An earlier version of this column incorrectly identified the Trump campaign as the target of an FBI FISA warrant application. The warrant application was for former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. It also implied that the FBI’s statements to special counsel John Durham regarding its doubts about case were made before the investigation started; they were made after it had begun. The earlier version also should have described the respondents to a question about the mainstream media from a New York Times-Siena College poll as "among those who say democracy is under threat." This version has been updated.
“After years of political hype, the Durham inquiry failed to deliver,” a New York Times headline blared. Please. Durham’s report outlines stunning abuses of power. That so many journalists don’t get it underscores why public trust in the media is at an all-time low.
The FBI opened its investigation of Trump, Durham writes, “upon receipt of unevaluated intelligence information from Australia,” which agents knew was flimsy. “Damn that’s thin,” one FBI official wrote in August 2016. “I know,” replied another, “it sucks.”
But they went ahead with a full investigation anyway, even though FBI personnel later acknowledged “both then and in hindsight — that they did not genuinely believe there was probable cause to believe that the target [former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page] was knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of a foreign power.” They “disregarded significant exculpatory information” and used “investigative leads provided or funded (directly or indirectly) by Trump’s political opponents” to obtain search warrants. One FBI official falsified evidence presented to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Worst of all, the FBI failed to inform the court that the primary source behind the Steele dossier, which the agency used to secure FISA warrants, was the subject of an unresolved FBI counterespionage investigation for ties to — wait for it — Russian intelligence.
Igor Danchenko, who was responsible for 80 percent of the information in the dossier, had a “long history with Russian intelligence officers,” Durham reports. While working at the Brookings Institution, he asked a colleague he thought was about to join the Obama administration whether he would “be willing or able in the future to provide classified information in exchange for money.” The colleague reported it to the FBI, which launched a full investigation after discovering that Danchenko “had been identified as an associate of two FBI counterintelligence subjects” and “known Russian intelligence officers.” That investigation was left unresolved because the FBI incorrectly believed Danchenko had returned to Russia.
The FBI never “attempted to resolve the prior Danchenko espionage matter” before hiring him as a paid informant in the Trump investigation, Durham writes. Indeed, the Trump investigators brushed off concerns raised by officials vetting Danchenko that he was connected to Russian intelligence and falsely claimed that there was no “derogatory” information about him and that he “had not been a prior subject of an FBI investigation.” They gave him a letter of immunity, paid him hundreds of thousands of dollars and kept that information from the FISA court. It was possible, Durham writes, that “the intelligence Danchenko was providing … was, in whole or in part, Russian disinformation.” (Durham attempted to prosecute Danchenko for lying to investigators about his sources, but Danchenko was found not guilty.)
In other words, the FBI knowingly relied on a source who had been under investigation as a possible Russian spy to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. You can’t make it up.
Think of what that means: It was the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee that funded the Steele dossier, which relied on a Russian with suspected ties to Russian intelligence. The FBI then included the dossier as part of the materials it used to investigate Trump, paralyzing our country, undermining a newly elected president for two years while costing tens of millions of dollars — all over what ended up being a conspiracy theory.
You might think journalists would want to get to the bottom of how they were duped so that they could repair the reputational damage to themselves and their industry. Apparently not.
And make no mistake — that damage is severe and has had deep repercussions for our democracy. An Edelman poll in 2021 found that 59 percent of Americans believe “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.” A New York Times-Siena College poll last October found that “among those who say democracy is under threat,” 84 percent of respondents view the media as a threat to democracy, including 59 percent who agreed it is a “major threat.” Indeed, more Americans said the media is a major threat to democracy than said Trump is.
This collapse in trust — particularly among the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump — directly contributed to the events of Jan 6., 2021. Why did Trump supporters storm the Capitol? Because they believed Trump’s false claims that the election was being stolen. And why did they believe him? If the media lied to them about Trump’s collusion with Russia, why should they trust reports that Trump’s election claims were false?
Durham’s report lays bare why trust in the media lies in tatters. If in 2024, Americans decide that journalists are a greater threat to our democracy than a second Trump term, they have no one to blame but themselves.