ALEXANDRIA, Va. >> A jury today acquitted a think tank analyst accused of lying to the FBI about his role in the creation of a discredited dossier about former President Donald Trump.
The case against Igor Danchenko was the third and possibly final case brought by Special Counsel John Durham as part of his probe into how the FBI conducted its own investigation into allegations of collusion between the 2016 Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The first two cases ended in an acquittal and a guilty plea with a sentence of probation.
Danchenko betrayed no emotion as the verdict was read. His wife wiped away tears after the clerk read the final “not guilty” to the four counts he faced.
Danchenko didn’t comment after the hearing, but his lawyer, Stuart Sears, spoke briefly to reporters, saying, “We’ve known all along that Mr. Danchenko is innocent. We’re happy now that the American public knows that as well.”
The jury reached its verdict after roughly nine hours of deliberations over two days. One juror, Joel Greene of Vienna, Virginia, said there were no real disputes among the jury and that jurors just wanted to be thorough in reviewing the four counts.
The acquittal marked a significant setback for Durham. Despite hopes by Trump supporters that the prosecutor would uncover a sweeping conspiracy within the FBI and other agencies to derail his candidacy, the three-year investigation failed to produce evidence that met those expectations. The sole conviction — an FBI lawyer admitted altering an email related to the surveillance of a former Trump aide — was for conduct uncovered not by Durham but by the Justice Department’s inspector general, and the two cases that Durham took to trials ended in full acquittals.
Durham declined comment after the hearing, but he said in a statement issued through the Justice Department: “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.”
He issued an identical statement after the first trial ended in acquittal.
The Danchenko case was the first of the three to delve deeply into the origins of the “Steele dossier,” a compendium of allegations that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was colluding with the Kremlin.
Most famously, it alleged that the Russians could have blackmail material on Trump for his supposed interactions with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel. Trump derided the dossier as fake news and a political witch hunt when it became public in 2017.
Danchenko, by his own admission, was responsible for 80% of the raw intelligence in the dossier and half of the accompanying analysis, though trial testimony indicated that Danchenko was shocked and dismayed about how Steele presented the material and portrayed it as factual when Danchenko considered it more to be rumor and speculation.
Prosecutors said that if Danchenko had been more honest about his sources, the FBI might not have treated the dossier so credulously. As it turned out, the FBI used material from the dossier to support applications for warrantless surveillance of a Trump campaign official, Carter Page, even though the FBI never was able to corroborate a single allegation in the dossier.
Prosecutors said Danchenko lied about the identity of his own sources for the material he gave to Steele. The specific charges against Danchenko allege that he essentially fabricated one of his sources when the FBI interviewed him to determine how he derived the material he provided for the dossier.
Danchenko told the FBI that some of the material came when he received an anonymous call from a man he believed to be Sergei Millian, a former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Prosecutors said Danchenko’s story made no sense. They said that phone records show no evidence of a call, and that Danchenko had no reason to believe Millian, a Trump supporter he’d never met, was suddenly going to be willing to provide disparaging information about Trump to a stranger.
Danchenko’s lawyers, as a starting point, maintain that Danchenko never said he talked with Millian. He only guessed that Millian might have been the caller when the FBI asked him to speculate. And they said he shouldn’t be convicted of a crime for making a guess at the FBI’s invitation.
That said, Danchenko’s lawyers say, he had good reason to believe the caller may well have been Millian. The call came just a few days after Danchenko had reached out to Millian over email after a mutual acquaintance brokered a connection over email.
And Danchenko’s lawyers say it’s irrelevant that his phone records don’t show a call because Danchenko told the FBI from the start that the call might have taken place over a secure mobile app for which he had no records.
The jury began deliberations Monday afternoon after hearing closing arguments on four counts. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga threw out a fifth count, saying prosecutors had failed to prove it as a matter of law.
Trenga nearly threw out all of the charges before the trial began, citing the legal strength of Danchenko’s defense, but allowed the case to proceed in what he described as “an extremely close call.”
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