But five years later, the credibility of the dossier has significantly diminished.
Legitimate questions are now being raised about the dossier — how it was used by Democrats as a political weapon against Trump, how it was handled by the FBI and US intelligence agencies, and how it was portrayed in the mainstream media.
Democrats’ hidden hand revealed
Two special counsel investigations, multiple congressional inquiries, civil lawsuits in the US and the United Kingdom, and an internal Justice Department review have now fully unspooled the behind-the-scenes role that some Democrats played in this saga. They paid for the research, funneled information to Steele’s sources, and then urged the FBI to investigate Trump’s connections to Russia.
But Democratic involvement in Steele’s work was much deeper than previously known. Court filings from the Durham inquiry recently revealed that some information in the dossier originated from Charles Dolan, 71, a public relations executive with expertise in Russian affairs who had a decades-long political relationship with the Clinton family. He has not been accused of any crimes.
“For the past five years, those with an agenda have sought to expose Mr. Danchenko’s identity and tarnish his reputation while undermining U.S. National Security,” Schamel said. “…This latest injustice will not stand. We will expose how Mr. Danchenko has been unfairly maligned by these false allegations.”
Dolan was also indirectly linked in the indictment to still-unverified claims about Russian officials who were allegedly part of the election meddling. The indictment also suggested that Steele’s memos exaggerated what Dolan had passed along to Danchenko.
The indictment also says the dossier contained a relatively mundane item about Trump campaign infighting that Dolan later told the FBI he actually gleaned from news articles. Prosecutors say Dolan even lied to Danchenko about where he got the gossip, by attributing it to a “GOP friend” who was “a close associate of Trump.”
An attorney representing Dolan, Ralph Martin, declined to comment for this story because his client “is a witness in an ongoing case.”
Clinton’s allies prod the FBI
After he was charged, Sussmann resigned from Perkins Coie. He declined to comment for this story.
Rumors, hearsay and fabrications
When the dossier burst into public view, much of the conversation revolved around Steele’s résumé: He worked undercover in Moscow, ran the Russia desk at MI6 headquarters, and maintained a network of sources in the country. This lent credibility to his findings, even though nobody, including CNN, was able to confirm the explosive allegations of collusion or the salacious “pee tape” claims.
That was true. The FBI formalized Steele’s role as a confidential informant in 2013. He aided the FBI’s groundbreaking corruption case against dozens of FIFA soccer officials in 2015, and he also provided the FBI with reliable information about Russian oligarchs.
For starters, we now know that Steele’s primary source, Danchenko, wasn’t some deep-cover Kremlin insider. He was a DC-based think tank analyst with a Rolodex of Russians.
Some of Steele’s sourcing disintegrates
The Danchenko indictment alleges that he lied to the FBI, and possibly Steele too, about another detail that became central to the dossier: where he heard there was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump and the Kremlin.
“This fraud destroyed my health, life, businesses and turned my American dream into (a) nightmare,” Millian told CNN in a statement, declining further comment.
The indictment against Danchenko quotes emails where Galkina told Dolan she is a “big Hillary fan,” and hoped to land a job at the State Department after Clinton became president.
Taken together, these revelations about Dolan, Millian and Galkina raise grave questions about where Danchenko got his information, or if he perhaps made some of it up.
Attorneys for Danchenko didn’t respond to CNN’s request for an interview.
‘Underpinned by poor judgment’
That report described for the first time Danchenko’s many walk-backs in his FBI interviews. It also said FBI agents gave Steele mixed reviews, with some seeing him as a “person of integrity,” while others said he had a “lack of self-awareness” and was “underpinned by poor judgment,” even if he was acting in good faith.
Efforts to corroborate fall flat
Steele defended his work and said he was right about three big takeaways from his memos: Russian spy agencies interfered in the 2016 election; Russian President Vladimir Putin approved the operation; and the goal was to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
But Steele’s findings on Russian election-meddling, which were ahead of the curve at the time, now seem more like prescient geopolitical observations rather than insider information. Plus, his final and most consequential takeaway — that Trump’s campaign worked hand-in-hand with the Kremlin — was essentially debunked by special counsel Robert Mueller’s sweeping investigation.
The CNN report said US investigators were able to confirm the time, place and people involved in some of the conversations between foreign nationals mentioned by Steele. The story said CNN couldn’t confirm if those conversations were about Trump, and the sources told CNN that the corroborated information had nothing to do with the salacious claims in the dossier.
The sources also told CNN that the corroboration gave investigators “greater confidence” in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier, which the FBI was still actively investigating at the time.
Two years later, the Justice Department watchdog said only limited information was corroborated from the dossier relating to “time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”
Horowitz’s watchdog report, released in December 2019, also said much of the material in the dossier about Trump and his campaign “could not be corroborated” and that “certain allegations were inaccurate or inconsistent” with subsequent FBI findings.
What’s right? What’s wrong?
Five years on, Steele continues to defend his work. He told ABC News that “the evidence suggests” there was collusion, that he believes Cohen traveled to Prague after all, and that the compromising tape of Trump with Russian prostitutes “probably” exists.
Origins of the Russia probe
In truth, the dossier played a remarkably limited role in the Russia investigation.
Tainted FBI wiretaps
The fallout from the dossier was largely contained to the Page surveillance. But when internal investigators looked under the hood, they found catastrophic issues.
It’s now clear that this level of verification never materialized. The watchdog report said Steele’s claims about Page “remained uncorroborated” when the wiretaps ended in 2017.
Partial vindication for Trump
The latest Durham indictments also injected new life into Russia probe skeptics.
Mueller and a bipartisan Senate inquiry concluded that Trump’s team welcomed Russian help, and tried to coordinate on a few fronts, but it didn’t come to fruition.
But so much suspicion was fueled by Trump’s massive cover-up about Russia.
CNN’s Ben Krolowitz, Pamela Brown and Zachary Cohen contributed to this story. Graphics by CNN’s Janie Boschma.