New detail in Danchenko trial exhibits suggests that FBI intentionally targeted Trump on false Russia collusion charges
An FBI email previously not known to the public has revealed that the bureau planned to make Igor Danchenko—the primary source for British former spy Christopher Steele’s Trump dossier—a confidential human source (CHS) before it had even interviewed him.
The revelation, which was discovered as a result of special counsel John Durham’s case against Danchenko, indicates that the FBI deliberately targeted 2016 presidential candidate and later President Donald Trump with claims it already knew at the time to be false.
The email—of which only the subject line has been made public—was first uncovered by an internet sleuth who goes by the moniker “Walkafyre” and was included in hundreds of unused exhibits from Danchenko’s trial.
The FBI used Danchenko—who was acquitted last week on all charges of lying to the FBI—in its investigation of Trump, despite knowing that Danchenko had helped fabricate the dossier.
With the benefit of this new information, a renewed examination of the timeline between the Nov. 8, 2016, presidential election and the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller on May 17, 2017, reveals that the FBI—with the help of the Obama administration and Washington establishment figures—executed a concerted campaign to oust a sitting president.
Email Reveals FBI’s Plan for Danchenko
The newly discovered email was sent by FBI agent Kevin Helson to unknown recipients on Jan. 12, 2017. The email’s heading reads “Plan to Convert Danchenko into CHS.”
This email is critical for several reasons. It shows that the FBI intended to hide Steele’s main source behind CHS status after they had previously discovered Steele couldn’t back up the claims in his dossier despite their offer of $1 million to him for any corroboration. As a CHS, Danchenko also would be shielded from any external investigations—including those of Congress.
Of equal importance, Helson’s email also proves that the FBI planned to convert Danchenko into a CHS before the FBI had even interviewed Danchenko. Had they thought the dossier was real, there would have been no reason to hide Danchenko. Instead, the FBI would’ve been touting the existence of a crucial source.
The FBI proceeded to make him a CHS despite interviewing him several weeks later, in late January 2017, when Danchenko disavowed the claims in the dossier, saying during his interview that it was based on rumors and bar talk made in jest.
It had previously been assumed that the FBI only decided to make Danchenko a CHS after he had been interviewed.
This move by the FBI also directly coincided with President Barack Obama’s wishes expressed during a Jan. 5 White House intelligence briefing on the dossier that he wanted to withhold information from the incoming Trump administration.
That the efforts to effectively hide Danchenko started even before Danchenko had disavowed the dossier is critical evidence of the early commencement of the FBI’s efforts against Trump. Had the FBI not done everything it could to conceal Danchenko’s existence by bestowing him with CHS status, the truth about the dossier would have likely been revealed and the effort to oust Trump would have collapsed.
Lastly, the plan to grant CHS status to Danchenko coincides with a remarkable sequence of events that took place on the same day Helson’s email was sent.
Establishing Trump–Russia Collusion Narrative
To fully understand the significance of the FBI granting CHS status to a person the agency hadn’t yet spoken to, we need to go back to Election Day.
The unexpected election of Trump on Nov. 8, 2016, prompted an unprecedented response from the intelligence community and Washington establishment. The effort to undermine Trump and his administration began almost immediately after his victory.
On Nov. 9, 2016, FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page exchanged texts that referred to a “secret society” the day after Trump’s victory. Page texted Strzok saying, “Maybe this should be the first meeting of the Secret Society.”
Strzok responded to Page saying, “Too hard to explain here. Election related.” The next day, Strzok texted Page saying, “Bill [Priestap, head of FBI Counterintelligence] just sent a two hour invite to talk strategy.”
In early December 2016, the CIA told congressional leaders that “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency,” a claim that was a crucial convergence point between the FBI’s and CIA’s narratives. Although then-CIA Director John Brennan had been working behind the scenes by pushing information to the FBI, up to that point, it had been primarily the FBI driving the collusion narrative—for instance, by spying on Trump campaign aide Carter Page through a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant.
The CIA’s congressional briefings prompted Obama to direct the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency (NSA) to draft an intelligence community assessment (ICA) on Russian interference in the election. While the reported date of Obama’s order was Dec. 9, 2016, the actual order may have been given much earlier, as both the CIA and FBI had been in the process of preparing reports on Russian interference.
