The labored conclusion of John H. Durham’s four-year investigation into the Russia investigation highlights a recurring dilemma in the US administration: how to shield sensitive law enforcement investigations from politics without creating prosecutors who can run amok and never be held accountable .
At a time when special counsel proliferates – there have been four since 2017, two of whom are still working – the much-hyped inquiry by special counsel Mr Durham into the Russia inquiry ended with a wail that ended in contrasted with the countless hours of political furor that ensued.
Mr. Durham delivered a report that berated the FBI but fell short of Donald J. Trump supporters’ expectations that he would uncover a politically motivated “deep state” conspiracy. He did not accuse a senior FBI or intelligence official of a crime, acknowledging in a footnote that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign did nothing prosecutable either.
Predictably, the factual content of the report — it contained no significant new revelations and accused the FBI of “confirmation bias” rather than making a more explosive conclusion of political bias — made little difference in parts of the political arena. Mr. Trump and many of his loyalists issued statements taking it as a justification for their claims that the Russia investigation involved much more extravagant wrongdoing.
“The Durham report describes in great detail the Democrat hoax perpetrated against me and the American people,” Trump stressed on social media. “This is fraud in the 2020 presidential election, just like ‘stuffing’ the ballot boxes, but more. This totally illegal act had a huge impact on the elections.”
Mr. Trump’s comparison was unintentionally apt. Just as his and his supporters’ wild and trumped-up claims of voter fraud failed in court (Fox News paid a $787.5 million settlement for reinforcing lies about Dominion Voting Systems), the political clamor surrounding the efforts of the lord Durham finally on reality.
In that sense, it was not so much that Mr. Durham failed, but more so that Attorney General William P. Barr framed him the moment he told Mr. Durham to find evidence to support Mr. Trump on the Russia investigation.
There were real flaws in the Russia investigation, especially how the FBI failed requests to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser. But Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz found those problems, leaving Mr. Durham with depleted hunting grounds.
Indeed, the credit for Mr. Durham’s only success in court, a guilty plea by an FBI attorney who spoofed an email during preparations for a re-wiretap, belongs to Mr. Horowitz, who admitted the misconduct to the brought light.
At the same time, Mr. Horowitz brought Mr. Durham’s investigation to the knee by finding no evidence that the FBI’s actions were politically motivated. He also concluded that the basis of the Russia investigation – an Australian diplomat’s tip regarding the release of Democratic emails hacked by Russia – was enough to open a full investigation.
Before Mr. Horowitz released his December 2019 report, Mr. Durham lobbied him to drop that finding, arguing that the FBI should have opened a preliminary investigation instead. When Mr Horowitz refused, Mr Durham issued an extraordinary statement saying he disagreed based on “evidence collected to date” in his inquiry.
But even as Mr. Durham’s report questioned whether the FBI should have opened it as a lower-level investigation, he stopped short, saying that opening a full investigation violated any rule.
A remaining rationale for the Durham Inquiry was that Mr. Horowitz was not authorized to investigate espionage agencies. But by the spring of 2020, according to officials familiar with the investigation, Mr. Durham to find misuse of intelligence in the origins of the Russia investigation came to nothing.
Rather than wrap up, Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham switched to another rationale, hunting for a basis to blame the Clinton campaign for suspicions surrounding numerous ties Trump campaign aides had to Russia.
By continuing the investigation, Mr. Barr initially placated Mr. Trump, who, as Mr. Barr recounted in his memoir, was angry about the lack of charges as the 2020 election approached.
But Mr Barr’s public statements about Mr Durham’s investigation also helped create the impression that he had found something big. For example, in an April 2020 Fox News interview, he suggested that officials could be prosecuted, saying, “The evidence shows that we are not just dealing with mistakes or sloppiness. There is something much more worrisome here.”
Mr. Trump and some of his news media allies went further, raising expectations among his supporters that Mr. Durham would imprison senior officials. These include former FBI and CIA directors James B. Comey and John O. Brennan, and Democratic leaders such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.
