Special counsel John Durham had everything he needed. Time, money, resources and a clear if not-quite-stated charge from then-Attorney General William P. Barr: Go after the investigation into Russia’s attempts to manipulate the 2016 election. Turn over every rock. Make the whole thing look like the “hoax” Donald Trump said it was.
Durham has released his report, and not only is it a dud, but in many ways it’s also the direct opposite of the investigation by the other special counsel in this case, Robert S. Mueller III.
Mueller amassed a mountain of evidence making clear the shocking sweep of Russia’s campaign to put Trump in the White House. He also showed how eager Trump, his family and his aides were to receive Vladimir Putin’s help. Yet Mueller bent over backward to avoid saying that Trump was guilty of a crime or that the whole affair met the legal definition of a criminal conspiracy.
In contrast, Durham assembled a molehill, which Trump and his supporters are desperately trying to claim is a mountain.
Beginning in 2019, Durham spent years and millions of dollars investigating Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation of the Russian interference effort. While his 300-page report excoriated the FBI, just about all the facts he discusses were detailed more than three years ago in an inspector general’s report that revealed serious problems with the way the bureau handled Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant requests, among other things.
But if you look at the way conservatives are spinning the report by Durham, you’d think he claimed that the FBI never should have investigated Russia’s efforts in the first place. That’s bonkers.
“Yes, the FBI could be second-guessed for some of its decisions, and it got sloppy” at times, says Barbara McQuade, a University of Michigan law professor and former U.S. attorney. But given the suggestion that a hostile foreign power was trying to manipulate a presidential election, “it would have been a dereliction of duty not to investigate.”
Durham himself acknowledges this, writing that the “the investigation could have been opened more appropriately as an assessment or preliminary investigation” rather than a full investigation.
“It’s a relatively minor quibble,” McQuade told me, and “FBI agents disagree all the time” about which sort of inquiry to use and when. But what matters is that when conservatives claim Durham concluded that there should have never been any investigation at all, they’re not telling the truth.
And because they’re trying so hard to memory-hole everything that was revealed about what Russia and the Trump campaign did, it’s worth running through a few highlights.
During the campaign, Trump, members of his family and his campaign aides had dozens of contacts with Russian nationals and officials. His campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, who both worked for pro-Russian oligarchs and politicians in Ukraine, passed confidential internal polling data to a Russian intelligence operative.
Russia hacked Democratic National Committee servers, then passed embarrassing information to WikiLeaks so it could be released publicly at moments advantageous to Trump. WikiLeaks was in communication about the information with Trump adviser Roger Stone, whom Trump later pardoned for lying to Congress about the scandal, witness tampering and obstruction. Russia also mounted a comprehensive trolling campaign through social media to boost Trump’s presidential bid. Plus, the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian nationals.
Trump successfully convinced people that all of that (and more) could be reduced to the question of whether he “colluded” with the Kremlin, a word with no fixed meaning. Mueller unwittingly helped in this effort by contending in his report that he was prevented by Justice Department policies from saying Trump committed crimes, even though he offered copious evidence that Trump did, especially in his efforts to obstruct the investigation.
Mueller “practically stood on his head to avoid besmirching Donald Trump out of an exercise of caution,” McQuade told me. “I don’t see Durham doing the same thing here.”
In fact, Durham did just the opposite. His report ignores that it would have been insane for the FBI not to investigate what turned out to be perhaps the most dangerous effort ever of a hostile foreign power attempting to manipulate American politics.
You’ll search his report in vain for any mention of, for instance, the fact that Trump’s campaign chairman passed information to a Russian intelligence operative. Nearly every mention of Manafort is about his relationship with former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, who turned out to be an inconsequential figure in the scandal yet takes up much of the space in Durham’s report because of the FBI’s shoddy means of obtaining FISA warrants to surveil him.
In the end, Durham’s investigation achieved little to nothing of consequence. He indicted three people, one of whom pleaded guilty to illegally modifying an email and was sentenced to probation; the other two were acquitted. His report tries to turn what is already known about FBI sloppiness into something new and shocking.
But if his goal was to give Trump and his dishonest minions an excuse to repeat their bogus claims about his innocence in the Russia scandal? Mission accomplished.