WASHINGTON — When the publication of a dossier of unproven rumors about Donald J. Trump and Russia rocked American politics in early 2017, one salacious claim jumped out: Russia intelligence services supposedly had a video showing Mr. Trump cavorting with prostitutes in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Mr. Trump denied it all, no evidence emerged supporting the existence of any tape, and other claims in the so-called Steele dossier were disproved. But talk of a purported tape became a lingering touchstone of an era awash in conspiracy theories and misinformation — tantalizing Mr. Trump’s critics and enraging his supporters.
The claim came from Igor Danchenko, a Russia analyst who gathered leads about possible Trump-Russia links for what turned out to be Democratic-funded opposition research. In an interview, Mr. Danchenko described hearing rumors from two sources about a possible sex tape involving Mr. Trump and the Ritz-Carlton, then obtaining more nebulous information from two hotel employees he took as corroborative.
Acknowledging that the material was too thin to amount to proof and saying that he himself remained skeptical, Mr. Danchenko defended the integrity of his work.
He said he was assigned simply to gather “raw intelligence” for his employer, Christopher Steele, and passed along claims that raised a potential “red flag.” He noted that he was not responsible for how Mr. Steele portrayed that information in the dossier, nor for making it public.
“Even raw intelligence from credible sources, I take it with a grain of salt,” Mr. Danchenko said. “Who knows, what if it’s not particularly accurate? Is it just a rumor or is there more to it?”
Mr. Danchenko said he wanted to clear his name after his identity was revealed in July.
Threats and harassment followed, he said, escalating when Attorney General William P. Barr declassified the fact that Mr. Danchenko was himself scrutinized in a counterintelligence investigation a decade ago. The F.B.I. closed it in 2011 without charging him, but Mr. Trump’s allies, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, began calling him a “Russian agent.”
Mr. Danchenko — who made his name as a Russia analyst by exposing indications that the dissertation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia contained plagiarized material — accused the senator of smearing him.
“I’ve never been a Russian agent,” Mr. Danchenko said. “It is ridiculous to suggest that. This, I think, it’s slander.”
After Mr. Danchenko’s lawyer, Mark Schamel, sent letters to Mr. Graham and Republicans, demanding that they stop calling his client a “Russian agent,” Mr. Graham denied that he had made false statements. He added that as a public official, he is legally immune from defamation lawsuits.
“I have done nothing more than simply relay these matters of intense public interest to the American people,” Mr. Graham wrote.
Mr. Danchenko, 42, was born in Russia and lives in the United States. Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence agent who founded a business intelligence firm, hired him in the spring of 2016 to hunt for links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Mr. Steele’s efforts were part of opposition research that Democrats were indirectly funding by the time the 2016 general election took shape. Mr. Danchenko said he did not know who Mr. Steele’s client was at the time and considered himself a nonpartisan analyst and researcher.
In June 2016, Mr. Danchenko met with several people — whom he declined to identify, citing their security — in Moscow and St. Petersburg. He said he casually steered conversations toward whether they had heard anything compromising about Mr. Trump. One of them, he said, first mentioned the rumor about the tape.
The essence of the rumor is that Mr. Trump in 2013 booked the Moscow Ritz-Carlton’s presidential suite, where former President Barack Obama had stayed in 2009. The story was that Russian intelligence had wired the room to gather blackmail material on visitors — and that Mr. Trump hired prostitutes whom he instructed to urinate on each other and the bed where Mr. Obama had slept.
Mr. Danchenko said the contact told him that Mr. Trump was “well known” to Russian security services and seemed surprised he had not already heard about the purported Ritz-Carlton matter.
A second contact also independently brought up a compromising video of Mr. Trump of a sexual nature that may have been covertly filmed at the Ritz-Carlton. However, that person did not mention urination, according to Mr. Danchenko.
Deciding to investigate further, Mr. Danchenko said he went to the Ritz-Carlton and chatted up a manager about rumors regarding celebrity visitors. The manager made a vague comment that security officials had covertly wired the hotel to gather compromising materials about important guests like Mr. Trump. Mr. Danchenko took it as corroboration.
“I circled around it, you know, enough for them to say, ‘look, yeah, there is a — you know, a funny thing. There might be a tape of Mr. Trump, might be sexual, but, you know, things that happen at Ritz-Carlton stay at Ritz-Carlton,’” Mr. Danchenko said.
Mr. Danchenko said he later spoke with a lower-ranking hotel employee who did “not say much,” but that he “interpreted as corroboration of what the first three told me.”
He declined to provide more details. When the F.B.I. spoke to him in January 2017 as it vetted the dossier, he told agents that the fourth source was a female hotel worker who said that “anything goes” there, adding that “officially, we don’t have prostitutes,” according to a bureau summary of the interview.
Mr. Danchenko also said he saw men at the hotel who looked like Russian security officers and women who appeared to be prostitutes, saying that the scene “sort of, to an extent, corroborates the story to me.”
But he repeatedly stressed that he was only collecting “raw intelligence,” meaning tips, leads and claims that are notable but have not been analyzed and assessed for credibility, and he had nothing to do with how Mr. Steele characterized them or the fact that they became public.
A 2019 inspector general report said that the American government later heard, from an unidentified source, that the Steele dossier’s account of the purported Ritz-Carlton episode was disinformation from Russian intelligence. Mr. Danchenko said he saw no indication that Russian intelligence had infiltrated his network, but said the claim was hard to evaluate without further details about it.
Mr. Danchenko said he took no notes and verbally conveyed his findings to Mr. Steele. In January 2017, when Buzzfeed published the dossier, the tape rumor lodged in American political discourse and popular culture.
Later that month, the F.B.I. identified Mr. Danchenko as a source for Mr. Steele and he agreed — in exchange for immunity and a promise of confidentiality — to detail his work. The bureau later told a judge its agents found him “truthful and cooperative,” although an F.B.I. analyst told an inspector general that Mr. Danchenko might have been “minimizing” certain facts about his interactions with his sources.
The interview suggested that aspects of the dossier were misleading. Mr. Steele left unclear that much of the material was thirdhand information, and some of what Mr. Danchenko had relayed was more speculative than the dossier implied. While the F.B.I. never used the Ritz-Carlton story, it had cited other claims from the dossier in applications for wiretaps, and the inspector general criticized the bureau for continuing to do so after interviewing Mr. Danchenko without alerting judges that he had cast doubt on the dossier.
Mr. Barr’s declassification of the F.B.I. interview report in July led to Mr. Danchenko’s public identification. In September, Mr. Barr further declassified material that revealed the previous investigation into whether Mr. Danchenko might be a Russian agent.
According to a summary provided by Mr. Barr to Mr. Graham, the F.B.I. opened the inquiry after someone reported that Mr. Danchenko made a remark at a think tank that sounded like an offer to pay for classified information. Agents also logged that he had had contact with two people they suspected were Russian agents.
Mr. Danchenko said he had no idea what the remark was, that he never knowingly interacted with Russian intelligence agents and that Republicans who have called him a Russian agent are making “false, baseless allegations” against him.
“It’s unpleasant for me, that one of my colleagues interpreted something in such a way as to suggest that I may have inappropriate connections,” he said. “At the same time, I also understand that’s something that the F.B.I. had to look into, and apparently they did.”
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