Special counsel John Durham told a federal court that he is scrutinizing members of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign as part of his criminal inquiry into the origins and conduct of the Trump-Russia investigation.
Durham’s team asked a judge to “inquire into a potential conflict of interest” related to the lawyers for British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s main anti-Trump dossier source, noting that a separate lawyer at their firm “is currently representing the 2016 ‘Hillary for America’ presidential campaign, as well as multiple former employees of that campaign, in matters before the Special Counsel."
Igor Danchenko, a U.S.-based and Russian-born researcher, was charged with five counts of making false statements to the FBI. Durham’s indictment said Danchenko made these statements about the information he provided to Steele for his now-discredited dossier, which the FBI relied upon when pursuing authority for the secret surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide.
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Stuart Sears and Danny Onorato, who took over as Danchenko's defense lawyers this month, told Judge Anthony Trenga of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia that Durham’s team was raising questions about Robert Trout, who is of counsel at their firm and represented Clinton campaign members in the past, but argued there is no conflict of interest.
Durham’s team argued the interests of the Clinton campaign and Danchenko “could potentially diverge in connection with any plea discussions, pretrial proceedings, hearings, trial, and sentencing proceedings.”
The special counsel’s team listed out five topics that could become relevant to the defense of Danchenko: “the Clinton Campaign’s knowledge or lack of knowledge concerning the veracity of information” in the Steele dossier; “the Clinton Campaign’s awareness or lack of awareness” of Danchenko’s “collection methods” for the dossier; “meetings or communications” between the Clinton campaign and Steele about Danchenko; “the defendant’s knowledge or lack of knowledge regarding the Clinton Campaign’s role in” the dossier; and “the extent to which the Clinton Campaign and/or its representatives directed, solicited, or controlled” Danchenko’s actions.
“On each of these issues, the interests of the Clinton Campaign and the defendant might diverge,” Durham said. “For example, the Clinton Campaign and the defendant each might have an incentive to shift blame and/or responsibility to the other party for any allegedly false information that was contained within the Company Reports and/or provided to the FBI.”
Durham’s team also hinted that former Clinton campaign members will be called to testify, which could be "a potential conflict.” The special counsel said it is likely the defense law firm “already has obtained privileged information” from the Clinton campaign about Danchenko and the dossier.
But the prosecution said it “believes that this potential conflict is waivable” if Danchenko chooses to waive it. The judge ordered the defense team to file a potential waiver by Christmas Eve.
Trout represented former Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta during his December 2017 appearance before the House Intelligence Committee, though Trout was at another firm. When Podesta appeared before the same committee in June that year, he had been represented by Clinton campaign general counsel Marc Elias, who had hired the opposition firm Fusion GPS, which then contracted Steele to conduct his anti-Trump research.
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded in December 2019 that Steele's dossier played a "central and essential" role in the FBI's effort to obtain wiretap orders against former Trump campaign associate Carter Page. The DOJ watchdog determined the FBI’s investigation was filled with serious missteps and errors and concealed potentially exculpatory information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The inspector general said Danchenko undermined Steele’s claims of a “well-developed conspiracy” between former President Donald Trump and Russia.
Michael Sussmann is a defendant in a separate Durham case who has been accused of lying to the FBI’s top lawyer in September 2016 about who his client was as he pushed debunked claims about a secret backchannel between the Trump Organization and Russia’s Alfa Bank. Sussmann denies misleading the FBI and pleaded not guilty.
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The indictment states that “on or about September 15, 2016, Campaign Lawyer-1 exchanged emails with the Clinton Campaign's campaign manager, communications director, and foreign policy adviser concerning the Russian Bank-1 allegations that Sussmann had recently shared with Reporter-1.” Clinton’s foreign policy adviser was Jake Sullivan (now President Joe Biden’s national security adviser), her campaign manager was Robby Mook, and her communications director was Jennifer Palmieri. “Campaign Lawyer-1” was Elias.
Horowitz said in his December 2019 report that the FBI "concluded by early February 2017 that there were no such links."