In 2019, a few weeks after the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, the Trump administration flipped the script and began the detectives investigate.
Attorney General Bill Barr has appointed U.S. Attorney John Durham to investigate the government officials who were supposed to be investigating Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
The FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, Barr argued in publicwas born from the pursuit of flimsy conspiracy theories and relied on bogus evidence, and the investigators were either blinded by political bias or acted with blatant political motives.
And then Durham and Barr started doing all those same things.
A new, detailed disclosure by the Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman and Katie Benner of the New York Times digs into exactly what happened to the nearly four-year-long Durham Inquiry, which is reportedly about to conclude, and it’s not pretty. Anecdote after anecdote portrays Durham and Barr as believing in conspiracy theories with no evidence but clear political motives to support one of Trump’s favorite arguments: that he was the victim of a nefarious conspiracy.
In short, Durham and Barr wanted to prove that the Trump-Russia investigation was crafted in bad faith by “deep state” officials or the Clinton campaign (or both), with the aim of politically hurting Trump. Time and time again, Durham followed different versions of this theory, and again and again failed to prove his case.
If Barr and Durham started out with suspicions, but upon investigation found them to be unfounded, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Yet both men continued to say or suggest publicly that the “deep state/Clinton campaign hit job” theory was true – Barr in public statements where he said this plainly and Durham in court files and trial interrogation that seemed intended to advance a story he couldn’t actually prove.
Oddly enough, when Durham and Barr looked at one of these theories — that Italian officials were somehow involved in starting the Trump-Russia investigation — instead, Durham and Barr were presented with evidence linking Trump himself to possible financial crimes. “Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham decided the tip was too serious and credible to ignore,” the Times reporters write. Barr kept this new Trump investigation in the hands of Durham, and it’s unclear what became of it.
The Trump-Russia investigation should certainly not be exempt from criticism, and a fair assessment of whether investigators made miscalculations would be reasonable. But the Durham probe was not. Instead, it repeatedly assumed dastardly plots against Trump, even as the evidence continued to fail to corroborate those plots, while Barr spread a story to the conservative media and President Trump himself that Durham was closing in on Trump’s “deep state” enemies. The politicized, blind investigation they sought was in them all along.
The many conspiracy theories of Bill Barr and John Durham
The grand theory of the Trump supporters’ Russia investigation has always been that it was a “deep state” Democratic witch hunt. This is what Barr and Durham apparently set out to prove – and they explored many possibilities.
Perhaps something was wrong with the FBI’s decision to open its investigation in July 2016 post-election period when the FBI was behaving strangely. Could be the CIA cooked it analysis of Russian election interference. Or maybe one Western intelligence sown disinformation. But Durham’s investigation did not lead to charges against officials in any of these cases.
Instead, Durham’s only indictment against a government official in 2020 stemmed from a referral from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who found that an FBI attorney had altered an email when he attempted a fourth round of Get FISA surveillance. on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty and had been convicted to 12 months’ probation, but the judge in his case concluded he had no political motives and was instead engaged in bureaucratic corner kicks.
By 2021, Durham looked set to give up the ‘deep state’. His team’s new theory appeared to be that Trump/Russia investigators were duped by malicious outside actors – with ties to Hillary Clinton – who knowingly made false or misleading claims to launch a bogus investigation into Trump.
So he focused on an episode where Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, told the FBI about an investigation by a group of computer scientists into classified online communications between a Trump server and a Russian bank. The charge against Sussmann was narrow, with Durham claiming that he lied to his FBI contact about whether he arranged their meeting on behalf of his client.
However, the indictment seemed written to imply something bigger — that the Clinton campaign knowingly fabricated a false link between Trump and Russia and passed it on to the FBI and media. The problem with that theory is that other evidence suggests that the researchers involved actually believed their theory. (Sussmann was acquitted of the charges at trial.)
Durham also delved into Igor Danchenko, the lead investigator of Christopher Steele’s infamous (and notoriously flawed) “file” alleging Trump-Russia connections. Durham seemed to have been try to imply that the Democrats deliberately planted false claims on the record — such as the claim about thepee tape.”
But what he was able to prove was much less impressive – a Democratic PR manager, who had previously been involved in some Clinton campaigns, but never at a senior level, had claimed to be aware of gossip about Trump’s campaign staff that he had actually read in the newspaper. (Danchenko was charged with lying to the FBI, but was acquitted at trial.)
Now the new Times report reveals another episode where Durham used questionable means to prove Democratic wrongdoing. The background is that the CIA had obtained some purported memos from Russian intelligence alleging that Clinton had engaged in a deliberate plot to launch a bogus investigation against Trump, but the memos were considered dubious by internal analysts.
However, Durham attempted to prove their veracity, in part by attempting to secretly obtain emails from a director of George Soros’s Open Society Foundation (since the memos had made some allegations about this director). However, a judge rejected Durham’s request to receive the emails from this individual without notifying him.
The Times reporters pointed out that this is quite similar to what the FBI did with the allegations in the dubious Steele dossier — except that it’s apparently okay now because Barr’s people are the ones doing it.
It remains possible that Durham found some unflattering things that he will reveal in an eventual report. But so far his investigation has seemed to be a politicized mess, stumbling from one conspiracy theory and flimsy case to the next.
Everything Barr thought was true about the Trump-Russia investigation turned out to be true about the investigation he ordered.