The FBI quickly jumped on board with Obama’s ICA plan. Priestap and special agent Jonathan Moffa were assigned to the ICA project on behalf of the FBI. However, the FBI didn’t appear to be interested in presenting an analytical work product. Their real goal appeared to be the inclusion of the Steele dossier in the ICA, which would give the dossier much-needed credibility. Up to that point, no media organization had published the dossier or any of its lurid allegations. If Trump was to be unseated, the dossier’s breathless claims needed to be made public.
Notably, as Durham revealed during Danchenko’s trial, by that time, the FBI already knew that the dossier was completely uncorroborated. On Oct. 3, 2016, the FBI offered dossier author Christopher Steele up to $1 million to provide any evidence that would substantiate his allegations against Trump. Steele wasn’t able to do so.
However, instead of ending its investigation, the FBI escalated efforts to tie Trump to the Russia collusion narrative. The FBI’s offer of $1 million to Steele for corroboration would later be hidden from Congress, congressional inquiries, Trump officials, and the courts.
According to a 2019 Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General report on the FBI’s abuses in the Carter Page FISA warrant case, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe personally pushed his agents on Dec. 16 to include the dossier in the ICA. McCabe’s demand preceded the identification of Steele’s primary sub-source. As Durham reported last week, that sub-source, Danchenko, who, by his own account, was responsible for at least 80 percent of the dossier, was identified by the FBI a few days later on Dec. 20.
When FBI agent Moffa asked McCabe whether to limit what was included to “information concerning Russian election interference or to also include allegations against candidate Trump,” McCabe told him to include the allegations, “due to concerns over possible Russian attempts to blackmail Trump.”
That was an early indication that, contrary to what FBI Director James Comey would later repeatedly claim, the FBI was already targeting Trump personally in December 2016.
On Dec. 19, lead counterespionage agent Peter Strzok texted Lisa Page, who was McCabe’s personal legal counsel, that he needed to talk to someone “about using his [expletive]” in the ICA. The name of the person that Strzok wanted to talk to is redacted and remains unknown.
After Danchenko was identified on Dec. 20, the FBI for the first time told the CIA that it wanted to include the dossier in the ICA.
On Dec. 28, according to records published by the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey personally made a push with both the CIA and the NSA for the dossier to be included in the ICA. Comey vouched that Steele was a “credible person with a source and sub-source network in position to report on such things.”
Comey didn’t mention that Steele had failed to back up his information, even after being offered $1 million.
With Comey’s push, the other two agencies tasked with producing the ICA—the CIA and NSA—agreed to include a two-page summary of the dossier at the back of the official report from the three agencies. This had the effect that Comey and McCabe had sought—to legitimize the dossier.
On Jan. 5, 2017, top intelligence officials, including Comey, Brennan, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and NSA Director Michael Rogers briefed Obama on the ICA report.
Following the official meeting, Comey stayed behind to brief Obama on the dossier. It was at this meeting that Obama stated that he wanted his team to be “mindful to ascertain if there is any reason that we cannot share information fully as it relates to Russia” with the incoming Trump administration.
The next day, Comey and other officials including Clapper briefed President-elect Trump and his national security team on the ICA. During this portion of the meeting, the Steele dossier was mentioned in passing.
A member of Trump’s team—reported to have been Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn—asked whether the FBI had dug into Steele’s sub-sources. If the questions were indeed posed by Flynn, it may have precipitated his subsequent demise at the hands of Comey. Once again, Comey would stay behind to brief Trump more fully on the dossier.
Comey would later tell CNN’s Jake Tapper that he only briefed Trump on the “salacious” parts of the dossier because “that was the part that the leaders of the intelligence community agreed he needed to be told about.” News of the intelligence briefing to Trump was leaked hours later to the media.
Efforts Begin in Earnest After January 2017 Briefings
On Jan. 3, 2017, Attorney General Loretta Lynch signed Section 2.3 of Executive Order 12333 into effect. This unprecedented new order significantly relaxed longstanding limits on dissemination of information gathered by the NSA’s powerful surveillance operations, granting broad latitude to the Intelligence Community with regard to interagency sharing of information.
On Jan. 10, 2017, following his Jan. 5 briefing to Obama and his abbreviated briefing to Trump on Jan. 6, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. During the hearing, Comey was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) if the FBI was investigating relationships between associates of Trump and the Russian government. Comey stated that he could neither confirm nor deny an active investigation, thereby setting the media frenzy of Trump–Russia collusion into motion. The Steele dossier would be released by BuzzFeed on the same day.
The day after Comey’s testimony, the Senate Intelligence Committee opened an investigation into Russian interference and the Trump campaign. Its report proved to be politically driven and much of it has been discredited.
