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The failure of the Durham report

Durham tried to prove a Democratic plot to frame Trump. He couldn’t.

Special Counsel John Durham, who then-US Attorney General William Barr appointed in 2019 after the release of the Mueller report to probe the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, arrives for his trial at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on May 17, 2022, in Washington, DC.
Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Special counsel John Durham’s four-year effort to investigate the Trump-Russia investigators has ended with a whimper.

Despite the hype from Trump allies that Durham would prove criminal conduct by top government officials or Democrats and reveal a perfidious plot to frame the former president, the probe has ended with two failed prosecutions, one guilty plea, and a 306-page report released publicly Monday with harsh words about certain officials but little new information.

Buried in the middle of the report is a section explaining why Durham went down the rabbit hole for so long — laying out what he tried and failed to prove.

Basically, Durham became enamored of an intelligence analysis by the Russian government from 2016 which had made it into American hands. The Russians assessed, per then-CIA Director John Brennan’s summarized notes, that Hillary Clinton had approved a plan to “vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.” However, the US intelligence community did not know whether this Russian assessment was accurate.

Durham appears to have believed this could be the Rosetta Stone decoding the Trump/Russia scandal. Through his team’s suspicious eyes, this Russian analysis could blow the whole thing wide open — revealing the whole scandal as, per the phrase repeatedly used by the report, a “Clinton Plan.” Maybe top DOJ and Obama White House officials were in on the plan and helping it along to hurt Trump. Further, if Clinton allies had given knowingly false information to the government in the hope of getting Trump investigated, that would be criminal.

But the reality fell far short of Durham’s hopes — as the report he produced attests. And in its discussions of the supposed “Clinton plan,” Durham’s investigation has been revealed to be sloppy and misleading, and betrays the kind of partisan bias it had projected on its adversaries.

Why Durham fixated on a “possible Clinton campaign plan” about Trump and Russia

The intelligence that Durham fixated on remains classified, so specific details aren’t present in his public report. But the New York Times described it earlier this year — they were memos “written by Russian intelligence analysts and discussing purported conversations involving American victims of Russian hacking.” A Dutch agency hacked Russian government servers and obtained these memos, and provided them to the CIA.

Per the Times, these memos were “dubious sources,” making “demonstrably inconsistent, inaccurate, or exaggerated claims,” with some US analysts thinking they contained deliberate disinformation.

One of the memos claimed that Hillary Clinton approved a plan to stir up a scandal blaming Trump for the Russian hacks of Democratic emails. Brennan mentioned this intelligence during a broader White House briefing on Russian interference with top officials (including Obama, Biden, and FBI Director James Comey) in August 2016.

But no one seems to have viewed this intelligence as particularly important or convincing, or to have done much about it.

Durham argues that this was a damning failure. “Taken at face value,” he writes, this intelligence “was arguably highly relevant and exculpatory” toward Trump. He also argues that the lack of interest in it made a stark contrast to how investigators treated the dubious reports from the Steele dossier.

To the extent there’s drama in the rather dry Durham report, it’s here. Durham’s team showed portions of the intelligence to one top special agent who’d worked on the Trump/Russia probe, and the report says that the agent “became visibly upset and emotional” when reading it, left the room, and returned to “state emphatically that he had never been apprised of the Clinton Plan intelligence,” expressing “a sense of betrayal that no one had informed him.”

But others either didn’t buy that the claim was accurate, or thought Durham’s team was wildly exaggerating its importance. Another agent, who did recall seeing the intelligence, told Durham’s investigators that it was “just one data point.”

Ultimately, Durham’s search for deliberate malfeasance from top officials here came up empty.

“Although the evidence we collected revealed a troubling disregard for the Clinton Plan intelligence and potential confirmation bias in favor of continued investigative scrutiny of Trump and his associates,” he writes, “it did not yield evidence sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any FBI or CIA officials intentionally furthered a Clinton campaign plan to frame or falsely accuse Trump of improper ties to Russia.”

