(WASHINGTON) — The trial of a Russian national accused of lying to federal investigators about information he contributed to the so-called Steele dossier is set to begin this week, marking a major test for the special counsel investigating the origins of the FBI probe of former President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia.
Igor Danchenko, a Washington-based think tank analyst, was hired by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in 2016 to collect information compiled in his now-infamous “dossier,” which included explosive and unproven claims about the former president. In a November 2021 indictment, prosecutors accused Danchenko of misleading FBI agents about his sources of information. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty.
Danchenko’s trial, which begins Tuesday in Alexandria, Virginia, is expected to offer special counsel John Durham an opportunity to justify his years-long probe, which Trump and his allies once hoped would uncover a widespread “deep-state” conspiracy within the bureau.
Assigned in 2019 by then-Attorney General William Barr to pursue allegations of misconduct by the FBI and intelligence community in their Russia investigation, dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” Durham has secured indictments against only three individuals, one of whom, Michael Sussmann, was acquitted at trial earlier this year.
In another case, former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith admitted to altering a document used in the application process authorizing continued surveillance against a former Trump campaign aide.
Danchenko is the third defendant and the most politically fraught. As Steele’s primary collector, Danchenko was responsible for sharing the salacious claim that Russian officials may have had a videotape of Trump watching prostitutes in a hotel room during a 2013 trip to Moscow. Trump has vehemently denied the claim and no evidence has surfaced to support the allegation.
Prosecutors accused Danchenko of falsely telling the FBI that he never communicated with an unidentified U.S.-based individual “who was a long-time participant in Democratic Party Politics” about any allegations included in the dossier — whereas the indictment says Danchenko had actually sourced one or more of the allegations to that individual.
The indictment also accused Danchenko of lying to the FBI when he suggested that he had spoken with a Belarusian-born businessman named Sergei Millian, who at the time served as president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce and had obtained information from Millian that then made its way into the dossier.
“Danchenko stated falsely [to the FBI] that, in or about late July 2016, he received an anonymous phone call from an individual who Danchenko believed to be … then president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce” and obtained information about Trump from that man, the indictment says, referring to Millian but not naming him.
In fact, according to the indictment, “Danchenko never received such a phone call or such information from any person he believed to be [Millian] … rather, Danchenko fabricated these facts regarding [Millian].”
The indictment goes on to claim that Danchenko “never spoke to” Millian at all, which would support Millian’s longstanding contention that he was not the source — knowing or unwitting — of any material in the dossier. Millian has called any suggestions that he was a source “a blatant lie.”
Ahead of his trial, Danchenko and his legal team sought to have their case dismissed and nearly succeeded. Danchenko’s lawyers have insisted that Danchenko presented information to the FBI in accordance with what he believed was true and questioned the framing and interpretation of agents’ questions during interviews with Danchenko.
U.S. Judge Anthony Trenga of the Eastern District of Virginia ultimately ruled that the trial should move forward but characterized his decision as “an extremely close call.” Last week, Trenga ruled that prosecutors should avoid reference to the most salacious allegations in Steele’s dossier in presenting their case to jurors.
Steele, who has largely remained silent since his dossier became public in January 2017, told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in an exclusive interview last year that he was “interested to see what [Durham] publishes and what he says about us and others,” but did not fear any personal legal exposure.
“Do you think he’s coming for you?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“I don’t think so, no,” Steele replied.
“Are you worried you’ll be indicted?” Stephanopoulos added.
“No,” Steele said.
Durham’s failure to expose allegations of widespread politicization within the FBI has drawn the ire of Trump and his supporters, who at various stages of the probe expressed hope that the special counsel would validate their claims of a “deep state” conspiracy.
“The public is waiting ‘with bated breath’ for the Durham Report, which should reveal corruption at a level never seen before in our country,” Trump wrote in August on Truth Social, his social media platform.
To Trump and his supporters’ apparent chagrin, however, Danchenko’s trial may be one of the final acts of Durham’s tenure as special counsel. The New York Times reported last month that a grand jury empaneled by Durham had expired and that his office hoped to complete a final report by the end of the year.
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