to a campaign staffer named Carter Page.
This was yet another example of how moral corruption had eaten itself into the finest of American government institutions. In a report on the surveillance, the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice found the FBI had obtained a surveillance warrant based on apparently false information. He also suggested that the FBI had failed to hold itself to “its own standards of accuracy and completeness.”
Fortunately, here is where the moral downslope began flattening out. When the Steele Dossier began falling apart, the court that had granted the FBI the warrants, issued a highly unusual order to the FBI and its oversight agency, the Department of Justice, to present a report to the court on how they intended to secure its own integrity in the future. In January 2021 the FBI apologized to the court for its conduct with regard to the Trump campaign surveillance warrants.
As for Danchenko, in November 2021, MSN quotes special counsel Durham’s office defining him as “the type of paid informant often found in the world of private spying—one who tells their employer what they want to hear.” What Danchenko had to offer was somewhere between gossip and pure fantasy.
Special counsel Durham continues his investigation, with more indictments likely to come. As he works his way closer to the core of the entire Steele Dossier mess, other parts of the federal government are beginning to pay attention. The Federal Election Commission, which oversees the integrity of campaigns and elections, has issued a fine of $105,000 to the Democrat party for concealing that some of its 2016 campaign outlays were payments for the Steele Dossier.
Hillary Clinton was also fined, formally through her campaign organization, for the same reason. The campaign agreed to pay a civil penalty of $8,000.
Meanwhile, on March 24th, Fox News reported that Trump had
filed a lawsuit against Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, and a number of other high-profile figures involved in the “nefarious” “conspiracy” to create a narrative that he and his 2016 presidential campaign were colluding with Russia.
The lawsuit is directed against a host of individuals who were involved with Clinton’s campaign or who furthered the Steele Dossier despite having good reasons to believe it was false.
Restoring America’s moral standing
There are many bizarre and disturbing parts to this sordid story, including the breakdown of institutional integrity within the FBI. According to the New York Post,
In mid-2016, the FBI got word that Russian intelligence believed Hillary Clinton’s campaign was planning to frame Donald Trump as colluding with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to hack her computers. Yet somehow, the crack agents never connected the dots when handed the Steele “dossier” commissioned and paid for by the Clinton campaign that claimed Trump was colluding with Putin.
It would be cynical to ask why special counsel John Durham has been allowed to press on with his investigation under the Biden administration, but sometimes the cynical is the path to moral clarity. Having worked since 2019, Durham has thus far indicted three individuals for their Steele Dossier involvement. For what this is worth, the fact that Durham is allowed to continue under a Democrat president is a sign of integrity within the walls of the executive branch of the federal government.
The Steele Dossier and its proponents have driven a dagger of moral depravity right through America’s most honorable public institutions. Its damage is all the more conspicuous in view of how American politicians often pride themselves on global moral superiority. This alleged moral superiority has lent credence to American military invasions of other countries.
Let us hope that the moral clean-up continues. Otherwise, it is going to be difficult for Washington to criticize leaders of other countries—in particular, Putin comes to mind—for using un-democratic means to obtain or hold on to power.
Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.