The jury begins to deliberate on the case of the source of the Steele file


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A jury on Monday began deliberating the case of Igor Danchenko, a private researcher who was a lead source for a 2016 dossier of allegations about former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and who was later charged with lying to the FBI about where he got his information.

The trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., is a major test for the special counsel John Durham, who lost his only other case that went to trial in his nearly 3½-year review of the FBI’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign.

Trump predicted that Durham would uncover widespread corruption within US law enforcement and intelligence agencies that investigated his campaign’s ties to Russia. So far, no one charged by the special advocate has been incarcerated and only one government employee has been charged with criminal acts. In both trials this year, Durham argued that people lied to manipulate the FBI, not that investigators corruptly targeted Trump.

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

A grand jury that Durham used in Alexandria is now inactive, people familiar with the matter told The Washington Post. It’s unclear if a grand jury the special counsel used in DC is still active. Barr has ordered Durham to write a report, and it will be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide how much, if any, to make public.

A longtime federal prosecutor who served as a U.S. attorney in Connecticut during the Trump administration, Durham personally argued much of the government’s case against Danchenko. Prosecutors say Danchenko misled FBI officials by asking for the identities of his sources in 2017, after the agency determined the researcher was the source of some of the most explosive allegations about Trump in the compiled reports by former British spy Christopher Steele.

But Durham also appeared to put the FBI on trial during his presentation to the jury. He reminded FBI officials that they had used an unsubstantiated claim from the Steele dossier in warrant applications to place Page under secret surveillance. He reprimanded an agent for doing nothing after learning that Danchenko, a Russian citizen who was investigated by the FBI in 2009 for possible espionage, had overstayed a visa. Durham was pressing witnesses to give the full names of FBI agents and supervisors involved in the sprawling Hurricane Crossfire investigation, and repeatedly pointing to a 2019 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general that found various errors — but no evidence of political bias — in the FBI’s decision-making on the page warrants.

“Don’t feel bad for the FBI agents,” Durham told the jury during their closing arguments Monday. “There are things they didn’t do that they clearly should have done.”

Special Counsel Durham grills FBI official in Steele dossier source trial

The indictment listed five counts against Danchenko for statements made to FBI investigators about whether his sources included longtime Democratic public relations consultant Charles Dolan Jr. and Sergei Millian, a former head of the Chamber of Commerce Russian-American.

Two key issues in the case were whether Danchenko and Millian spoke to each other over the phone in July 2016, and whether Danchenko misled an FBI agent who asked if he and Dolan had ever “talked” about anything. or in the Steele folder. Prosecutors showed an email from Dolan to Danchenko that mirrored parts of a Steele report.

U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga dismissed the Dolan charge after Durham closed his case. Ruling from the bench, Trenga read the dictionary definition of the word “speak” and said emails weren’t covered. The federal appeals court that sets legal precedent in Virginia has ruled that misleading but literally true statements do not rise to the level of criminal conduct, Trenga said.

Jury deliberations lasted nearly four hours on Monday afternoon and will resume on Tuesday.

Durham called six witnesses; Danchenko did not call any. The case relied heavily on the testimony of FBI supervisory intelligence analyst Brian Auten and Special Agent Kevin Helson. Both had questioned Danchenko about his sources, and Auten had supervised intelligence analysts in the 2016 Russia investigation.

For Durham, the FBI’s handling of the Steele reports has been a key area of ​​focus for the investigation. Steele was hired to produce the reports by research firm Fusion GPS, which had been retained by a law firm that represented Trump opponent Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Fusion GPS was first hired to dig into Trump’s background by a website funded by a deep-pocketed Republican donor.

But the FBI has begun looking into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia before using the dossier to support warrant applications for Page. The Justice Department’s Inspector General determined that the FBI was justified in launching the investigation, which would eventually be taken over by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Mueller did not find a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but a report from his office mapped various ties between Trump campaign officials and the Kremlin and called the campaign eager for help from Russia in 2016.

In his closing remarks, Durham defended his investigation as an apolitical and “logical” consequence of Mueller’s failure to discover that the Trump campaign illegally conspired with Russia in 2016.

“Well, how did this all start?” said Durham.

FBI witnesses said certain emails and information about Dolan and Millian that Danchenko kept to himself would have been helpful to investigators examining the sources of the dossier’s allegations in 2017. Auten and Helson both testified that they could have taken action different if they had known as much as Danchenko. , as are two members of the Crossfire Hurricane team.

But when interviewed by defense attorneys Danny Onorato and Stuart A. Sears, Auten and Helson described Danchenko as a reliable source of information on Russian influence activities that US investigators have exploited for years.

Durham says the source of the Steele dossier lied. But the FBI has long appreciated it.

Danchenko was an FBI confidential informant from March 2017 to October 2020, earning about $219,000 in payments and expense reimbursements, defense attorneys say. Helson, one of Danchenko’s handlers, said his information was used in 25 investigations and 40 intelligence reports. Danchenko “reshaped” the way the United States views threats, Helson testified, and his defeat by the FBI hurt national security.

Auten previously said turning Danchenko into an informant was one of the best results of the Trump-Russia investigation. “I stand by that testimony,” he told Onorato.

These exchanges seemed to irritate Durham, whose questions to FBI officials then became more aggressive. The lawsuit revealed that at one point Durham made Auten and Helson “subjects” of his investigation.

The special counsel told the jury that FBI internal auditors recommended Auten’s suspension. Auten said the recommendation is under appeal.

Durham asked Helson why he didn’t ‘both’ to look into claims that Danchenko might be a Russian spy, as suggested by an official who spent two decades as a counterintelligence chief of the army in Europe. Helson, a Russian counterintelligence specialist who was not part of the Crossfire Hurricane team, later scoffed at the idea. “There was nothing in his history, his actions, anything we knew about him [that] would indicate he was an intelligence officer,” he said of Danchenko.

One issue left to the jurors to sort out was something of a telephone mystery.

Danchenko claimed an anonymous caller contacted him in 2016, possibly by phone or via an internet voice app, and told him about a “well-developed conspiracy” between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin. Steele included this claim in one of his reports, and the FBI cited it in Page’s warrant applications.

Danchenko said he “believed” but wasn’t sure the caller was Millian, which investigators found odd, Helson said. The Crossfire Hurricane team repeatedly asked Helson to bring Danchenko to clarify the details of the supposed call, the agent recalled. Danchenko said he tried to reach Millian via email and an intermediary at the time, and the anonymous caller’s voice sounded like Millian on a YouTube video, so he came to believe that it was was him, Helson said. The FBI official said he noted in his records the “minor inconsistencies” in Danchenko’s otherwise reliable reports.

Durham revealed that Millian had also been an FBI informant, but was now outside the United States and unavailable to testify about the call Danchenko allegedly received in July 2016. Steele n did not testify.

The special counsel argued that an August 2016 email, in which Danchenko wrote to Millian as if they had never spoken before, proved the mystery call was a sham. Subpoena records from Verizon showed Millian had no contact with Danchenko, Durham added.

The defense argued that Danchenko was unlikely to write in an email that he had spoken to a tipster who wished to remain anonymous, and that Verizon recordings would not show Millian calling Danchenko on an app such as Signal or Telegram.

Sears argued that it was no crime for Danchenko to assert his belief that Millian had called him, however dubious that belief may seem. If Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed to believe the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, Sears said, “that doesn’t make it a misrepresentation — he believes it.”

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