Takeaways from the Igor Danchenko acquittal and what it means for John Durham


Special counsel John Durham’s latest trial ended Tuesday with not guilty verdicts on all charges against Igor Danchenko, the primary source of the Trump-Russia dossier.

It’s another major setback for Durham, the Trump-era detention center that has spent the past three years looking for wrongdoing in the Russia investigation.

Much came to play on the outcome, especially for Durham, who personally handled the bulk of the case, including closing arguments.

The Danchenko case revived many of the most infamous dramas of the 2016 election, including the infamous “Steele case,” which alleged that Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia. The dossier – which was indirectly commissioned by Hillary Clinton’s campaign and compiled by retired British spy Christopher Steele – has been largely discredited and its flaws exposed during the trial.

Here are five takeaways from the trial and what it means for the Durham probe going forward:

It is challenging to imagine a worse result for Durham.

The trial began to derail early for Durham and his team. District Judge Anthony Trenga flatly rejected Danchenko’s request to throw out the case, calling it a “close call,” but allowed the trial to continue. Durham’s key witnesses ended up helping the defense, forcing Durham to attack the very people he put on the witness stand.

And before deliberations began, Trenga dismissed one of the five counts against Danchenko, ruling that Danchenko’s statement to the FBI about his contacts with a Democratic operative was “literally true” and therefore could not be prosecuted as a false statement.

Durham’s two marquee cases — against Danchenko and separately against a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer — both ended in acquittals.

In both cases, the defense argued that Durham was a prosecutor run amok who cherry-picked facts, bullied witnesses and tried to fabricate an anti-Trump conspiracy where none existed.

Justice Department prosecutors fare well in the federal system, where acquittals are rare.

About 85% of federal defendants who receive a jury trial are found guilty, according to official data for fiscal year 2018. That means there was only about a 2% chance Durham would lose back-to-back trials.

It cannot be understated how aggressively Trump has pumped up and cheered the Durham investigation. And Durham has yet to come close to living up to those soaring expectations.

Trump has repeatedly claimed that Durham would expose a massive conspiracy between partisan government officials and Democratic operatives who planned to undermine his political career by launching bogus investigations, fabricating his ties to Russia and misusing federal law enforcement tools to harass and entrap his staff .

Specifically, Trump has focused much of his anger on the case, which he has called a “pile of garbage” and falsely claimed was used to launch the Russia investigation in 2016. In closing arguments Monday, Durham pleaded with the jury to convict Danchenko and said his alleged crimes meant “the whole house of cards in the case is crumbling.”

Durham has spent a decent amount of time investigating Trump’s enemies and exploring Trump’s complaints about the Russia investigation.

He investigated the FBI’s investigation of the Clinton Foundation. He investigated the leak of classified information about former Trump adviser Michael Flynn. He investigated potential CIA wrongdoing regarding its analysis of Russian meddling in 2016. He investigated a shadowy professor who right-wing conspiracy theorists believe was part of a “deep state” government plot against Trump.

But Durham is wrapping up his investigation, and he hasn’t charged anyone on any of those fronts. Instead, Durham prosecuted three very narrow perjury cases, and the only crime he ever proved was that a low-level FBI lawyer altered an email about a surveillance warrant.

Durham has responded to both losses in court in the same way. Exactly the same – his statement on Tuesday and after Michael Sussmann’s acquittal in May were identical: “Although we are disappointed with the result, we respect the jury’s decision and thank them for their efforts. I also want to recognize and thank the investigators and the prosecution for their dedicated efforts in seeking truth and justice in this case.”

Durham’s failure in court doesn’t mean everyone gets a clean bill of health. All we know is that Durham investigated these subjects and did not charge anyone. He will likely have much more to say in his final report.

When former Attorney General Bill Barr formalized Durham’s role as special counsel in 2020, he directed Durham to prepare a report “in a form that will permit public dissemination.”

The report, like much of Durham’s work, is likely to be a kind of Rorschach test. His critics will presumably read it with extraordinary skepticism, while his boosters will say it vindicates their theories.

Attorney General Merrick Garland previously promised to release “as much as possible” of the report. It will be up to Garland’s team to decide how much of the report to redact. That makes for an interesting situation: President Joe Biden’s Justice Department appointees will have the final say on Durham’s report, which was commissioned by the Trump-era attorney general.

It is remarkable that Garland has allowed Durham to even go this far. Some legal experts, particularly on the liberal side, called on Garland to shut down the Durham investigation, even though that would surely have sparked backlash from Trump and his supporters.

At Danchenko’s trial, both sides largely kept politics out – until the bitter end.

Defense attorney Stuart Sears criticized Barr, arguing that Durham was “focused on proving crimes at all costs, as opposed to investigating whether any occurred.” He blasted the Barr-run Justice Department for indirectly dropping Danchenko as an FBI informant in 2020, saying “a bunch of politicians thought politics was more important than national security.”

Durham then took the reins and got the last word with the jury. He vehemently defended his investigation and used parts of his closing arguments to justify its existence

“(Sears’) proposal is — it’s Bill Barr. Bill Barr did this for political reasons,” Durham said. “But think about how this came about. The Mueller report had come out and no cooperation has been established. It’s not an illogical question to ask, well, how did it all start?”

The special counsel praised his team and dismissed the idea that they were “doing this for political reasons.” As he began to meander away from the case at hand, the judge stepped in.

“You should finish, Mr. Durham,” the judge said.

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