Concerned over increasing leaks to the media, Trump had actually conducted a sting of sorts during his briefing from top intelligence officials on the ICA and the Steele dossier on Jan. 6, 2017. In order to identify the people leaking classified information to the press, Trump did not tell his staff that IC officials, including Clapper and Comey, were about to brief him.
As noted earlier, after the briefing, information from the meeting was leaked almost immediately to the press—leading Trump to conclude the leaks were coming directly from officials within the Intelligence Community. Trump disclosed this sequence of events during a Jan. 11, 2017, press conference. After receiving a call from Trump regarding the leaks, Clapper was forced to issue a statement condemning intelligence community leaks following Trump’s unexpected press conference.
Despite Clapper’s official condemnation of leaks, according to a March 22, 2018, House intelligence report, Clapper later admitted “that he confirmed the existence of the dossier to the media,” acknowledged discussing the “dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper,” and conceded that he might have spoken with other journalists about the same topic. Crucially, the report noted that “Clapper’s discussion with Tapper took place in early January 2017,” following the briefing by leaders of the Intelligence Community to Obama and Trump on the Steele dossier.
Leaks from the Intelligence Community would remain prevalent throughout Trump’s term.
Events on Day Danchenko Was to Be Made CHS
On Jan. 12, 2017, the same day that Helson sent his email regarding Danchenko, and just a day after Trump’s surprise press conference, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz announced his initiation of a review of actions taken by the FBI in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election.
It isn’t known whether Horowitz was ever briefed about Danchenko’s CHS status or the million-dollar bounty. His report mentions neither. By design or by accident, Horowitz’s investigation effectively tied up any outside probes into the FBI’s actions for two years.
It was on the same day, Jan. 12, that Flynn’s Dec. 29, 2016, call with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak was leaked to David Ignatius at The Washington Post. The leaker was never found, possibly because the leak came from within the FBI itself. Ignatius’s article, which further pushed the Trump–Russia collusion narrative, portrayed Flynn as undermining Obama’s fresh Russian sanctions during his call with Kislyak.
The article also raised the possibility that Flynn had violated the Logan Act, an obscure, 200-year-old law. Interestingly, it was Vice President Joe Biden who first suggested using the Logan Act against Flynn at the Jan. 5 White House meeting with Comey.
Flynn, who is believed to have been the person who asked Comey probing questions about the dossier’s sources, appears to have been the Intelligence Community’s first target in its effort to oust Trump. On Jan. 19, 2017, the day before Trump’s inauguration, Obama’s top intelligence and law-enforcement deputies met to talk about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak. Flynn would be sworn in as Trump’s national security adviser on Jan. 22, 2017, and was subjected to an ambush interview by Strzok at the behest of Comey two days later.
Comey later bragged about the Flynn ambush having been his brainchild.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates increased the pressure on the Trump administration regarding Flynn through a series of conversations with White House counsel Don McGahn. Yates told McGahn that she believed that “Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians.”
Flynn resigned on Feb. 13, 2017, the same day that Yates’s claim was published by The Washington Post. In 2020, declassified transcripts of Flynn’s call with Kislyak revealed that Flynn never once talked about sanctions. Just like the dossier, the charges against Flynn had been fabricated.
One other event transpired on Jan. 12, the first renewal of the Carter Page FISA warrant, which had been based on the fabricated Steele dossier and claimed that Steele’s source was Russia-based when, in reality, he was a former Brookings Institution employee living in Washington.
FBI Escalates Probe Despite Dossier Disavowal
During a three-day period at the end of January 2017, Danchenko was eventually interviewed by the FBI. Danchenko said there were major inconsistencies between what he told Steele and what was in the dossier. Danchenko told the FBI that he had passed on bar talk and rumors to Steele and never intended for completely unverified information to be used in a dossier. He also admitted that he had never met the dossier’s key source who was alleged to be responsible for every major allegation against Trump, including the “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump and the Kremlin, that Russia passed hacked DNC emails to Wikileaks, and the infamous pee tape story.
Because Danchenko was given CHS status by the FBI, proof that the Steele dossier was fabricated was completely shielded from congressional and other investigations. We know with certainty that Danchenko formally received official CHS status no later than March 2017, but we now also know from the newly discovered unused trial exhibit that the FBI had planned to extend CHS status to Danchenko well before he was even interviewed by the FBI.
