ALEXANDRIA, Va. — A federal jury acquitted Russian analyst Igor Danchenko on Tuesday on four counts of lying to the FBI in what is expected to be the final case stemming from special counsel John Durham’s three-year probe into the origins of the agency’s investigation into allegations of ties between former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign and Russia.
The jury deliberated for more than 10 hours.
Prosecutors alleged Danchenko provided false information to the FBI in 2017, when it was trying to verify information in a dossier detailing Trump’s alleged ties to Russia that was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. The FBI used the largely unsubstantiated dossier to support its surveillance of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Danchenko, 44, had told the FBI he received some of the information that went into the dossier in an anonymous phone call in July 2016 from someone he thought was the prominent Belarusian American businessman Sergei Millian — a claim the defense argued was always speculative. Prosecutors, using phone records, said the call never happened, while the defense maintained the conversation could have occurred over an encrypted phone app.
The government obtained Millian’s email records, which included messages from Danchenko but no contact information for any apps or references to a purported call between the two men. Millian has denied he was a source of information for the dossier.
In a statement after the verdict, Durham said: “While we are disappointed in the outcome, 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."
Danchenko’s attorney, Stuart Sears, said outside the courthouse: "We’ve known all along that Mr. Danchenko was innocent. We’re happy now that the American public knows that, as well. And we thank these jurors for their hard work and deliberation and reaching the right result."
Durham’s team called several witnesses, including FBI analyst Brian Auten, who revealed the agency offered up to $1 million to Steele if he could provide evidence or sources that would produce "corroborating information that led to a successful prosecution” stemming from the allegations in his dossier — a line of questioning intended to discredit Steele and the FBI's tactics.
Another witness, FBI Agent Kevin Helson, was Danchenko’s “handler” from 2017 until the Justice Department indirectly revealed his identity as a main contributor to the dossier in 2020. Helson recalled Danchenko’s being upset about “how Mr. Steele embellished the information he provided,” testimony that bolstered the defense’s argument that Danchenko was blindsided by the published dossier.
“Steele was trying to burn everything to the ground around him” to prove the allegations in his dossier, Helson testified under cross-examination by Sears.
Although Danchenko was the one on trial, the government heavily criticized the FBI for its handling of the dossier, in particular for using the report’s uncorroborated allegations as part of its application for a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct surveillance of Page during the 2016 election.
“This case is about protecting the functions and integrity of our institutions,” assistant special counsel Michael Keilty argued in his opening statement, criticizing both Danchenko’s alleged lies and the FBI’s lack of action, which he said would have uncovered them. “The bank robber doesn’t get a free pass simply because the security guards were asleep.”
At the end of the trial, Keilty told jurors that “this wasn’t the FBI’s finest hour,” but he noted that the issue before them was solely Danchenko’s “shifting story.”
In his closing argument, Sears homed in on testimony from multiple FBI agents and analysts that they had “no reason to doubt” Danchenko and believed him to be credible.
“It was devastating testimony for the special counsel’s case,” Sears said, highlighting the internal pressure the agents might have faced before they provided that testimony.
“The special counsel’s investigation is committed to proving crime at any cost,” regardless of the government’s own evidence proving his client’s innocence, Sears said. He then went down the list of how, he said, emails and comments corroborated — not refuted — Danchenko’s claims, such as his travels to New York City to possibly meet with Millian, his uncertainty about Millian’s identity as the anonymous caller and the consistency of the sentiments he expressed in his interview statements.
After the government and the defense rested their cases Friday, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga dismissed a charge related to whether Danchenko had talked with a Democratic operative named Charles Dolan about the contents of the so-called Steele dossier. Asked by the FBI whether he had talked to Dolan for the information, Danchenko said no. In his decision, Trenga said that answer was literally true, because the correspondence was conducted by email.
Durham defended his charges during the trial, however, arguing that “it would certainly be reasonable to infer” that Danchenko understood the questions about whether he had talked to Dolan to be in a context of general communications.
Before the trial, Trenga also ruled that prosecutors could not present evidence about the most salacious parts of the dossier, including unproven allegations involving Trump and prostitutes at a Moscow hotel alleged to have been bugged by Russian intelligence, an allegation that could have raised the possibility that Trump could be blackmailed. Trump had described the dossier as fake news and evidence of a political witch hunt against him.
Durham’s investigation lost another court battle this year when a federal jury found Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann not guilty of lying to the FBI. Prosecutors from Durham’s office had contended that Sussmann misrepresented himself in a meeting with the FBI’s general counsel in 2016 in hope of orchestrating an “October surprise” against her rival, Trump.
In another case from the probe, former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith was sentenced to probation last year, avoiding a prison sentence, for making a false statement by altering an internal FBI email in seeking a court’s permission to continue government surveillance of Page.