What’s amazing about the Times look into the Durham investigation is that Durham seems to have done almost everything that Trump accused the Mueller investigators of doing. For example, where Republicans have repeatedly gone apoplectic in their efforts to prove that the information collected by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele was central to the Russia investigation (it wasn’t) and pretended that Steele’s memos were all unsourced rumors planted by the Russian government. Durham based parts of his operation on information that was without a doubt being shipped straight from Moscow.
Mr. Durham used Russian intelligence memos—suspected by other U.S. officials of containing disinformation—to gain access to emails of an aide to George Soros, the financier and philanthropist who is a favorite target of the American right and Russian state media. Mr. Durham used grand jury powers to keep pursuing the emails even after a judge twice rejected his request for access to them. The emails yielded no evidence that Mr. Durham has cited in any case he pursued.
Read that again. In his attempts to prove that there were flaws in the investigation linking Donald Trump to the Russian government, John Durham relied on information from the Russian government to break into the emails of a private citizen who had no connection to the Russia investigation. He found nothing, but kept violating the privacy of his target repeatedly, even after a judge found his further requests unjustified.
There is nothing even close to this anywhere in the investigation of Trump. It seems unlikely that we’ll ever get an investigation into all the ways that Durham misused his power, but we should.
When then attorney general William Barr appointed John Durham as a special investigator in May of 2019, he had just one task—find a way to blame the FBI and DOJ for Donald Trump’s collaboration with Russia. Durham was changed with following up on every possible conspiracy claim that Trump had made since 2016, looking for any way in which the FBI could be pinned with exaggerating Trump’s connections to Russia, Russia, Russia, or some reason why the investigation might be accused of being prejudice against Trump.
Then Barr kicked off the investigation by calling the head of the National Security Agency into his office to meet with Durham, accusing the NSA of being somehow involved in a conspiracy against Trump, and promising to use his power at the Department of Justice to “f**k” the NSA if they didn’t give Durham everything he wanted. That’s how the investigation started.
Durham was regarded as a specialist in rooting out corrupt officials and finding complex connections between crooks and the people who were supposed to be enforcing the law. Now, it seems that what Durham learned during his previous investigations and in his personal lessons from Barr was mostly how to abuse power once you had it. It’s long been clear that Durham had disagreements with his own staff, leading to the resignation of his top assistant back in 2020, but only now is the extent to which others involved in the investigation became disgusted with Durham becoming clear. Two more members of Durham’s team marched out the door when he decided to indict attorney Michael Sussman on the filmiest of charges — charges that a jury swiftly dismissed when Durham took the case to court.
When Barr appointed Durham, he was supposed to be the squarest of square pegs, a tough-guy, no nonsense prosecutor who would follow the facts like Joe Friday on the most deadpan episode of Dragnet. However, those who encountered Durham over the course of the investigation found something different. They found a man who was willing to warp any statement and twist any fact in an effort to find the conspiracy that Trump and Barr had charged him to deliver.
For months, Barr dropped hints that the investigation was turning up big news, which would soon be relayed to the public. That included announcing that Durham’s scope had been expanded beyond just looking at those who were directly involved in collecting evidence against Trump, but peeking into the CIA to see if they had a hand in setting Trump up to fail and looking into the Clinton foundation because … why not look at the Clinton Foundation?
But as 2019 turned into 2020 and the election approached, what little information appeared from the Durham investigation was mostly limited to those resignations and dissatisfaction within his own staff. The big bombshell turned into a dud well before Election Day.
Even after Trump packed up hundreds of highly classified documents and scurried away to Mar-a-Lago, Durham declared that his investigation would continue. Throughout the next year, Durham surfaced now and then to make obscure statements that thrilled Fox News and created ripples among the QAnon crowd still hoping for those gallows to be erected on the White House lawn.
As recently as February 2022, a technical filing from Durham asking to inquire into a possible conflict of interest had Donald Trump literally calling for the death penalty. “In a stronger period of time in our country,” wrote Trump in a statement to his followers, “this crime would have been punishable by death.” Except there was no crime. Durham never charged a crime. As it turned out, there wasn’t even a finding of conflict of interest.
As the end of 2022 approached, it became clear that all Durham had really done was vindicate everything about the original Russia investigation. That shouldn’t be surprising, since the parallel report put together by a Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee determined that there had been more than 100 contacts between Trump’s team and Russian agents, that Trump’s team had actively sought more assistance from Russia, and that the close association of members of Trump’s campaign with Russian agents represented a threat to the United States. The reason the Russia investigation found connections between Trump and Russia was simple enough — there were connections between Trump and Russia.
The DOJ’s own inspector general Michael Horowitz came to the same conclusion when his team looked into the matter: The original investigation was justified, and any mistakes made did not appear to have a political motivation.
That didn’t make Durham happy. He and Barr pulled Horowitz into a meeting where:
Mr. Durham lobbied Mr. Horowitz to drop his finding that the diplomat’s tip had been sufficient for the F.B.I. to open its “full” counterintelligence investigation, arguing that it was enough at most for a “preliminary” inquiry, according to officials. But Mr. Horowitz did not change his mind.
Here’s Durham and Barr not just trying to put a spin on their own investigation, but trying to use their power in the DOJ to alter the findings of the inspector general in a way that supported Trump’s accusations. When that didn’t work, they got together to create a post report spin in an effort to weaken the impact of Horowitz’ report.
At this point, a month into 2023, Durham still hasn’t issued an official final report. It’s been clear since September that Durham has no more cards to play. There’s no one else to charge, because he can find no one else on whom to waste another implausible indictment. Even so, don’t be surprised if Durham’s final report includes plenty of vague statements that have Trump and his supporters in Congress demanding more investigations into the investigation.
Durham’s last act isn’t just a sad end to a long career, it’s a genuine example of how the special counsel’s office can be used to a means of persecuting for political purposes, not prosecuting based on facts. And don’t be surprised if Durham has another day in court — as the subject of lawsuits from those who suffered from this genuine “witch hunt.”
Listen to the latest episode of The Downballot for an in-depth analysis of the 2024 Arizona Senate race and the implications of Kyrsten Sinema's re-election decision. Special guest Victoria McGroary, the Executive Director of BOLD PAC, will also discuss the efforts to prevent losses among Hispanic voters and the fight against disinformation in Spanish language media.
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