The Department of Justice on Monday finally released the long-awaited final report from special counsel John Durham, who, almost four years ago, was tapped to review the FBI’s decision to open a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump’s presidential 2016 campaign. For much of that time, Trump supporters were positive that the bombshells Durham would drop would validate Trump’s characterization of the Russia investigation as the “crime of the century.”
However, over the course of more than 300 pages, the Durham Report doesn’t just fail to live up to Trump supporters’ expectations of a spectacular vindication; it manages to fail on every other level as well. Durham fails to rebut the previous findings from special counsel Robert Mueller or the Department of Justice’s inspector general. He fails to provide suggested changes that the FBI could make moving forward. He fails to acknowledge how much of the winking innuendo the report includes wasn’t proved in court. And, ironically, he fails to realize that his central argument includes a standard for politically charged investigations that Trump would absolutely hate to see put into practice.
The Durham Report doesn’t just fail to live up to Trump supporters’ expectations of a spectacular vindication; it manages to fail on every other level as well.
None of these failures is particularly surprising given the arc of Durham’s investigation. When he began to wrap up in September, it was clear that he would be unable to live up to the right-wing hype. The only two cases that he brought to trial resulted in acquittals; the one guilty plea he obtained was of an FBI attorney for altering an email used to obtain a surveillance warrant for a Trump campaign adviser. But Durham still includes many of the allegations that the juries rejected, a move more likely to muddy the waters than provide clarity.
Consider the argument that rapidly began circulating on Twitter that Durham conclusively stated that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved a plan for her 2016 campaign to “vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services.” It’s a hell of a claim, but the relevant section of the report actually says the claim is based on Russian intelligence analysis that U.S. intelligence agencies obtained in 2016. At no point was the claim ever confirmed, something even Trump’s director of national intelligence John Ratcliffe admitted in a letter to the Senate after declassifying the existence of the intelligence. Nor does Durham ever state it as a gospel truth.
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And yet Durham spends roughly 20 pages trying to make hay out of the FBI not acting on that intercepted intelligence. In doing so, he included text messages and emails from Clinton campaign staffers that might — if you squint — fit the idea that there was a formal plan to fabricate a link between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is par for the course for the report overall, which functions as an extended version of Durham’s court filings in which he would spin a narrative that sounded shady but lacked any conclusive evidence of wrongdoing.
Despite his scolding tone, there’s little advice for DOJ to shape up beyond generic admonishments to adhere to its mission statement.
Despite his scolding tone, there’s little advice for DOJ to shape up beyond generic admonishments to adhere to its mission statement. That’s in part because many of the missteps he raises have already been dealt with over the years, as the FBI said in a statement Monday. All of the substantiated claims that he makes were likewise previously acknowledged in a 2019 report from the department’s inspector general that found that despite some serious concerning mistakes, the Russia investigation was justified.
Durham does endorse a proposal to “provide additional scrutiny of politically sensitive investigations” by having the FBI choose “an official who is responsible for challenging the steps taken in the investigation.” It’s an idea that fits well with Durham chiding FBI personnel for showing “a serious lack of analytical rigor towards the information that they received, especially information received from politically affiliated persons and entities.”
But then one looks at the flimsy, hyperpolitical basis of the House GOP’s investigations into President Joe Biden’s family and considers how they would fare under that system should any investigation into them be elevated to the DOJ. Consider the demands from Trump and right-wing media for expedited DOJ probes and/or arrests of his political opponents. Durham’s recommendation is at odds with what the report’s target audience actually wants.
While reading through the report, I was reminded of a trove of my old papers from college I just came across. One, written during my freshman year, was the result of me forgetting the assignment until the hour before it was due. I technically hit the word count, and what I turned in was better than handing in nothing, but what I wrote was mostly circular nonsense that actively acknowledged just how lacking in substance it was. That meta-commentary was my way of apologizing for the poor quality of work that I was handing in. There is no such humility from Durham — but there should have been. In the end, only only one of us will forever have his name attached to such a weak and unserious piece of work.