How John Durham Succeeded by Failing
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.John Durham succeeded.
Not in the conventional sense. This special counsel, appointed by then-Attorney General Bill Barr and handed the task of proving Donald Trump’s claim that the FBI’s investigation of the Trump-Russia scandal had been a “hoax” perpetrated by a supposed Deep State cabal, went 0 for 2 in the courtroom with cases he filed against peripheral figures. And the final report he submitted this week contained no new revelations within its 316 pages to back up Trump’s bogus assertions about the FBI’s Russia probe. At the end of the day, the best Durham could manage was to opine that the FBI in 2016 should have opened a preliminary investigation instead of a full investigation. Big whoop. After four years of work that cost $7 million, he uncovered no evidence of any plot—criminal or otherwise—to cook up a phony investigation of Trump. The FBI errors and wrongdoing he cited—which mainly concerned the bureau’s use of the undocumented Steele dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant for a single Trump campaign aide—had been exposed in a prior investigation. Durham’s crusade yielded no new significant disclosures, and it undercut all of Trump’s claptrap about the FBI, the media, and the Democrats conspiring against him in what Trump repeatedly called the “crime of the century.”
Yet Durham did accomplish an important mission. He continued to focus attention on the Great Russian Deflection and provide material for the Trump-Russia denialists who have refused to acknowledge a fundamental reality of the 2016 campaign: Russia attacked the election to help Trump, and Trump and his aides aided and abetted that assault by denying it was happening and by signaling to Moscow they welcomed its effort to undermine American democracy. (See the meeting top Trump aides had in June 2016 with a Kremlin emissary whom they were told was part of a clandestine Russian operation to help Trump.)
For seven years, Trump and his minions have tried mightily to redefine the Russia scandal. Instead of addressing the Kremlin’s covert intervention in the 2016 campaign—which was one of several decisive factors in that close contest—or Trump’s complicity in the attack and his exploitation of this underhanded foreign interference, they have relentlessly screamed that the FBI investigation of these matters was a conspiracy mounted to wreck Trump’s candidacy and then, after that failed, to destroy his presidency. Over and over, Trump claimed that he had been wronged—spied on by the Obama administration and victimized by the national security state. His goal was obvious: to steer attention from a painful truth—that he had won the White House in part due to a Russian secret program that he had assisted and encouraged.
He and his defenders brayed about the faults of the FBI’s Russia investigation to draw attention from what that probe and subsequent investigations unearthed. They shifted the focus from what Russia and Trump did during the 2016 campaign to how all of that was investigated. They fixated on the Steele dossier, as if the inaccurate or unconfirmed allegations within it somehow negated what actually transpired. Trump repeatedly insisted that the FBI’s inquiry had been kicked off by the tarnished Steele material, which was not true—a fact even acknowledged by Durham during one of the trials he lost.
Durham’s grand task was to prove Trump’s conspiracy theory that the Russia probe was an anti-Trump con job. He could not do so because that allegation advanced by Trump and his lapdog loyalists was not true. But Durham did keep this notion alive for years. Much of the attention that the Trump-Russia scandal has received in recent times was due to Durham’s inquiry. Consequently, the more important subjects of Russia’s skullduggery and Trump’s deceitful (perhaps treasonous) conduct were subsumed by real and spurious questions about the investigation.
With his investigation of the investigation, Durham provided fodder for Trump and his conservative allies. His work exemplifies the so-called “weaponization of government” that Republicans have bemoaned: Barr unleashed a powerful prosecutor to serve Trump’s political interests. The court filings Durham submitted and the prosecutions he waged (although failed) offered the Trumpists ammunition to keep their crusade of distraction alive. All of this had nothing to do with the Russian assault and Trump’s actions in 2016. But it allowed Trump and the denizens of Foxland to continue to cast the Russia matter as a scandal of investigative abuse, and they ceaselessly predicted that Durham would eventually drop the big one and expose (and indict!) the Deep State evildoers who had manufactured the Russia “hoax.”
Durham generated material (and hope) for the purveyors of the Russia hoax hoax. And his nothing-burger report has done the same. Trump, Republican officials, and conservatives seized upon it as fuel for their never-ending disinformation campaign. Trump declared that Durham’s report showed that “the FBI should never have launched the Trump-Russia Probe.” No surprise, this was a brazenly false characterization. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) proclaimed that the report proved that the FBI had “manufactured a false conspiracy theory.” That, too, was false. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) chimed in that the Durham report had uncovered “the crime of the century” and assailed the Russia investigation as the “Democrat Hoax.” He said he would call on Durham to testify before Congress. All the usual suspects joined in: the New York Post, the Federalist, commentator Ben Shapiro, GOP Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert. Durham had supplied sheet music for the chorus of the Trump right to sing a false song in harmony.
So once again, when the topic of the Russian war on the 2016 election is in the news, the discussion is centered on the question of the FBI’s investigation, not what Moscow and Trump did. Though many news accounts have reliably reported the Durham report is a dud—the New York Times: “After Years of Political Hype, the Durham Inquiry Failed to Deliver”—this latest hullabaloo reinforces the original strategy of the Trump crowd: deny reality and change the subject. If the public discourse concerns the predication for the FBI’s investigation and not how Trump assisted the Russian attack (even if he himself did not directly collude with Moscow), that’s a win for Trump and his backers, even though Durham has struck out in confirming Trump’s false cover story.
Trump and his cultist defenders do not have to demonstrate that Trump’s accusation of a Deep State plot is true to achieve their ultimate goal of muddying up the waters and smothering the truth of the Trump-Russia scandal. This is a coverup-by-confusion. All they have to do is distract and deflect. Change the channel. Hype a sideshow. To do so, all they need is chaff, and Durham, with this report, has provided plenty.