The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In a surprising twist, Trump uses inaccurate Durham reporting to boost his election claims

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally near the White House on Jan. 6, 2021. (Eric Lee/Bloomberg News)

It’s been less than a week, but the inaccurate summary of a court filing by special counsel John Durham promulgated on the right has become canon. Here, for example, is Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) articulating it on Fox News on Wednesday night (shortly before taking a moment to plug campaign merchandise glamorizing his encouragement of protesters on Jan. 6).

“It’s clear now there was collusion, after all, in the 2016 campaign,” Hawley said, before flipping the script: “and the collusion was between Hillary Clinton and some tech executives who did in fact spy on Donald Trump, who did access his email servers. And worse than that, who went on, according to special counsel, went on to try and infiltrate that is spy on the Executive Office of the President of the United States.”

Naturally he concluded that someone should “go to jail for this.”

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Except, of course, that the “this” to which he refers didn’t happen. As rapidly as Fox News and Hawley and the gang have arrived at this wildly misleading distillation, I’ve grown fatigued with having to explain that it’s wrong. The line from Clinton’s campaign to research looking at a limited set of data about Internet domain names is not brightly drawn by Durham or elsewhere. There was no accessing of email servers alleged anywhere. And while Durham is careful to point out that 1) the research evaluating possible connections to Russia included (legally acquired) data from the executive office and that 2) this led to a February 2017 meeting about the research, he does not allege that the data included in that research was collected from the Trump White House.

In fact, lawyers for the research team itself told the New York Times that, to the best of their knowledge, it considered only executive-office data from 2016, before Trump was president. Even looking just at Durham’s timeline, it’s clear that even if it had included post-2016 data, it couldn’t have included much. The meeting at issue was on Feb. 9, 2017, less than three weeks into Trump’s presidency.

But, precisely because it lets people like Hawley make wild claims about Clinton and about how Trump was so oppressed by his opponents, the Hawley narrative is the default one on the right.

It is important to continue to point out how inaccurate and unfounded this is for a few reasons. One is that it is generally preferable to spend one’s time promulgating accurate information rather than inaccurate information. Another is that establishing a false assertion as widely believed is the rhetorical equivalent of dividing-by-zero: base a claim on something false and you can extend it outward in any direction you wish.

Bringing us, inexorably, to the former president of the United States.

On Thursday evening, Trump released a statement through his secondary business, the deep-pocketed political action committee that’s been vacuuming up contributions for more than a year now. It took the false story line above and pushed it forward precisely as you’d expect. It read, in part:

“Much of the now-uncovered espionage campaign of the Democrats breaking into the White House and my New York City apartment, took place after the 2016 Election as yet another way to undermine the upcoming 2020 Election. This spying into the Oval Office continued for a long period of time and further served to undermine and discredit the 2020 Election, along with massive ballot harvesting, phantom voters, and so many other things that made the Election a sham.”

So, again, there was no “breaking into the White House” or his apartment at Trump Tower, despite his very boomerian effort to conflate what happened to him with the burglary that triggered Watergate. There was no demonstrated “spying into the Oval Office” and, as far as has been reported, no examination of legally collected data from the executive office after 2016. It’s probable that the data at issue — log files of domain requests gathered to track possible infiltration attempts — was still collected after Trump was president, since its collection related to normal cybersecurity activity. It’s possible that the data then continued to be shared with external research organizations. But it’s not clear that it was or that it was used for any reason other than normal tracking of potential threats. It’s also not clear that the research conducted on the 2016 data was necessarily outside the scope of that same outcome.

What is very clear is that none of this had anything to do with the 2020 election. Trump’s ploy here is so clumsy and so ham-handed that it seems like kicking him while he’s down to point it out, but he’s simply trying to extend “I was spied on” to “as part of a broad effort to steal the election from me.” This latter point is of far more interest to him than anything else; he will rail against the reality of his 2020 loss until his last breath, given what it says about his long-standing insistences about his popularity and invincibility.

This Durham story, molded and shaped in a way sure to have curried his favor in 2019 — Clinton bad! Trump treated unfairly! — simply no longer addresses his most urgent needs. He still cares about those perceptions, sure, but any contrived narrative that isn’t singularly focused on proving that he wuz robbed is not a narrative he’s interested in at the moment.

And why not? Why not take an untrue assertion about the Durham filing and claim that it goes even further? What are Fox News and Hawley going to do, interject to say that, no, we’re only pretending it continued until early in your administration? Trump gets away with this stuff anyway because it’s easier and less politically risky to agree with him than it is to disagree. (Hence the Houston Chronicle’s determination that only 13 of Texas’s 143 Republican House candidates were willing to say that President Biden was legitimately elected.) So who’s going to pop up on Sean Hannity’s show and say, actually, Trump has it wrong. Certainly not Sean Hannity.

The problem with abandoning any anchor to reality is that you float into dangerous and unintended waters. Then, apparently, you just do your best not to get yelled at.