Shortly before the 2016 election, the FBI offered retired British spy Christopher Steele “up to $1 million” to prove the explosive allegations in his dossier about Donald Trump, a senior FBI analyst testified Tuesday.
The cash offer was made during an overseas October 2016 meeting between Steele and several top FBI officials who were trying to corroborate Steele’s claims that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia to win the election.
FBI supervisory analyst Brian Auten testified that Steele never got the money because he could not “prove the allegations.”
Auten also said Steele refused to provide the names of any of his sources during that meeting, and that Steele didn’t give the FBI anything during that meeting that corroborated the claims in his explosive dossier.
Auten was testifying at the criminal trial of Igor Danchenko, a primary source for Steele’s dossier, who is being prosecuted by special counsel John Durham. Danchenko has pleaded not guilty to five counts of lying to the FBI about his sourcing for some information that ended up in the dossier. His trial kicked off Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.
Durham, a Trump-era prosecutor who is looking for misconduct in the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation, handled most of the in-court arguments on Tuesday and personally questioned Auten on the witness stand – a rare move for a special counsel and former US attorney.
‘Those lies mattered,’ prosecutors say
In opening statements, prosecutors said Danchenko “fabricated a source” and “concealed a source” in his interviews with the FBI in January 2017, where investigators were furiously trying to “corroborate or refute” the details of the Trump-Russia dossier.
Prosecutor Michael Keilty said Danchenko’s alleged lies “corrupted” the functions of the FBI.
Specifically, Danchenko’s alleged deception tainted surveillance warrants that the FBI sought against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017.
“Those lies mattered,” Keilty said, because the FBI was essentially duped by Danchenko, and then included his inaccurate information in applications submitted to a judge to secure the Page wiretaps.
“This case is about protecting the functions and integrity of our institutions,” Keilty said.
Lawyers get into argument during break
Danchenko’s lawyers torched Durham during their own opening statements, accusing him of trying to dupe the jury into a conviction.
Attorney Danny Onorato criticized the prosecution’s “convoluted theory” of the case, and told jurors that Durham will “try to convince you that his truthful answer was somehow false.”
He told jurors that Durham wants them to “defy common sense, logic and reality” and to “rewrite the dictionary” to convict Danchenko.
“A truthful statement to an FBI agent … cannot be a crime,” Onorato added.
Things got heated when Onorato accused Keilty of lying in his own opening statement. Specifically, Onorato took issue with Keilty’s comment that Danchenko was offered immunity during some of his FBI interviews.
“That’s a lie … he just lied to you,” Onorato told the jurors. “Think about that while you consider the government’s case.”
Afterward, during a courtroom break, Keilty and Onorato got into a visible argument. Durham later asked District Judge Anthony Trenga to admonish Onorato. The judge told the jury that Onorato’s assertions about the supposed immunity deal “need to be clarified” because the deal provided Danchenko partial immunity.
Durham seemingly puts FBI on trial
Durham was appointed in 2019 by former Attorney General Bill Barr to find government misconduct in the Trump-Russia probe. After three years, Durham only secured one conviction of a low-level FBI lawyer.
But his team used the Danchenko case Tuesday to put the FBI on trial, in some ways, and air some of the bureau’s dirty laundry for all to see.
Keilty said in opening statements that the trial would cover the FBI’s “troubling conduct” regarding the Page surveillance. He said the bureau “should have uncovered” Danchenko’s alleged lies, “but never did.”
Later, Durham spent a decent chunk of time showing jurors the warrant applications that the FBI submitted to surveil Page. Durham highlighted how the FBI kept using information from the Steele dossier to bolster its case for probable cause to secure the warrants – even after the FBI came up empty in its efforts to corroborate Steele’s claims.
Those FISA warrants were roundly criticized in a 2019 report from the Justice Department inspector general, which exposed a series of errors, flaws and omissions. Two of the four court-approved warrants were later deemed invalid.
Durham debunks a prolific Trump lie
Durham appeared to break new ground on the well-trodden topic of the dossier, with his revelation about the $1 million offer to Steele. CNN previously reported that the FBI reimbursed some expenses for Steele, who had been an FBI informant.
But the special counsel also debunked a prolific Trump lie about the Steele dossier – that it was the reason why the FBI started investigating his campaign in 2016 for potentially conspiring with Russian agents.
This false claim has been refuted dozens of times over the years, in official Justice Department documentation, bipartisan reports from Congress, and numerous court filings. It was refuted again Tuesday, when Durham asked Auten, the FBI official, to tell jurors the reason why the Trump-Russia investigation was opened in late July 2016.
Auten confirmed what has been known for many years: the probe was launched after the US government got intelligence from a friendly country that a Trump campaign aide had bragged to one of its diplomats that the Russians had offered to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton.
The situation was all the more interesting because Trump has repeatedly acted as a cheerleader for Durham and has said Durham will validate his suspicions about massive government misconduct regarding the Russia probe. On Tuesday, Durham inadvertently affirmed a basic truth about the Russia probe that Trump has lied about for years.
The Steele dossier contained unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia, including his alleged business dealings, rumors of lurid trysts in Moscow and claims that his campaign collaborated with the Kremlin in 2016.
Trump vehemently denied the claims, and Steele’s work has lost a significant amount of credibility over the years. Today, the dossier is largely seen as an unproven collection of rumors and gossip.
Regarding the collusion claims, special counsel Robert Mueller uncovered dozens of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia, but did not establish a criminal conspiracy.
This story has been updated with additional details.