ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Five years after the term “Steele dossier” entered the political lexicon, a think tank analyst who contributed to research about Donald Trump and Russia goes on trial Tuesday for lying to the FBI about his sources of information.
Igor Danchenko is the third person to be prosecuted by Special Counsel John Durham, who was appointed to investigate the origins of “Crossfire Hurricane” — the designation given to the FBI’s 2016 probe into former president Trump’s Russia connections. It is also the first of Durham’s cases that delves deeply into the origins of the dossier that Trump derided as fake news and a political witch hunt.
Here’s some background on what the case is about.
WHO IS DANCHENKO AND WHAT IS HE ACCUSED OF?
Danchenko, a Russian analyst, was a source of information for Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was paid by Democrats to research ties between Russia and presidential candidate Donald Trump.
The compilation of research files, which included salacious rumors and unproven assertions, came to be familiarly known as the “Steele dossier.” Though the dossier did not help launch the FBI’s investigation into potential coordination between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, the Justice Department did rely on it when it applied for and received warrants to monitor the communications of a former Trump campaign adviser.
As part of its efforts to verify information in the dossier, the FBI interviewed Danchenko in 2017.
He is charged with lying to agents about his information sources, with prosecutors accusing Danchenko of misleading the FBI in an effort to make his own contributions seem more credible.
WHAT DO THE PROSECUTORS SAY?
Prosecutors say Danchenko lied when the FBI asked him about how he obtained the information he gave to Steele. Specifically, they say he denied that he relied on a Democratic operative, Charles Dolan, a public relations executive who volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s presidential 2016 campaign.
Prosecutors also say Danchenko lied when he said he received information from an anonymous phone call that he believed was placed by a man named named Sergei Millian, a former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce. They argue Danchenko knew that Millian wasn’t a source of any anonymous phone call.
The indictment says the FBI could have better judged the veracity of the Steele dossier had it known that a Democratic operative was the source of much of its information.
WHAT DOES THE DEFENSE SAY?
Danchenko’s lawyers say the prosecution “is a case of extraordinary government overreach.” They note that Danchenko agreed to multiple voluntary FBI interviews throughout 2017. They say his answers to the FBI were all technically true.
For instance, an FBI agent asked Danchenko whether he ever “talked” with Dolan about the information that showed up in the dossier. While prosecutors have produced evidence that the two had email exchanges about topics in the dossier, there’s no evidence that they talked orally about those topics.
“It was a bad question,” said Danchenko’s lawyer, Stuart Sears, at a pretrial hearing last month. “That’s the special counsel’s problem. Not Mr. Danchenko’s.”
And while Danchenko said he believed Millian was the voice on the anonymous phone call, he never told the FBI with any certainty that it was Millian. Sears argued that ambiguous statements like that fall short of what’s necessary to convict on a false statements charge.
U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga last month rejected a request from defense lawyers to dismiss the charges, though he called his decision to let the case move forward an “extremely close call.” He has since ruled that prosecutors cannot present evidence about the most salacious parts of the dossier.
WHAT OTHER CASES HAS DURHAM BROUGHT?
Durham was the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut in 2019 when he was tapped by then-Attorney General William Barr to hunt for potential misconduct by government officials who conducted the original Russia investigation.
The first case was against an FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, who was accused of altering an email related to the surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. It ended in a guilty plea and a sentence of probation – and involved FBI misconduct already uncovered by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Last year, Durham’s team charged a Democratic lawyer with making a false statement to the FBI’s top lawyer during a 2016 meeting in which he presented information about a purported digital backchannel between a Russia bank and the Trump organization. The FBI investigated but found no suspicious contact. The case against the lawyer, Michael Sussmann, ended in a swift acquittal in May.
Durham’s work has continued deep into the Biden administration Justice Department, but the Danchenko trial seems likely to be the last criminal case his team will bring. It is not clear when Durham might produce a report summarizing his findings.