The final expected trial of special counsel John Durham’s inquiry begins Tuesday and will focus on the infamous “Steele dossier,” which roiled US politics after the 2016 election, fueled the FBI probe of potential Trump-Russia collusion and continues to be cited by former President Donald Trump as proof of a grand conspiracy to destroy his political career.
On trial is Igor Danchenko, a Russian expat who lives in the Washington, DC, area and has worked as a foreign policy analyst. He was the primary source of information for the dossier and is accused of lying in 2017 to FBI agents who were trying to corroborate the dossier. He pleaded not guilty.
The jury was seated Tuesday morning.
The charges against Danchenko are extremely narrow and pertain to alleged false statements he made about where he got the material that he passed to retired British spy Christopher Steele, who wrote the dossier. But in many ways, Durham and his prosecutors have used the Danchenko case as a vehicle to put the entire dossier on trial and expose serious flaws in Steele’s work.
A Trump-era holdover, Durham was tapped in 2019 by then-Attorney General Bill Barr to “investigate the investigators,” and look for government misconduct in the Trump-Russia probe.
During jury selection, Durham said he wanted to steer mostly clear of politics.
“We’re going to try to avoid political overtones,” Durham said, during an exchange about a potential juror, who had said they were biased against the Trump administration.
Durham hasn’t delivered anything in three-plus years resembling the Watergate-level charges that Trump has repeatedly said are coming. He secured just one guilty plea from an FBI lawyer. Durham’s only other case, against a Hillary Clinton campaign attorney, ended with an acquittal.
The Danchenko trial in Arlington, Virginia, is likely Durham’s final courtroom showdown. In the coming months, Durham is expected to finish his report, which will be submitted to Attorney General Merrick Garland for review. Garland has previously pledged to publicly release “as much as possible.”
Rehashing 2016 election shenanigans
On paper, the case revolves around Danchenko – an analyst who was best known for exposing that Russian President Vladimir Putin likely plagiarized much of his Ph.D. thesis, before he got caught up with the Steele dossier and Durham probe. But throughout the pre-trial proceedings, Durham has shadowboxed against Steele and the Democratic operatives linked to the dossier.
Steele’s work was indirectly funded by the Clinton campaign: They paid a law firm, which hired an opposition research company, which hired Steele. In 2016, Steele and Danchenko quietly collected what they called “raw intelligence” on Trump’s ties to Russia. Steele put their findings into a series of memos, which he shared with some Clinton aides and reporters. Those memos, known as “the dossier,” became public in January 2017, when BuzzFeed News posted it online.
The dossier contained unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia, including his alleged business dealings, rumors of lurid trysts in Moscow and claims that his campaign collaborated with the Kremlin to win the 2016 election. Trump vehemently denied the claims, though Democratic partisans and some media figures latched onto hope that they were true.
But the credibility of the dossier has steadily declined over time. The Justice Department inspector general revealed in a 2019 report that many of Steele’s claims were little more than gossip or speculation. Durham further undermined the dossier by highlighting the previously unknown involvement of some Democratic partisans.
As recently as last month, Trump railed against the dossier at a rally in Ohio, where he singled out Danchenko by name and claimed Danchenko “fabricated” the “smears” in the dossier. But the Danchenko case isn’t nearly as sweeping as Trump described it – and Durham has never accused Danchenko or anyone of engaging in a conspiracy to undermine Trump.
Danchenko’s alleged lies to the FBI
Danchenko faces five felony charges of making a false statement to the FBI. Prosecutors claim Danchenko lied about two topics, both generally about his sourcing for dossier material.
First, prosecutors say Danchenko falsely denied speaking with Democratic operative Charles Dolan in 2016 about anything that was in the dossier. They also allege Danchenko falsely told investigators on four separate occasions that he believed he got a phone call in 2016 from Belarusian-American businessman Sergei Millian.
Millian has publicly stated that he never communicated with Danchenko. But Durham won’t have the benefit of putting Millian on the witness stand to make that denial in front of the jury. In a blow to prosecutors, Millian has refused to return to the US from overseas to testify.
Prosecutors have argued that Danchenko’s alleged lies mattered because they obscured the truth about where some of the dossier material came from, while the FBI was trying to corroborate Steele’s work.
In recent court filings, Danchenko’s lawyers have asserted that their client “truthfully answered the specific questions the FBI asked him” during his sit-downs with investigators in 2017.
Narrow case, big implications
There are some recent indications that Durham’s team is on wobbly ground as the federal trial kicks off in Alexandria, Virginia. Just two weeks ago, District Judge Anthony Trenga, who is presiding over the trial, barely allowed the case to proceed, calling it an “extremely close call,” after Danchenko argued that Durham’s evidence was too weak to sustain a false-statement charge.
A Bush appointee, Trenga has also significantly narrowed the scope of the case that Durham can present to the jury. He recently blocked Durham from delving into the dossier’s infamous and unproven “pee tape” claims – that the Russians had blackmail on Trump, in the form of sexually explicit footage of him with women at the Ritz-Carlton Moscow hotel.
Durham had argued that getting into this topic would help show Danchenko’s alleged pattern of misleading statements about the dossier. But Trenga said the material was off-limits for the trial.
“The relevancy and probative value of the Ritz-Carlton allegations is questionable,” Trenga wrote in a ruling last week, saying that the connections between that material and Danchenko’s alleged lies are “highly attenuated” and would very likely create “confusion and unfair prejudice” with the jury.
Murky intel underworld
Danchenko has a complex relationship with the US government. He was a paid informant for the FBI from 2017 to 2020, according to court filings. But he was previously the subject of an FBI counterintelligence probe from 2009 to 2011 over his possible links to Russian agents. (The Justice Department never charged Danchenko in connection with that investigation.)
The Justice Department watchdog report that came out in 2019 extensively referenced Danchenko, though only as Steele’s “primary sub-source.” That report unraveled many of the dossier’s key claims, and revealed that Danchenko told the FBI in 2017 that the information he gave to Steele was mostly “hearsay,” “just talk,” “word of mouth,” and came from “conversations he had with friends over beers.”
His role as the primary source for Steele wasn’t publicly known until summer 2020. Egged on by Trump’s congressional allies, Barr released old FBI memos about the Danchenko interviews. His identity was redacted, but Internet sleuths connected the dots and outed Danchenko.
One year later, in November 2021, Durham closed in on Danchenko. After Danchenko was charged, his lawyer at the time said the special counsel’s 39-page indictment “presents a false narrative designed to humiliate and slander a renowned expert in business intelligence.”
Trump and his staunchest GOP supporters see Danchenko as a key player in a “deep state” plot to foment a false narrative about Trump’s Russia ties. Trump sued Danchenko, Steele and other political opponents, alleging a civil conspiracy, but a judge threw out that case last month.
This story has been updated with additional developments.