After trial setbacks, Durham reprimands his own witness and shuts down the FBI’s Russia investigation


The final expected trial of special counsel John Durham’s investigation took an unexpected turn Wednesday, with Durham grilling and reprimanding his own witness after the witness appeared to bolster the defense of Igor Danchenko, a key Steele source.

The dynamic was surprising because it was Durham’s first witness. And at times, as Durham personally questioned the witness, he strayed from the narrow case against Danchenko and focused more on the FBI’s 2016 mistakes when it investigated then-candidate Donald Trump.

Durham — a Trump-era appointee in 2019 to find government wrongdoing in the Trump-Russia investigation — accused Danchenko of lying to the FBI agents who tried to corroborate the case. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty and says he was telling the truth.

Here’s a breakdown of what happened Wednesday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia.

The special counsel opened his case with testimony from Brian Auten, a senior FBI intelligence analyst who oversaw part of the FBI’s early investigation into possible collusion between Trump and Russia.

Over the course of two days, Auten helped prosecutors by saying there was information Danchenko did not share with the FBI about his dossier collection that would have helped the bureau’s investigation. This is a key element of Durham’s case: To secure a conviction, Durham must convince the jury that Danchenko intentionally lied and that those false statements may have affected the FBI’s work.

The witness also highlighted some of Danchenko’s inconsistencies in his many FBI interviews, in which he was peppered with questions about his ties to Christopher Steele, the dossier and his own sub-sources.

But the situation changed when the defense cross-examined Auten. Danchenko’s lawyers highlighted Auten’s previous testimony, given years ago to the Justice Department’s inspector general and to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which contradicted some of Durham’s claims.

Auten has previously said Danchenko was “truthful” and “supportive” of the Russia investigation. He also said securing Danchenko as an FBI source was “one of the best things that came out of” the Russia investigation. This undermines the core of Durham’s indictment, which alleged that Danchenko serially lied to the FBI and obstructed investigators verifying the Steele dossier.

Danchenko’s defense attorney, Danny Onorato, asked Auten in court Wednesday if that was still his conviction today, and Auten responded in the affirmative, adding, “I stand by my testimony.”

The defense also elicited testimony indicating that Durham selected material from an FBI memo Auten wrote when there was exculpatory information on the next page.

“And Mr. Durham took no steps to correct your wrong answer, did he?” Onorato asked.

After Onorato finished, Durham returned for a final round of questions, but the tone changed completely. Durham and Auten sparred for over an hour. Durham sounded angry at times and many of Auten’s answers were contradictory, clearly not giving Durham the answers that fit his narrative.

Durham brought up the previously unknown fact that Auten was “recommended for suspension” by the FBI’s internal auditors. Auten acknowledged the recommendation, which he said is under appeal. Lawyers often cite a witness’s past offenses or convictions as a way to attack their credibility – but in this case, it was the prosecutor who apparently impeached his own witness.

“You will be suspended,” Durham said in one of his questions, “because you will not admit your involvement” in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act or FISA process.

The special counsel then rebuked Auten for previously saying George Papadopoulos was a “high-level adviser” to Trump’s 2016 campaign. Durham accurately noted that Papadopoulos was a low-level aide, just 28 years old at the time, and still included her Model UN experience from college on her resume.

Later, Durham tried to get Auten to accept that the FBI was more concerned about Papadopoulos’ ties to the Middle East than his ties to Russia. Auten didn’t want to go there, calling it a “both/and” situation. The spat had little to do with Danchenko’s alleged false statements on the matter.

Durham took a bat to Crossfire Hurricane, which was the code name for the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation before special counsel Robert Mueller took over. The Russia probe has been a major focus of Durham’s work, and he has previously criticized how it was opened. But he has made no allegations of bias or wrongdoing in the opening of Crossfire Hurricane.

“Did you guys even go look at the phone records?” Durham asked, referring to the records of one of Danchenko’s potential sources for the dossier. “Did you even look at the travel logs?”

Auten said the FBI had not, to the best of his recollection.

“It all had to be reconstructed,” Durham said.

“Reconstructed by whom?” Auten asked.

“Not by your group,” Durham replied, touting his team’s reinvestigation of Danchenko.

The special counsel also grilled Auten over his role in the FBI filings to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Durham appeared to use Auten’s time on the witness stand to hold him accountable for the significant errors and omissions in the FISA applications that were revealed by the Justice Department’s inspector general in a 2019 report. Durham called it a “scorching report,” but was forced to rephrase his question after Danchenko’s lawyers objected to his characterization.

Durham said the FBI was “all too ready, willing and able to just accept” Steele’s demands and include them in the FISA applications. The lawsuit has determined that FBI agents reused Steele’s material in FISA renewals, even as their efforts to corroborate his work fell flat.

Many of Durham’s actions Wednesday vindicated his critics’ main complaint — that he has used his lawsuits to push a dubious narrative of intentional government wrongdoing against Trump and of a far-reaching conspiracy by Democrats to eviscerate Trump without ever impeaching it.

The stakes are high for Durham, who has taken on an unprecedented role in this trial by personally handling most of the arguments and fielding questions thus far. His investigation is winding down after more than three years, and he’s secured just one guilty plea from an FBI attorney that resulted in zero jail time. His only other case, against a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer, ended in a quick jury acquittal in May.

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