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Steele dossier source heads to trial, in possible last stand for Durham

Special counsel John Durham, the prosecutor appointed to investigate potential government wrongdoing in the early days of the Trump-Russia probe, arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in D.C. this year. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Former president Donald Trump said special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 Russia probe should “reveal corruption at a level never seen before in our country.”

But the special counsel’s nearly 3½-year examination seems destined for a less dramatic conclusion this month in a federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., where Durham will put on trial a private researcher he says lied to the FBI.

Igor Danchenko — a researcher who fed information to former British spy Christopher Steele, and whose contributions ended up in the now-infamous “Steele dossier” of allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia in 2016 — goes on trial Tuesday. The trial is expected to last one week.

Danchenko was indicted on charges of lying to FBI agents who interviewed him in 2017 about the sources behind his claims to Steele. Defense attorneys argue that Danchenko made “equivocal” statements to the FBI and should not be penalized for giving wishy-washy answers to vaguely worded questions.

Whatever the outcome, the Danchenko trial is shaping up to be Durham’s last stand in court.

John Durham has a stellar reputation for investigating corruption. Some fear his work for Barr could tarnish it.

A grand jury Durham had been using in Alexandria is now inactive, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the pending legal proceedings. It is not clear whether Durham is still using a grand jury in D.C.

Durham was tasked with writing a report summarizing his investigation, as former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did at the close of his earlier probe into Trump and Russia. But it would be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland how much, if any, of Durham’s report to make public.

“The public is waiting ‘with bated breath’ for the Durham Report, which should reveal corruption at a level never seen before in our country,” Trump wrote in August on his social media platform, Truth Social, after FBI agents raided his Mar-a-Lago complex.

Durham, a longtime federal prosecutor who served as the U.S. attorney in Connecticut in the Trump administration, was asked by then-Attorney General William P. Barr in 2019 to dig into the origins of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation into possible coordination between Trump and Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign. A report by the Justice Department’s inspector general in 2019 criticized the FBI for not noting doubts about the veracity of the information that it used to seek court approval of secret surveillance on a former Trump campaign adviser, though the inspector general said he found no evidence of political bias in the agency’s decision-making. Barr, a Trump appointee, had complained that the 2016 probe was initiated on the “thinnest” of evidence.

Barr later appointed Durham as a special counsel and directed him to write a final report “in a form that will permit public dissemination.”

The special counsel trained his sights in large part on the FBI’s use of reports Steele produced, which are now commonly referred to as the Steele dossier. Steele had been hired to produce the reports by research firm Fusion GPS, which had been retained by a law firm that represented Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic National Committee. Fusion GPS initially had been hired to dig into Trump’s background by a website funded by a deep-pocketed GOP donor.

Years after they began digging, Durham and his team have found only mixed success. The Danchenko case marks the second time the prosecutor who was supposed to root out dishonesty and misconduct within the ranks of the FBI and intelligence agencies will instead try to portray the FBI as victims, not perpetrators, of lies and deception.

“This case is likely the last real test for Durham’s office to justify its years-long investigation into possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election,” said Robert Mintz, a former federal prosecutor who’s now in private practice, adding that it “will only add fodder to critics of Durham’s office who believe that his prosecutions have failed to get to the core of his mandate to investigate the genesis of the Russian collusion allegations, but instead have only charged individuals with more technical violations.”

A former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty in 2020 to altering a government email to justify secret surveillance of the former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. Clinesmith was sentenced to a year of probation. In May, a jury in D.C. federal court acquitted the only other defendant who went to trial as part of Durham’s investigation, cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann, who also was accused of lying to the FBI.

The Danchenko indictment has gotten a skeptical reception from the federal judge presiding over the matter, and much of the case Durham wanted to present won’t be weighed by the jury.

At a hearing last month, U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga allowed the case to proceed to trial but said it was “an extremely close call” whether Danchenko’s statements to the FBI could even be prosecuted.

This month, Trenga ruled that Durham’s team cannot raise the most salacious allegations in the Steele dossier — concerning Trump, the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow and unproven claims about a “pee tape” featuring prostitutes — that investigators say they traced back to Danchenko and his purported sources.

Trenga, a senior judge who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush, and who sits on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, also barred other pieces of evidence Durham had hoped to show jurors.

“Danchenko’s allegedly false statements regarding his sourcing of the Ritz-Carlton allegations do not qualify as direct evidence,” Trenga wrote in an order Oct. 4. He added: “Why Steele characterized the sources for the Ritz-Carlton allegations as he did in the Report or, indeed, whether the listed sources, in fact, came from Danchenko are subject to a significant degree of speculation.”

Steele himself might be able to shed light on Danchenko’s claims, but he is not expected to testify. Neither is Sergei Millian, the former president of the Russian American Chamber of Commerce who prosecutors say Danchenko lied about during his FBI interviews.

That poses another challenge for Durham: narrating a complex story to the jury about claims that Danchenko made to the FBI, about previous claims he made to Steele, about information he supposedly received from Millian and others — all of it without Millian or Steele providing their own versions of events.

Durham and his team did not respond to a request for comment.

The indictment and filings submitted in the case are dense and technical, with some focusing on the proper grammatical way to parse FBI questions and Danchenko’s responses. For example, Danchenko’s attorneys argue that some of his statements to the FBI in 2017 — that he “believed” it was Millian who contacted him anonymously in a phone call and shared information about Trump and Russia — were “literally true” and thus not a crime.

Stuart A. Sears, an attorney for Danchenko, argued at a hearing last month: “If Rudy Giuliani says he believes the 2020 election was fraudulent, that doesn’t make it a false statement. He believes it.”

Mintz said, “This will be a difficult case for prosecutors because there is ambiguity in the facts, and prosecutors will have to prove Danchenko intended to mislead the FBI during his questioning as part of its investigation. While lying to federal agents is a crime, without more serious underlying charges it may be difficult to convince jurors that this case matters.”