Special counsel John Durham’s likely final trial ended in another defeat Tuesday as a federal jury acquitted Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst who was the primary source of the anti-Trump Steele dossier, on charges of making false statements to the FBI.
The jury deliberated for about nine hours over two days before acquitting Mr. Danchenko, who showed no reaction to the verdict.
It was the second acquittal for Mr. Durham in as many trials, leaving him with the guilty plea of a low-level FBI lawyer who was sentenced to probation as his only win.
Stuart Sears, a defense attorney for Mr. Danchenko, thanked the jurors for their work during the weeklong trial.
“We’ve known all along that Mr. Danchenko was innocent. We’re happy now that the American public knows that as well,” he told reporters in a brief statement after the verdict.
Mr. Durham said in a statement that his team was “disappointed” in the outcome.
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“We respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their service. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution team for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case,” he said.
Joel Greene, a juror from Vienna, Virginia, told The Washington Times that the verdict was an easy call.
“We looked really closely, going through and examined it all, and the conclusion that we reached was a conclusion that all of us were able to reach,” he said. “It was pretty unanimous. Everyone had questions on different things that needed to be clarified, but no fight over ‘yes,’ ’no’ or whatever.”
Mr. Danchenko was charged with four counts of making false statements related to his claims to the FBI that he received an anonymous phone call in July 2016 from someone he believed to be Sergei Millian, a former head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Danchenko told investigators that information from the phone call ended up in the dossier, a compendium of unproven anti-Trump accusations compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and paid for by Democrats ahead of the 2016 election. The dossier was used in part by the FBI to obtain a surveillance warrant for Carter Page, a Trump campaign figure, in an investigation of suspected links between the Trump campaign and Moscow.
During the five-day criminal trial, Mr. Durham’s prosecutors argued that Mr. Danchenko never received the call and that he fabricated the story under pressure by FBI agents to corroborate accusations he provided to Mr. Steele, which ended up in the dossier.
“Why would Sergei Millian, a vocal supporter of Donald Trump, call and offer damaging information about Donald Trump to a person he’s never met before, he’s never spoken with before? It doesn’t make any sense,” prosecutor Michael Keilty said in his closing statement to jurors on Monday.
The defense said the call could have been made via a secure app and that Mr. Danchenko volunteered to help the FBI corroborate information in the Steele dossier.
“He was trying to help the FBI, and now they are prosecuting him for it,” Mr. Sears said.
The acquittal is a stinging defeat for Mr. Durham, who had a lot on the line in the Danchenko trial. Attorney General William P. Barr appointed him in 2019 to look for misconduct by the FBI and other intelligence agencies during their Russian collusion investigation.
Mr. Trump predicted that the Durham investigation would result in major arrests and would reveal that the FBI engaged in “really bad things” during its probe of Russia ties. After more than three years of looking for FBI wrongdoing, Mr. Durham has secured only one guilty plea and struck out on two criminal trials. He hasn’t charged anyone with conspiracy, proved that political bias swayed FBI decision-making while investigating Mr. Trump, or put high-level officials on trial.
The Danchenko trial had one major stumble for Mr. Durham and his team. At the conclusion of the prosecution’s case on Friday, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga granted a defense motion to throw out one of the initial five charges against Mr. Danchenko.
Prosecutors charged Mr. Danchenko with lying to the FBI when he said he never “talked” with Democratic operative Charles H. Dolan Jr. about information that wound up in the Steele dossier. Although the two men exchanged emails, there was no evidence that they spoke. Judge Trenga, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said Mr. Danchenko’s answer was “literally true” and the charge was too weak to send to the jury.
Mr. Durham appeared to be feeling the heat Monday as he defended his investigation to jurors during a rebuttal to the defense attorney’s closing argument.
Mr. Sears, the defense attorney, lauded Mr. Danchenko’s work as a paid informant for the FBI from 2017 to 2020, but the bureau was forced to cut ties with him in late 2020 after Mr. Barr’s Justice Department indirectly outed him as the dossier source.
“He deserved more than to be exposed because a bunch of politicians put politics over national security,” said Mr. Sears, repeatedly reminding jurors that Mr. Barr initiated the Durham probe.
Mr. Durham argued that his investigation was a natural sequel to special counsel Robert Mueller’s conclusion that there was no evidence of collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.
“Mr. Sears wants to put this on Bill Barr. He wants to put this on politicians,” Mr. Durham said in defense of his investigation. “You can call that political [that investigators] spent considerable time away from their family, did that for a political reason. If it’s your mindset, I guess that’s your mindset.”
Mr. Durham also showed frustration last week while sparring with one of his own witnesses, FBI analyst Brian Auten. Mr. Durham appeared angry while questioning Mr. Auten, who was not giving answers to match the prosecution’s narrative.
The Danchenko prosecution is the third case brought by Mr. Durham’s team.
The first case against former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith resulted in a guilty plea. He admitted to falsifying details in an email partly used to justify the Page surveillance application. Mr. Clinesmith walked away with probation.
Mr. Durham’s first trial, on a single charge of lying to the FBI against former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussman, ended in an acquittal. After a two-week trial, jurors took less than six hours to conclude the lawyer wasn’t guilty.
The Danchenko case is expected to be Mr. Durham’s final trial before he wraps up his investigation. He is expected to issue a report of his conclusions to the Justice Department. It is up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether to publicly release the report.