Special counsel John Durham’s failed prosecution of Igor Danchenko exposed how FBI officials eagerly accepted unproven claims tying former President Donald Trump to Russia, though Mr. Durham also failed to bring charges against any FBI officials.
The acquittal of Mr. Danchenko, the primary source for the Steele dossier, is emblematic of Mr. Durham’s losing record of his three-year probe of the origins of the FBI’s Trump-Russia collusion investigation. Mr. Durham endured spectacular courtroom defeats even while those trials revealed missteps and outright failures by the FBI as it pursued a nonexistent Trump-Russia scheme.
A case brought earlier this year by Mr. Durham against Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann netted the same results. Mr. Sussmann was acquitted of lying to the FBI while the trial shed light on misconduct by bureau officials.
Trump allies say that’s not enough. They are frustrated that Mr. Durham hasn’t fulfilled expectations that he would prove FBI officials and democratic operatives plotted to undercut Mr. Trump’s presidency. They wanted high-level FBI officials to be put on trial and forced to answer questions under oath.
“My expectations of holding the FBI accountable is zero,” former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told The Washington Times.
The acquittal of Mr. Danchenko is likely the final fumble for Mr. Durham’s probe. He is expected to soon wrap up his investigation with little to show for it. His two criminal trials fell flat, and his only victory was securing a guilty plea from a low-level FBI agent.
SEE ALSO: Primary source of Steele dossier acquitted on charges of lying to the FBI in major defeat for Durham
Others say Mr. Durham’s goal wasn’t to rack up convictions and send people to jail but rather to investigate whether political bias swayed FBI decision-making during the Trump probe. They say Mr. Danchenko wasn’t on trial in an Alexandria courtroom, rather the FBI was.
“Durham accomplished a lot with the Danchenko trial because he showed how flimsy the FBI’s efforts were,” said Thomas J. Baker, who spent 33 years as an FBI agent and served as an instructor at the bureau’s training academy. “Some of the things we learned were shocking, worthy of two headlines.”
Mr. Danchenko was acquitted of four counts of lying to the FBI about how he compiled information for former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier, a compendium of salacious and unproven accusations linking Mr. Trump to Russia.
The dossier was paid for by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, but the FBI never scrutinized the financing of the opposition research project or the reliability of the information.
The dossier was used in part to obtain a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, a Trump campaign aide in 2016, who was suspected of colluding with Russia to undermine the election. He has never been charged with a crime, and no public evidence has ever emerged that he was plotting with Moscow.
Mr. Danchenko told the FBI that some of the information in the dossier came from an anonymous phone call from someone he believed to be Sergei Millian, a former head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. Prosecutors argued that Mr. Danchenko simply made up the story about the phone call along with damaging information about Mr. Trump that ended up in the dossier.
SEE ALSO: Top Cops? Durham probe paints FBI as an easily duped Keystone Cops unit
He was also charged with lying about his contacts with Charles Dolan, a longtime Democratic political operative who admitted under oath that he lied about the source of information included in the Steele dossier. U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga dismissed that charge before it headed to the jury.
The charges boxed Mr. Durham into the precarious position of having to depict the FBI as both a victim of Mr. Danchenko’s alleged lies and an agency hellbent on stopping Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign, and then his presidency, at any cost.
During opening arguments. Mr. Durham’s team let the bureau off the hook for misconduct.
Prosecutor Michael Keilty told jurors that the FBI relied on Mr. Danchenko’s misstatements to launch its Trump probe. During closing arguments, however, Mr. Durham blamed the FBI for basing its Russia probe on the now-debunked and unverified dossier.
“The FBI failed here on a number of occasions,” he said.
Even before the trial started, Mr. Durham revealed that Mr. Danchenko was on the FBI’s payroll as a confidential human source from March 2017 to October 2020, even after they suspected he had lied to agents.
On the first day of witness testimony, an FBI official revealed that the bureau offered Mr. Steele up to $1 million soon before the 2016 election to prove the explosive accusations in his dossier. However, Mr. Steele never got the money because he could not prove the accusations, FBI supervisory analyst Brian Auten testified.
Mr. Auten also testified that Mr. Steele refused to disclose his sources and failed to provide anything during an October 2016 meeting to corroborate the claims in his dossier.
“That revealed that there was no predication to start the Russia investigation because Steele couldn’t back it up,” Mr. Baker said.
Both prosecutors and defense attorneys hammered Mr. Auten for failing to scrutinize claims made by Mr. Danchenko as they plowed ahead with the Russian collusion investigation in 2016.
Mr. Durham lambasted Mr. Auten for accepting Mr. Danchenko’s claims as fact without any follow-up. Defense attorney Danny Onorato blamed incurious agents for not asking more questions of their client during a series of interviews in January 2017.
Mr. Onorato said agents asked only a few, vague questions enabling Mr. Danchenko’s answers to be misconstrued. That ended up landing Mr. Danchenko in hot water with the special counsel, he said.
“There was much more we could have asked during the interview,” Mr. Auten acknowledged.
A current FBI agent and former bureau official testified that investigators with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team declined to interview Mr. Dolan, the democratic operative, despite their urging.
Agents were trying to verify the claims in the dossier and suspected that information about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort might have come from Mr. Dolan.
The witnesses said “some others” in the FBI didn’t want to investigate Mr. Dolan and were instructed “not to take further action” on their request. The FBI did not act on the request, which was ultimately deleted from its system.
The trial also revealed that Mr. Dolan lied to Mr. Danchenko in 2016 when he claimed to have information from a Republican Party insider about why Mr. Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign.
The false claim had been pulled from a cable news talking head, even though it appears in the Steele dossier to be attributed to “an American political figure associated with Donald Trump.”
“I thought I’d embellish a bit,” Mr. Dolan said on the witness stand. He said Mr. Danchenko got him some business, so he wanted to “throw him a bone.”