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 investigating the investigators.
Attorney General Bill Barr appointed US Attorney John Durham to investigate those government officials who had presumed to look into Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
The FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, Barr argued publicly, was born of chasing thin conspiracy theories and relied on phony evidence, and its investigators were either blinded by political bias or acting with blatant political motives.
And then Durham and Barr proceeded to do all those same things.
A new, detailed exposé by the New York Times’s Charlie Savage, Adam Goldman, and Katie Benner digs into what exactly happened with the nearly four-year Durham investigation, which is purportedly about to conclude, and it isn’t pretty. Anecdote after anecdote portrays Durham and Barr as believing in conspiracy theories without evidence but with clear political motives to bolster one of Trump’s favorite arguments: that he was the victim of a nefarious plot.
Basically, Durham and Barr wanted to prove that the Trump-Russia investigation was manufactured in bad faith by either “deep state” officials or the Clinton campaign (or both), with the goal of hurting Trump politically. Again and again, Durham pursued various versions of this theory, and again and again, he fell short of proving his case.
If Barr and Durham started off with suspicions but found upon investigation that they were baseless, that’s not necessarily so terrible. Yet both men kept on saying or implying publicly that the “‘deep state’/Clinton campaign hit job” theory was true — Barr in public statements where he said this outright and Durham in court filings and trial questioning that seemed designed to advance a narrative he couldn’t actually prove.
Bizarrely enough, when checking out one of these theories — that Italian officials were somehow involved in launching the Trump-Russia investigation — Durham and Barr were instead presented with evidence linking Trump himself to potential financial crimes. “Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham decided that the tip was too serious and credible to ignore,” the Times reporters write. Barr kept this new investigation of Trump in Durham’s hands, and it’s unclear what became of it.
The Trump-Russia investigation certainly shouldn’t be exempt from criticism, and a fair-minded review of whether investigators made misjudgments would be reasonable. But the Durham probe was not that. Instead, it repeatedly assumed dastardly plots against Trump, even when the evidence kept failing to establish those plots, while Barr seeded a narrative to conservative media and President Trump himself that Durham was closing in on Trump’s “deep state” enemies. The politicized, blinkered investigation they were looking for was inside them all along.
The many conspiracy theories of Bill Barr and John Durham
The grand theory of the Russia investigation from Trump’s supporters has always been that it was a “deep state” Democratic witch hunt. This is what Barr and Durham evidently set out to try to prove — and they explored many possibilities.
Perhaps something was off about the FBI’s decision to open the investigation in July 2016. Or maybe it was the post-election period when the FBI acted oddly. Maybe the CIA cooked its analysis of Russian interference with the election. Or perhaps a Western intelligence service seeded misinformation. But Durham’s probe did not lead to any charges against officials in any of these matters.
Instead, Durham’s only charge against a government official, in 2020, stemmed from a referral made by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who found that an FBI attorney had altered an email when trying to get sign-off on a fourth round of FISA surveillance on Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 12 months of probation, but the judge in his case concluded he didn’t have political motives and was instead engaged in bureaucratic corner-cutting.
By 2021, Durham had seemed to give up on the “deep state.” His team’s new theory seemed to be that Trump/Russia investigators were bamboozled by malicious outside actors — with ties to Hillary Clinton — knowingly making false or misleading claims to drum up a phony investigation into Trump.
So he focused on one episode where Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, told the FBI about research by a group of computer scientists into secret online communications between a Trump server and a Russian bank. The charge against Sussmann was narrow, with Durham alleging he lied to his FBI contact about whether he arranged their meeting on behalf of his client.
The indictment, however, seemed written to imply something bigger — that the Clinton campaign knowingly concocted a bogus Trump-Russia link, and fed it to the FBI and the media. The problem with that theory is that other evidence suggests the researchers involved really believed their theory. (Sussmann was acquitted of the charge at trial.)
Durham also dug into Igor Danchenko, the lead researcher for Christopher Steele’s infamous (and infamously flawed) “dossier” claiming Trump-Russia connections. Durham seemed to have been trying to imply that Democrats deliberately seeded false claims in the dossier — like the claim about the “pee tape.”
But what he could prove was much less impressive — a Democratic PR executive, who had been previously involved in some Clinton campaigns but never at high levels, had claimed to know about some Trump campaign personnel gossip that he had actually read in the newspaper. (Danchenko was charged with lying to the FBI but acquitted at trial.)
Now, the new Times report reveals another episode where Durham used questionable means to try to prove Democratic malfeasance. The background is that the CIA had obtained some purported Russian intelligence memos asserting there was a deliberate plot by Clinton to drum up a phony investigation against Trump, but the memos were believed by internal analysts to be dubious.
Durham, however, tried to prove their veracity, in part by trying to secretly obtain emails from an executive at George Soros’s Open Society Foundation (since the memos had made some accusations about this executive). A judge, however, rejected Durham’s request to get this private citizen’s emails without informing 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 now, apparently, it’s okay because Barr’s people are the ones doing it.
It remains possible that Durham has found some unflattering things that he’ll disclose in an eventual report. But so far, his investigation has seemed to be a politicized mess, bumbling from one conspiracy theory and weak case to the next.
Everything Barr thought was true about the Trump-Russia investigation has turned out to be true about the investigation that he ordered.