Biggest impact of John Durham's prosecution of Steele dossier source is outside courtroom
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
Special Counsel John Durham begins Tuesday what may be the final trial in the Russia collusion probe, seeking to convince a federal jury that the primary source of the now-discredited Steele dossier lied repeatedly to the FBI.
For all of its expectations and drama, the trial will actually focus quite narrowly on the technical aspects of Igor Danchenko's alleged lies and defense arguments that the Russian analyst in fact believed what he told the FBI and therefore should be acquitted, according to both sides' final pretrial motions.
The biggest potential blockbuster witnesses won't be summoned. Christopher Steele, the former MI6 agent who authored the dossier while on Hillary Clinton's and the Democratic National Committee's campaign tabs, won't be testifying under the current plans.
Neither will Belarusian-born businessman Sergei Millian, who was president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce, wrongly fingered as a source for the dossier's most salacious and unfounded claim of a Donald Trump tryst with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel.
U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga turned down Durham's requests to introduce evidence of Danchenko's alleged lies except those charged in the indictment, substantially narrowing the case brought before the jury.
That means that Durham's most impactful narrative will be kept mostly outside the trial courtroom. But it's one with significance for history and the long-term trust America places in its premier law enforcement agency, the FBI.
The story line is summed up in a single sentence that the prosecution wrote in a pretrial motion filed last month.
The FBI "ultimately was not able to confirm or corroborate most of their substantive allegations" in the Steele dossier, Durham wrote. Yet, the bureau kept investigating the allegations for a "fairly lengthy period of time" and inexplicably put Danchenko on its payroll for three years as a confidential human source despite evidence he lied and had ties to both Russian intelligence and a public relations executive named Charles Dolan who supported the Clinton campaign.
You can read the filing here:
Put simply, Durham declared that much of the "intelligence" from 2016 that drove four consecutive FISA warrants authorizing agents to spy on the Trump campaign and a sprawling three-year investigation that beset the first half of the Trump presidency wasn't true. And it came from foreigners like Steele, a former MI6 spy, and Danchenko, a Russian citizen who lives in Virginia, while being underwritten by Trump's primary Democrat rival.
To the jury, prosecutors will portray the FBI as a victim. But Durham's own meticulous court filings show the FBI could easily have uncovered many reasons to suspect the Clinton-fueled Russia collusion narrative was fiction — and possibly Russian disinformation — long before another special counsel, Robert Mueller, declared in 2019 there was no such conspiracy.
While Danchenko is charged with five false statements, Durham's pretrial court filings alleged there were many more falsehoods, ones that the FBI could easily have ascertained, and in some cases did, early on.
"The defendant could not keep his lies straight," the prosecutor wrote in one motion.
For instance, Danchenko told the FBI that Russian businessman Millian was one of the people from whom he received the allegations about Trump's salacious interactions with prostitutes at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow. Danchenko placed that conversation with Millian as occurring in July 2016. But that was easily disproved, Durham wrote, because Danchenko had already provided the information to Steele a month earlier.
"To state the obvious, it would be impossible for Millian to confirm the Ritz Carlton allegations (and other information) to the defendant in June 2016 because the defendant repeatedly informed the FBI that the first and only time he allegedly communicated with Millian was late July 2016," Durham wrote.
In fact, Durham said, the government proved that Danchenko never met or talked with Millian.
Similarly, Danchenko told the FBI he had never sourced any of the information he gave to Steele to Dolan, a Clinton-supporting PR executive who frequented Russia. Durham said the defendant did, in fact, source one allegation in the dossier to Dolan.
According to prosecutors, Dolan joined Danchenko at the very Ritz-Carlton hotel in Moscow that became the subject of the sensational but false rumor, and even toured the suite where Trump allegedly had the tryst. But no hotel staff ever alleged such an encounter between Trump and prostitutes, the prosecutors added.
"Dolan's role as a contributor to the Steele Reports," Durham wrote, "was highly relevant and material to the FBI's evaluation of those reports because, among other things, (1) Dolan maintained a relationship with several high-ranking Russian government officials who appear in the Steele Reports, (2) Dolan maintained a relationship with another of the defendant's alleged sub-sources, (3) Dolan was present in Moscow with the defendant when the defendant allegedly gathered some of the information reflected in the Steele Reports, and (4) Dolan's historical and ongoing involvement in Democratic politics had the potential to bear on his reliability, motivations, and potential bias as a source for the Steele Reports."
Danchenko's credibility was called into question from his very first interview with the FBI in January 2017, according to Durham. For instance, the defendant claimed he had never had contacts with Russian intelligence, even though the FBI had evidence of such contacts from an earlier counterintelligence investigation of Danchenko dating to 2008-10.
"During his January 2017 interview with the FBI, the defendant initially denied having any contact with Russian intelligence or security services but later — as noted by the agents, contradicted himself and stated that he had contact with two individuals who he believed to be connected to those services," Durham wrote in a filing.
In the same introductory interview, Danchenko told agents he had not told anyone that he was working as a source for Steele, something the evidence disproved. "The defendant on multiple occasions communicated and emailed with, among others, Charles Dolan regarding his work for Steele and Orbis," Durham noted. "Indeed, the defendant attempted to broker business between Dolan and Steele as early as April 2016."
At the trial, Durham is poised to argue that the FBI was victimized by Danchenko's alleged lies, in some cases repeating inaccurate information from the dossier to the FISA court. But in his court filings, he also demonstrated just how easy it was to debunk the dossier and Danchenko's false contributions to it, suggesting in one tantalizing line that the bureau should have considered whether it was part of a Russian disinformation operation, as the CIA had warned early on.
In "any investigation of potential collusion between the Russian Government and a political campaign, it is appropriate and necessary for the FBI to consider whether information it receives via foreign nationals may be a product of Russian intelligence efforts or disinformation," Durham wrote.
It is that sentiment that most concerns those in Congress who have oversight of the FBI. Multiple lawmakers told Just the News that it seemed irrational for the bureau to keep Danchenko as a paid informant when they suspected, dating to 2008, that he was tied to Russian intelligence, detected he was deceptive in 2017 and immediately found contradictions between what Steele and Danchenko claimed was their intelligence.
"The fact that they took American tax dollars to pay someone that they knew was a liar, to, I would assume, lie to them some more makes absolutely no sense," said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee and the panel's likely chairman if the GOP wins control of Congress.
Added Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a key member of the Senate Judiciary Committee: "There is a political cabal inside the FBI that has to be dealt with. It's inside the Department of Justice also. And the Danchenko revelation that he was on the FBI payroll for three years ... They're paying him for cooking up information for investigating Donald Trump."
Retired Rep. Devin Nunes said the revelation that Danchenko was a paid FBI informant was kept from the House Intelligence Committee in 2017-18 during its Russia collusion probe, an omission he said was critical.
"This is now the strongest evidence we have seen that they obstructed — the FBI, DOJ, et al —obstructed Congress' investigation," Nunes said.
Kash Patel, the former chief investigative counsel for the House Intelligence Committee who helped Nunes unravel the false Russia collusion narrative, said Durham's work has raised serious questions about the FBI's use of confidential human sources that must be dealt with in the next session of Congress.
"John Durham was like the domino that sort of knocked it back here, when he told the world that Igor Danchenko was a confidential human source," Patel said.
The FBI has admitted significant failures in the Russia probe and made widespread reforms to FISA warrants and denies politics had anything to do with the decision to pursue the investigation. But Patel said the reforms thus far haven't gone far enough to address the issue of informants.
"I think this John Durham prosecution is going to come full circle and explode the confidential human source corruption cover up network," he said.