Efforts to ensnare Trump in a Russia collusion narrative received a major boost on Feb. 27, when former President George W. Bush proclaimed “we all need answers” on the Russia collusion allegations. Bush added that he trusted Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) to decide whether a special counsel should be appointed.
Then, on March 2, Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiry, dealing Trump a huge blow. Sessions inexplicably failed to assess, or even ask for evidence indicating whether the inquiry was legitimate. Sessions recused himself without ever finding out about Danchenko, that he had disavowed the dossier, or that Steele had failed to provide any evidence despite being offered $1 million for doing so.
Trump hit back on March 4, when he famously wrote on Twitter that he knew that the Obama administration had spied on his campaign. Not knowing how much Trump knew, FBI leadership panicked. In direct response to the tweet, on March 6, the FBI sent three of its most senior officials—McCabe, Priestap, and Strzok—to brief the DOJ on the FBI’s Trump investigation.
Notes of the briefing, which included incoming Trump administration officials, were disclosed by Durham earlier this year revealing that the FBI failed to mention Danchenko, Danchenko’s disavowal of the dossier, or the million-dollar reward to their DOJ counterparts. Instead, they made it appear as if the dossier, which they referred to as “Crown reporting,” had checked out and that the Russia collusion investigation was therefore going full steam ahead.
Additional briefing notes from March 8, which were also exposed by Durham, show that Comey himself subsequently lied to the so-called Gang of Eight congressional leaders. Similar to the DOJ briefing, Congress wasn’t told that Steele couldn’t back up his dossier despite the huge reward offer, and also wasn’t told about Danchenko.
The FBI’s efforts culminated in Comey’s March 20 public announcement that the Trump campaign was being investigated for Russia collusion. It was that announcement that opened the door to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. As with his previous, non-public announcements, Comey concealed that the dossier—and with it the predicate for his investigation—had collapsed.
Case Against Trump Based on Fabrications
While it’s been claimed by some media outlets that the dossier wasn’t central to the allegations against Trump, the Intelligence Community’s efforts to ensnare Trump, the Carter Page FISA application, as well as the March 6 and 8 briefing notes, all rely almost entirely on the dossier. Additionally, we know that Comey insisted that a summary of the dossier be attached to the ICA that was presented to Obama. These actions prove beyond any doubt that the case against Trump was based on a fabricated document.
The day after Comey’s testimony, on March 21, then-House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) met with a source. Following this meeting, Nunes informed Trump that he believed Trump and his staff were illegally surveilled and “unmasked,” a process of revealing redacted names of U.S. citizens that are incidentally collected during surveillance or intelligence gathering on foreigners. Nunes demanded that the CIA, FBI, and NSA disclose the nature of the unlawful surveillance he had uncovered.
For his efforts, an ethics investigation of Nunes was opened and he was forced to recuse himself from the Russia collusion investigation on April 6. The next day, the Carter Page FISA warrant was secretly renewed, proving that Nunes’s claim was correct. During his entire tenure as House Intelligence Committee chairman, Nunes was never told about Danchenko, his CHS status, or the million-dollar bounty.
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired Comey from his position as FBI director and McCabe became acting director. Following Comey’s firing, DOJ official Bruce Ohr had a phone call with Steele, during which Steele expressed concern that “they will be exposed” because of Comey’s firing. Steele was undoubtedly worried that without Comey covering for him, his dossier lies would be exposed. It isn’t known whether Steele was aware that the FBI had already successfully concealed Steele’s collaborator, Danchenko, from any scrutiny or investigation.
Several days later, on May 12, Ohr and Steele began a series of exchanges via text message, with Ohr conveying a request from McCabe that Steele be reengaged by the FBI.
On May 16, Comey leaked memos about Trump to The New York Times through his friend, Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman. Comey would later acknowledge that he did so to spur the appointment of a special counsel.
The next day, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller, a former FBI director, as special counsel. As we can now see with hindsight, the FBI covered up Danchenko in early 2017. In doing so they ensured that they could continue using the fabricated Steele dossier to justify their investigation of Trump and his associates while also ensuring that no one would find out about Danchenko. In turn, the appointment of Mueller ensured that the FBI’s misdeeds were covered up.
Significantly, the many efforts to ensnare Trump, from the framing of Flynn to the media’s relentless airing of dossier smears and the Washington establishment’s push for a special counsel, couldn’t have happened unless Danchenko was kept hidden by the FBI. It was perhaps the most critical part of the effort and, as we have now learned, it happened much earlier than had been known.