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Kelly Hooper

Durham brings in alleged Danchenko source as witness on trial’s third day

Igor Danchenko leaves Albert V. Bryan United States Courthouse in Alexandria, Va., Nov. 4, 2021. | Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Special counsel John Durham’s team on Thursday morning called longtime Democratic operative Charles Dolan to the stand at the trial of Igor Danchenko, the Russian analyst who the government alleges lied about Dolan’s role as a source for his contributions to the infamous Trump-Russia dossier.

Danchenko is charged with five counts of lying to the FBI, all of which he’s pleaded not guilty to. The trial, which is in its third day in a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Va., is expected to be the final prosecution for Durham in his probe of the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election, known as Crossfire Hurricane.

The government alleges that Dolan, a public relations executive, was a primary source of the information that Danchenko contributed to the Steele dossier — a collection of reports compiled by a former British spy containing now-debunked salacious rumors and allegations about former President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia. Prosecutors called Dolan to the stand on Thursday as their second witness in the trial, and the Democratic operative answered questions surrounding the nature of his relationship with the defendant.

At one point during questioning, Dolan admitted to having lied to Danchenko in an email in the summer of 2016 about a “GOP friend” he claimed to have met with and who he said provided him with information about former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort’s resignation. Dolan told the jury that he had “embellished” that claim to Danchenko, and that he had actually obtained the information about Manafort’s resignation from watching cable news, not from a Republican friend.

“I thought I would just embellish a bit to make it seem like his contacts were good,” Dolan said.

Prosecutor Michael Kielty pointed out similarities in the information Dolan provided Danchenko in that 2016 email with information that had ended up in a subsequent report from the dossier, dated just two days after Dolan sent the email. Dolan said that he never provided additional insights to Danchenko, and that he wasn’t aware at the time of why Danchenko was seeking information from him.

“I just thought he wanted to know what the atmospherics were around the resignation,” Dolan said.

Dolan also said he called Danchenko the day that Buzzfeed published the dossier, on Jan. 10, 2017, to “see if he knew where this came from.” The witness said Danchenko claimed he wasn’t sure where the dossier came from and would look into it and get back to him, but never did.

In cross-examination, defense attorney Stuart Sears implied Dolan was being pressured by the special counsel to admit that the information in the dossier report came from him — to which Dolan replied, “I guess.”

“I agree they were very similar,” Dolan said of the information he gave to Danchenko in 2016 and the subsequent dossier report.

Sears also established that the information Dolan had given Danchenko by email — namely that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski “hated” Manafort — was “common knowledge” at the time. Dolan confirmed to the jury that he didn’t have any inside information, and didn’t have any additional email or phone exchanges with Danchenko in which he provided inside scoops about Trump campaign connections to Russia.

“You never talked with Mr. Danchenko about anything that showed up in the dossier, correct?” Sears asked.

“Correct,” Dolan replied.

The government also called a third witness on Thursday, FBI agent Kevin Helson, the second bureau employee to testify after analyst Brian Auten took the stand during the first two days of the trial. Helson was Danchenko’s handling agent from 2017 to 2020, when the defendant served as a “confidential human source” for the FBI. He revealed that Danchenko was a paid informant to the FBI.

Durham led the prosecution’s questioning of Helson, attempting to establish that Danchenko withheld information and records from the FBI during their Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Helson confirmed that Danchenko never provided any corroborative information for the dossier to the FBI. After playing an audio recording of one of Helson’s interviews with Danchenko, Durham asked about a pause in the conversation when Danchenko was asked about his relationship with Dolan.

“To the best of my recollection, there was a bit of hesitation, like he was trying to recall,” Helson said.

Sears, in cross-examination, emphasized Danchenko’s cooperation with Helson and the FBI, specifically the fact that he was being interviewed voluntarily and could have declined to answer questions but never did. Helson agreed with Sears that there was only one instance in their three- to four-year relationship in which Danchenko acted “odd or erratically,” and that was an instance where he was demanding more money for the information he was providing. Danchenko later explained the behavior, attributing it to his wife and lawyer at the time telling him he should be getting more money, and he apologized.

Helson also confirmed that Danchenko didn’t know at the time that a dossier was being created with the information he was providing to Christopher Steele, the British spy who authored the reports. Helson confirmed that Danchenko was upset that Steele had “embellished” information he had provided, especially when he had told Steele that some of it was rumor or speculation.

“Mr. Steele was willing to burn everyone around him to make the dossier true,” Sears said.

“That is true,” Helson replied.

Sears also touched specifically on the lie Danchenko is charged with on count one, which is telling the FBI he hadn’t “talked” to Dolan about any information in the dossier when in fact the two had exchanged emails. Sears asked Helson whether he had clarified to Danchenko during an interview what exactly he meant by “talked,” to which Helson replied that he hadn’t. Asked whether Danchenko’s answer was literally true, Helson replied, “Yes.”

Helson said he never believed that Danchenko was lying to him, and confirmed that he had indicated in reports that the defendant was a reliable source. Danchenko provided information on at least 25 active FBI investigations while he was a confidential human source, Helson said.

“It was a big deal for the FBI to have access to someone like Mr. Danchenko, wasn’t it?” asked Sears.

“Yes, it was,” Helson replied.

Durham,taking a move from his Wednesday playbook, became confrontational with Helson on redirect over what he implied were missteps by the FBI during the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Durham grilled Helson on not following recommendations from the FBI’s validation unit when opening Danchenko as a confidential human source, such as not conducting a polygraph on him or backtracking his whereabouts from when his visa expired.

Durham will continue his redirect on Friday, when he is expected to wrap up presenting evidence in the case.

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