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Steele dossier source acquitted, in loss for special counsel Durham

Igor Danchenko walks to the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on Oct. 11 during a lunch break in his trial. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A jury on Tuesday found Igor Danchenko — a private researcher who was a primary source for a 2016 dossier of allegations about former president Donald Trump’s ties to Russia — not guilty of lying to the FBI about where he got his information.

The verdict in federal court in Alexandria, Va., is another blow for special counsel John Durham, who has now lost both cases that have gone to trial as part of his nearly 3½-year investigation. Durham, who was asked by Attorney General William P. Barr in 2019 to review the FBI’s investigation of the Trump campaign in 2016, is sure to face renewed pressure to wrap up his work following the verdict.

Trump predicted Durham would uncover “the crime of the century” inside the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies that investigated his campaign’s links to Russia. But so far, no one charged by the special counsel has gone to prison, and only one government employee has pleaded guilty to a criminal offense. In both trials this year, Durham argued that people deceived FBI agents, not that investigators corruptly targeted Trump.

The jury in Danchenko’s case deliberated for about nine hours over two days. Juror Joel Greene said in an interview that there were no holdouts in the deliberations and that jurors were “pretty unanimous” in how they viewed the case.

“We looked at everything really closely,” said Greene, who declined to comment on the politics of the case. “The conclusion we reached was the conclusion we all were able to reach.”

Durham, a longtime federal prosecutor who was U.S. attorney in Connecticut during the Trump administration, personally argued much of the government’s case against Danchenko. The special counsel alleged that Danchenko misled the FBI officials asking in 2017 about his sources, after the agency determined the researcher was the unnamed person behind some of the most explosive allegations about Trump in reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, which came to be known as the “Steele dossier.”

The trial could be Durham’s last. A grand jury that the special counsel had been using in Alexandria is now inactive, people familiar with the matter have told The Washington Post, though the status of a similar panel in D.C. was not immediately clear. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment when asked whether Durham would continue as special counsel in the wake of the Danchenko acquittal.

Barr, reached by phone Tuesday afternoon after the jury announced its verdict, declined to comment. In a statement released by the Justice Department after the verdict, Durham said, “While we are disappointed in the outcome, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.” He released an identical statement after his prior loss at trial.

A representative for Trump could not immediately be reached for comment. Richard Grenell, who served as acting director of national intelligence in the Trump administration, tweeted that the verdict “doesn’t clear up” the “outlandish claims” in the Steele dossier.

After the verdict was announced, Danchenko choked up and embraced his defense attorneys, Danny C. Onorato and Stuart A. Sears. Danchenko declined to comment, but Sears said outside the courthouse that “we’ve known all along that Mr. Danchenko is innocent.”

“We’re happy now that the American public knows that as well,” he said.

To win a conviction, Durham had to convince jurors both that Danchenko lied and that his deception had a “material” impact on the FBI’s investigation of possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Defense attorneys argued that Danchenko believed what he was telling agents was true and that it was not a crime to give unsure answers to imprecise questions.

In May, a jury in D.C. federal court acquitted cybersecurity lawyer Michael Sussmann, who also was accused by the special counsel of lying to the FBI. A former FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, was sentenced to one year of probation after admitting in a 2020 plea deal with Durham that he had altered a government email used to justify secret surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.

So far, Durham’s review of the FBI investigation has cost taxpayers more than $5.8 million, according to Justice Department records detailing how much the special counsel has spent on personnel, supplies and other expenses between October 2020 and March 2022. That total does not include his work before Barr formally designated him a special counsel near the end of the Trump administration.

After the investigation is complete, Durham will be required to write a report, but deciding how much of it, if any, to release to the public would be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The indictment listed five charges against Danchenko for statements made to FBI investigators about whether his sources included a longtime Democratic public relations executive, Charles Dolan Jr., and Sergei Millian, a former president of the Russian American Chamber of Commerce. U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga dismissed the charge related to Dolan before the case went to the jury.

For Durham, the FBI’s handling of the Steele reports has been a key area of investigative interest. Steele was 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. A website funded by a deep-pocketed Republican donor initially hired Fusion GPS to dig into Trump’s background.

But the FBI began to look into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia before it used the Steele dossier to support the warrant applications covering Page. The Justice Department inspector general determined that the FBI was justified in starting the probe, which eventually would be taken over by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Durham used his closing remarks to defend his own work, telling the jury that his team “spent a considerable period of time away from their families” to figure out why the Russia investigation began after Mueller, “a patriotic American,” concluded that “there’s no evidence of collusion here or conspiracy.”

Mueller’s report said his office could not establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. But it noted, “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” The report mapped out various links between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin and characterized the campaign as eager to benefit from Russia’s help in 2016, as well as detailing evidence of possible obstruction of the investigation.

Tom Fitton, who heads the conservative group Judicial Watch and has been a Trump confidant, expressed disappointment with Durham’s performance on Twitter, saying the special counsel was conducting a “half baked investigation.”

FBI witnesses testified that some emails and information about Dolan and Millian that Danchenko kept to himself would have been valuable to investigators vetting the sources for the dossier’s claims in 2017. An FBI supervisor who led intelligence analysts in the 2016 Trump probe, Brian Auten, and a special agent working in Russian counterintelligence, Kevin Helson, both testified they might have taken different steps had they known as much as Danchenko.

But Auten and Helson also described Danchenko as a trusted source of information on Russian influence activities that U.S. investigators mined for years — testimony that seemed to frustrate Durham.

“Don’t feel bad for the FBI agents,” he said in his closing remarks. “The FBI failed here.”

Sears, in his closing argument, blasted Durham for being more focused on proving crimes “at any cost as opposed to investigating whether any occurred.”

“He’s trying to assist the FBI,” Sears said of Danchenko. “Now they’re indicting him for it?”

Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.