A federal judge on Friday threw out one of five charges against Igor Danchenko, the primary source for the infamous Trump-Russia dossier, in a major setback for special counsel John Durham’s investigation.
The judge dropped one of the five false-statement charges, specifically pertaining to the allegation that Danchenko lied to the FBI about speaking with a Democratic operative about the anti-Trump dossier. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.
District Judge Anthony Trenga said in court Friday that Danchenko’s answer to the FBI interviewer “was literally true” and that Durham’s case on that specific charge was too weak to send to the jury. it’s a major victory for Danchenko, who has maintained that he was honest with the FBI agents who were trying to corroborate the dossier in 2017.
The ruling was a blow to Durham, who has personally handled many of the arguments and witness questioning throughout the weeklong trial. He personally urged Trenga to uphold the charge, before Trenga ruled against him.
Danchenko still faces four additional counts of lying to the FBI, which is a felony. Those remaining charges pertain to Danchenko’s alleged false statements about whether he got a phone call in July 2016 from a Belarusian-American businessman who had been in touch with people in candidate Donald Trump’s orbit and was a possible dossier source.
The trial will continue on Monday with closing arguments and jury deliberations. Durham rested his case on Friday. Lawyers for Danchenko, a Russian expat and former think-tank analyst, said they won’t be calling any witnesses.
Low point for Durham
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. Trump has repeatedly cheered on the investigation, claiming that Durham will uncover a massive conspiracy by “deep state” partisans to derail his political career.
But Durham hasn’t delivered anything resembling the Watergate-level bombshells that Trump says are coming. CNN has reported that the special counsel probe is winding down, and that the Danchenko case is Durham’s last expected trial. The final act of Durham’s probe will be his report, which he’ll submit to Attorney General Merrick Garland for review.
In three-plus years, Durham has only secured one criminal conviction – the guilty plea of a low-level FBI lawyer, who was sentenced to probation. Durham’s only other prosecution has been against a Hillary Clinton campaign attorney, who was swiftly acquitted by a jury of lying to a senior FBI official during a 2016 meeting about Trump’s possible ties to Russia.
Prosecutors typically fare well in the federal system, where acquittals are extremely rare. Roughly 85% of federal defendants that receive a jury trial are found guilty, according to official statistics analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
Democratic ties to the dossier
The charge against Danchenko that was dropped on Friday pertained to whether he lied about discussing specific dossier material with Charles Dolan, a public relations executive with expertise in Russian affairs and decades of political ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. While not a high-level Democratic operative in recent years, Dolan previously held positions in Bill Clinton’s campaign and volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign against Trump in 2016.
The largely discredited dossier, which was indirectly funded by Clinton’s campaign, contained explosive claims about Trump’s supposed collusion with Russia. But it also featured a relatively mundane item about infighting within the notoriously tumultuous Trump campaign. When Durham charged Danchenko last year, the indictment revealed that this gossip item originated from Dolan, even though it has been described in the dossier as coming from a Trump insider.
Emails show that Dolan misled Danchenko about where he got the information, by attributing it to a “GOP friend” who was “a close associate of Trump,” when it really came from press clippings. Dolan testified Thursday that he had lied to Danchenko about meeting with a “GOP friend,” and really just sent Danchenko what he had heard on cable news.
In 2017, when the FBI was scrambling to corroborate the dossier, an FBI agent asked Danchenko if he ever “talked” with Dolan about “anything that showed up in the dossier.” Danchenko said no, which Durham claimed was an illegal lie.
The judge ruled that Danchenko was technically telling the truth, because the evidence established that Danchenko and Dolan only emailed about the dossier but never “talked” about it. The judge also cited testimony from the FBI agent that Danchenko allegedly lied to, who told jurors Thursday that he didn’t define “talked” while interviewing Danchenko.
In issuing his ruling, the judge said Durham’s team was trying to stretch the definition of “talked” to include more than it actually does, and that it would be improper for a jury to convict Danchenko using Durham’s interpretation of the law.
Turning the tables on Bill Barr
Throughout the trial, Durham has portrayed Danchenko as someone who deceived the FBI and impeded the bureau’s efforts to corroborate or refute the dossier. But Danchenko’s FBI handler vouched for his credibility on the witness stand, saying he was a model informant who provided “critical intelligence,” including about Russian election meddling.
As a paid informant, Danchenko significantly assisted multiple FBI probes over the years, and was so valuable that FBI agents were still asking for his insights as recently as last month, his handler testified Thursday. But the FBI was forced to cut ties with Danchenko in late 2020, after the Trump-era Justice Department indirectly outed him as a dossier source.
The handler, FBI agent Kevin Helson, said that disclosure damaged US national security. Internet sleuths identified Danchenko shortly after Barr publicly released Helson’s notes of his Danchenko interviews. Barr took that action after facing pressure from Trump and Republican lawmakers to release more internal FBI files about the Russia investigation.
“As a result of that act, (Danchenko’s) ability to continue to provide information viable to the FBI is diminished,” Helson wrote in a memo after Danchenko’s identity became public, “as is his ability to provide financial support to his family.”
Helson asked his bosses to give Danchenko a final payment of $346,000 in the wake of the disclosure. The FBI declined.
This story has been updated with further developments on Friday.
CNN’s Holmes Lybrand contributed to this story