In fact, Mr. Durham has only brought charges against two outsiders involved in efforts to scrutinize Mr. Trump’s ties with Russia, accusing them both of making false statements to the FBI and handling the agency as a victim, not as a perpetrator.
During his tenure, Mr. Barr working closely with Mr. Durham, met him regularly, shared Scotch and accompanied him to Europe. When it became clear that Mr. Durham had found no one to sue before the election, Mr. Barr urged him to prepare a possible interim report, which Nora R. Dannehy, No. 2 of Mr. Durham, to resign in protest against ethics. That reports the DailyExpertNews.
Against that backdrop, the first phase of Mr. Durham – when he was an American attorney appointed by Mr. Trump, not special counsel – why there is a recurring public interest in protecting prosecutors handling politically sensitive cases from political appointees.
But the second phase – after Mr. Barr had appointed him special counsel and dug him in to remain under the Biden administration with some independence from Attorney General Merrick B. Garland — illustrating how the prosecutor’s independence itself risks a different kind of dysfunction.
The regulations authorized Mr. Garland for Mr. Durham from an action, but only if it was “so inappropriate or unwarranted under established departmental practice that it should not be prosecuted” and required that he tell Congress. Mr. Garland gave Mr. Durham free rein and avoided Republican allegations of a cover-up.
Mr. Durham continued for another two and a half years, spending millions of dollars to bring the two arguably weak cases of false statement allegations; in each case, a jury of 12 unanimously dismissed the charges. One of Mr. Durham resigned from his team in protest of the first of those charges, The Times reports.
But Mr Durham’s use of his law enforcement powers accomplished something else. He used court documents to insinuate a theory for which he never found evidence: that the Clinton campaign conspired to charge Mr. Trump with conspiracy. Those applications provided endless fodder for conservative news media.
Even after Mr Durham’s business collapsed, some Trump supporters hoped his final report would deliver a bombshell. But it consisted largely of recycled material, peppered with conclusions such as the accusation of Mr. Durham that the FBI had shown a “lack of analytical rigor”.
Mr. Durham’s own analytical rigor was scrutinized. At one point, he wrote that he had found “no evidence” that the FBI had ever considered whether Clinton’s campaign efforts to tie Trump to Russia could influence its investigation.
Yet the same page quoted reports from a top FBI official, Peter Strzok, who warned colleagues about the Steele dossier, a compendium of allegations about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia that, it later became clear, had been alleged by the Clinton campaign. funded research by the opposition. He wrote that it “should be regarded as intended to influence as well as inform” and that its originator was “presumably connected in some way with the campaign”.
As Mr. Horowitz discovered and criticized, the FBI later cited the Steele dossier in wiretapping applications, despite having reason to doubt its credibility. But Trump supporters often go further, falsely claiming that the FBI opened the entire Russia investigation based on the dossier.
Mr Durham’s report appeared to refer to that false claim, saying that “receiving information from politically affiliated individuals and entities” had partially “fuelled” the investigation. But elsewhere his report acknowledged that the officials who opened the investigation in July 2016 had not yet seen the file and that this had been prompted by the Australian diplomat’s tip-off. He also admitted that there was “no doubt that the FBI had an affirmative obligation to scrutinize that lead.”
Tom Fitton, a Trump ally and the leader of the conservative group Judicial Watch, expressed his disappointment with the Durham investigation in a statement this week, insisting there was a “conspiracy by Obama, Biden, Clinton and their Deep State Allies”.
“Durham has failed the American people with few and failed prosecutions,” said Mr. Fitton. “Never in American history has so much government corruption been so little accounted for.”
But Aitan Goelman, a lawyer for Mr Strzok, said that while the special counsel accused the FBI of “confirmation bias”, it was Mr Durham who spent four years trying to rally support for a preconceived belief about the Russia investigation.
“In fact, Mr. Durham’s investigation is politically motivated, a direct result of former President Trump’s arming of the Justice Department, an effort that unanimous juries in each of Mr. Durham’s trials flatly rejected,” he said. .
Adam Goldman reporting contributed.