The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

John Durham was successful, just not in the way Barr first intended

Special counsel John Durham, the prosecutor appointed to investigate potential government wrongdoing in the early days of the Trump-Russia probe, arrives at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse on May 16 in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The first independent assessment of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election came from the Justice Department’s inspector general. In December 2019, the office of Michael Horowitz published a lengthy report detailing its findings after digging into the probe. The short version? There was sufficient, valid reason for the FBI to open a probe centered on Russia’s efforts to influence the election and possible contacts with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations,” the report read, referring to investigations of four people linked to Trump’s campaign. What’s more, the information provided by a “friendly foreign government” — Australia — that triggered the FBI probe was sufficient to do so.

Attorney General William Barr said Dec. 10 the FBI may have acted in "bad faith" when it investigated possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Video: Reuters)

The report was unquestionably critical at times, including in how the department handled a dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence official Christopher Steele. But it was also unquestionable in how it dismantled Trump’s suggestions that the whole thing was contrived to take him down.

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And yet! In April of that same year, newly appointed Attorney General William P. Barr had pointedly framed the ultimate results of that probe — the report from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III — as innocuous, waving away the myriad links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors. When Horowitz’s assessment of the origins of the probe dropped, Barr once again tried to contextualize it in a manner favorable to his and Trump’s shared assessment of the Russia probe.

“The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions,” Barr wrote in a statement, “that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.”

“In my view.” A pointed and revealing inclusion. It was Barr’s view that the thing was a setup and he was not going to be dissuaded from that view by the inspector general’s report. He was going to see for himself, having assigned U.S. Attorney John Durham the task of casting a skeptical eye on the whole thing back in May. Durham released a statement about the inspector general’s report, too, in fact.

“Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing,” he wrote, “last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”

Boom. The book was not yet closed. More to come.

But … there wasn’t. At least, not much. Durham and Barr literally traveled the world seeking to dig up evidence that the FBI probe was a function of anti-Trump bias. Instead, Durham’s central success has been getting a guilty plea from an FBI attorney for having altered an email as the bureau sought a warrant to surveil a former Trump campaign staffer. (A result, mind you, that originated with Horowitz’s investigation.) He also obtained an indictment against one of the sources for Steele’s dossier, Igor Danchenko. That case goes to trial in October.

Durham also spent months trying to build a case against a lawyer who worked for a firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the idea apparently being that much of the Russia probe was downstream from Clinton’s involvement. But enthusiasm for the idea always outpaced the evidence. Durham was at one point forced to admit that right-wing theorizing that stemmed from vague claims his team had made in court filings was overblown. The lawyer was acquitted.

And that, it seems, is about it. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the grand jury seated to hear evidence is about to expire. A report is expected by the end of the year. The probe, the Times notes dryly, concludes “without anything close to the results Mr. Trump was seeking.”

That’s certainly true. The energetic boosting of Durham by Trump and Barr implied that big things were afoot. Barr made Durham a special counsel in October 2020, protecting his investigation into President Biden’s administration. To date, Durham’s been at work for about 29 months — months longer than the entirety of Mueller’s probe. And the result is one plea, one indictment and one acquittal, largely centered on an effort to obtain an ancillary surveillance warrant that the inspector general identified as flawed back in December 2019.

Yet that’s measuring Durham against the original expectation, not the adjusted one. The adjusted expectation in Trumpworld was that Durham would simply keep spinning off details that could embarrass the FBI and the establishment. At that task, Durham fared well.

On Tuesday night, for example, the Truth Social app — a Trump business venture — alerted its users about a development in the news, one centered on Danchenko. Clicking through brought up a message from Trump himself.

Notice that this is about the 2020 election. Durham claims in a filing that Danchenko was a paid FBI informant beginning in 2017, after Trump became president. It’s unrelated, in other words, to the 2016 campaign and the Russia probe — but it can be molded into arguments about sketchiness from the FBI (an effort of particular interest to Trump in the moment) and so it becomes a Durham bombshell, like others before it. A huge revelation in a particular conversational universe if not the universe at large.

Barr seems to have legitimately thought that Trump was unfairly targeted in 2016. He probably still does. He put Durham in place to prove the case. Durham didn’t. But Durham did accomplish one thing that is very important to Trump: He generated a lot of things that could become Fox News headlines in which anecdotes became indictments of the system.

In that sense, Durham was very successful indeed.