Durham’s confused attempts to try to prove the “Clinton Plan” existed

Yet Durham didn’t stop at reviewing whether government officials were in on the supposed “Clinton Plan.” He also tried to prove that there really was such a plan from Clinton’s team to create a phony Trump-Russia scandal, as the Russian intelligence analysts had claimed.

And this section of his report is a mess.

To understand the context here, keep in mind that the Clinton campaign did indeed fund opposition research on Trump’s Russia links, through the firm Fusion GPS. Fusion hired former British spy Christopher Steele, who put together the infamous “Steele dossier” claiming a vast Trump-Russia conspiracy. Fusion and a Clinton campaign lawyer also were involved in another project assessing purported connections between a Trump server and Alfa Bank, a Russian bank.

Neither Steele’s work nor the Alfa Bank research has held up well. But some Trump allies suspected this wasn’t mere shoddy work — they claim it was a deliberate plot to fabricate Trump-Russia ties and drum up a scandal that didn’t exist. What’s more, Steele gave his memos to the FBI, and the Clinton lawyer, Michael Sussmann, gave the Alfa Bank research to the FBI. The theory seemingly entertained by Durham was that both may have deliberately seeded falsehoods to the government to try and get Trump investigated. And maybe this was “the Clinton Plan” in action.

But reality was more complicated. The falsehoods in Steele’s reports were primarily the fault of his main “sub-source,” Igor Danchenko, who seemed to have fabricated some information.

Meanwhile, evidence shows the Alfa Bank researchers believed their own work. If the Clinton campaign actually believed these claims might be true, their advancement of them looks less like a nefarious plot.

And counter to Trump allies’ old theories, the Trump-Russia investigation itself was not started because of these issues, but instead, because Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had told Australian diplomats that Russia had information on Clinton. (Durham himself admits “there is no question that the FBI had an affirmative obligation to closely examine” the Papadopoulos allegations, though he argues at length that a mere preliminary investigation rather than a full investigation should have been opened.)

Furthermore, Steele and Alfa were just a small part of a larger Trump-Russia discussion that was taking place publicly because of Trump’s actions. Trump was notably more respectful of Putin and disdainful of NATO than typical Republicans. The Russian government really did hack Democrats’ emails and have them leaked during the campaign. Trump viewed these leaks as highly beneficial to him, touting them constantly on the campaign trail, and even publicly calling on “Russia, if you’re listening” to find more Clinton emails. There were defensible reasons to wonder about Trump-Russia connections.

Durham’s team interviewed various Clinton campaign advisers and Clinton herself to try to assess whether there had been a plan from Clinton’s team to frame Trump. John Podesta, Jake Sullivan, and Jennifer Palmieri all called the assertion “ridiculous” and Clinton said the claim was “really sad” and that it “sounded like Russian disinformation to me.”

Yet Durham asserts that his investigation “arguably” provides “some support for the notion that the Clinton campaign was engaged in an effort or plan in late July 2016 to encourage scrutiny of Trump’s potential ties to Russia.” His evidence includes public comments by Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook on the DNC hack and Trump’s troubling statements, and a campaign foreign policy adviser’s criticism of Trump’s NATO views.

A section of the Durham Report about how a Clinton foreign policy advisor tried to line up foreign policy experts to criticize Trump’s NATO views during the 2016 campaign Durham Report

The adviser’s email, Durham writes, “is consistent with the substance of the reported plan.” But note Durham’s sloppiness here. With his claims of a vast conspiracy to fabricate a scandal falling flat, he’s now claiming the Clinton team’s criticism of things Trump said publicly is part of a dastardly “Plan” to tarnish Trump.

This is the best he’s got, and it’s extremely weak stuff. He’s grasping at straws to argue that the intelligence that matched what he wanted to hear is true — which is just the behavior he criticized Trump-Russia investigators for.

Durham 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.