A federal judge on Friday dismissed one of five charges against Igor Danchenko, the main source of the infamous Trump-Russia dossier, in a major setback for special counsel John Durham’s investigation.
The judge dropped one of the five false statement charges, specifically related to the allegation that Danchenko lied to the FBI about speaking to a Democratic agent about the anti-Trump dossier. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.
District Judge Anthony Trenga said in court Friday that Danchenko’s response to the FBI interviewer “was literally true” and that Durham’s case on that specific charge was too weak to send to a jury. It’s a major victory for Danchenko, who has maintained that he was honest with FBI agents trying to corroborate the dossier in 2017.
The ruling was a blow to Durham, who personally handled many of the arguments and the questioning of witnesses during the week-long trial. He personally urged Trenga to keep the job, before Trenga ruled against him.
Danchenko still faces four additional counts of lying to the FBI, which is a felony. The remaining charges relate to Danchenko’s alleged false statements about whether she received a phone call in July 2016 from a Belarusian-American businessman who had been in contact with people in the orbit of candidate Donald Trump and was a possible source of the dossier. .
The trial will continue Monday with closing arguments and jury deliberations. Durham rested his case on Friday. Lawyers for Danchenko, a Russian expatriate and former think tank analyst, said they will not call any witnesses.
A holdover from the Trump era, Durham was handpicked in 2019 by then-Attorney General Bill Barr to “investigate investigators” and seek government misconduct in the Trump-Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly applauded the investigation, saying Durham will uncover a massive conspiracy by “deep state” supporters to derail his political career.
But Durham has not delivered anything like the Watergate-level bombs that Trump says are coming. CNN has reported that the special counsel’s investigation is drawing to a close and that the Danchenko case is the last trial expected from Durham. The final act of the Durham investigation will be his report, which he will present to Attorney General Merrick Garland for review.
In more than three years, Durham obtained only one criminal conviction: the guilty plea of a low-level FBI attorney, who was sentenced to probation. Durham’s only other prosecution has been against a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, who was quickly acquitted by a jury of lying to a top FBI official during a 2016 meeting about Trump’s possible ties to Russia.
Prosecutors typically do well in the federal system, where acquittals are extremely rare. About 85% of federal defendants who receive a jury trial are found guilty, according to official statistics analyzed by the Pew Research Center.
The charge against Danchenko that was dropped on Friday concerned whether he lied about discussing specific material in the dossier with Charles Dolan, a public relations executive with experience in Russian affairs and decades of political ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. While he was not a high-level Democratic operative in recent years, Dolan previously held positions in Bill Clinton’s campaign and volunteered for Hillary Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign against Trump in 2016.
The largely discredited dossier, which was indirectly funded by the Clinton campaign, contained explosive claims about Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia. But it also featured a relatively mundane element about the infighting within the notoriously tumultuous Trump campaign. When Durham indicted Danchenko last year, the prosecution revealed that this gossip originated from Dolan, even though it has been described in the file as coming from a Trump insider.
The emails show that Dolan misled Danchenko about where he got the information, attributing it to a “Republican friend” who was “a close Trump associate,” when in fact it came from news clippings. Dolan testified Thursday that he had lied to Danchenko about meeting with a “friend from the Republican Party” and actually only sent Danchenko what he had heard on the cable news.
In 2017, as the FBI worked to corroborate the file, Danchenko was asked by an FBI agent if he ever “talked” to Dolan about “anything in the file.” Danchenko said no, which Durham claimed was an illegal lie.
The judge ruled that Danchenko was technically telling the truth, because the evidence established that Danchenko and Dolan only emailed about the dossier but never “talked” about it. The judge also cited testimony from the FBI agent Danchenko allegedly lied to, who told jurors Thursday that he did not define “spoke” while interviewing Danchenko.
In making his ruling, the judge said the Durham team was trying to broaden the definition of “spoken” to include more than it actually does, and that it would be inappropriate for a jury to convict Danchenko using Durham’s interpretation of the law. .
Throughout the trial, Durham portrayed Danchenko as someone who misled the FBI and impeded the bureau’s efforts to corroborate or refute the dossier. But Danchenko’s FBI contact vouched for his credibility on the witness stand, saying he was a model informant providing “critical intelligence,” including on Russian election meddling.
As a paid informant, Danchenko significantly assisted multiple FBI investigations over the years, and was so valuable that FBI agents were still asking for his input last month, his supervisor testified Thursday. But the FBI was forced to cut ties with Danchenko in late 2020 after the Trump-era Justice Department indirectly singled him out as a dossier source.
The person in charge, FBI agent Kevin Helson, said the disclosure harmed the national security of the United States. Internet sleuths identified Danchenko shortly after Barr published Helson’s notes from his interviews with Danchenko. Barr took that action after facing pressure from Trump and Republican lawmakers to release more internal FBI files on the Russia investigation.
“As a result of that act, (Danchenko’s) ability to continue to provide actionable information to the FBI is diminished,” Helson wrote in a memo after Danchenko’s identity became public, “as is his ability to provide support financial to his family.
Helson asked his bosses to give Danchenko a final payment of $346,000 in the wake of the revelation. The FBI refused.
This story has been updated with more developments on Friday.