An inquiry into the origin of FBIs examination of ties between Russia and Donald TrumpThe 2016 presidential campaign has finally come to a close, with the prosecutor leading the investigation submitting a much-anticipated report that found major flaws.
The report, the culmination of a four-year investigation into possible wrongdoing by US government officials, contained withering criticism of the FBI but few significant revelations. Nonetheless, it will provide fodder for Trump supporters who have long condemned the Russia investigation, as well as Trump opponents who say that Durham the team’s meager court record shows that their investigation was a politically motivated farce.
A look at the investigation and report:
WHO IS JOHN DURHAM?
Durham has spent decades as a Justice Department prosecutor, with previous assignments including investigations into the FBI’s cozy relationship with mobsters in Boston and the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of its harsh interrogations of terrorism subjects.
He was appointed in 2019 to investigate potential wrongdoing by US government officials investigating Russian election interference in 2016 and whether there was any illegal coordination between the Kremlin and Trump’s presidential campaign.
Despite meager results — one conviction and two acquittals — that fell short of Trump’s expectations, Durham was able to continue his work well into the Biden administration, thanks in part to William Barr appointment of Durham as special counsel for the Justice Department shortly before Barr’s 2020 departure as attorney general.
WHY DID THE TRUMP JUSTICE DEPARTMENT THINK SO APPOINTMENT WAS NECESSARY?
The appointment came weeks after another special counsel, Robert Mueller, concluded his investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. That investigation led to more than two dozen criminal charges, including against half a dozen Trump associates.
While it did not accuse any Trump aide of working with Russia to tip the election, it found that Russia interfered on Trump’s behalf and that the campaign welcomed, rather than discouraged, the help.
From the start, Barr was deeply skeptical of the investigation’s basis, telling Congress that “espionage occurred” on the campaign.
He hired an outside prosecutor to look for potential misconduct by the government agencies involved in gathering intelligence and conducting the investigation, even flying with Durham to Italy to meet with officials there as part of the probe.
ARE THERE PROBLEMS WITH THE RUSSIA INVESTIGATION?
Yes, and a general investigation by the Department of Justice’s inspector general has already identified many.
The Watchdog report found that FBI requests to wiretap a former Trump campaign aide, Carter Page, contained significant errors and omitted information that likely would have weakened or undermined the request’s premise.
The cumulative effect of those errors, the report said, was to make it “appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case.”
Still, the inspector general found no evidence that investigators acted with political bias and said there was a legitimate basis to launch a full investigation into potential collusion, though Durham disagrees.
WHAT BRITISH GOALS DID HE HAVE AND WHAT WAS THE OUTCOME?
Durham brought three prosecutions during his tenure, but only one resulted in a conviction — and that was for a case referred to him by the Justice Department’s inspector general. None of the three overturned core Mueller findings that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election in sweeping fashion and that the Trump campaign had welcomed, rather than discouraged, the help.
A former FBI attorney, Kevin Clinesmith, pleaded guilty in 2020 to altering an email related to the surveillance of ex-Trump campaign aides. He received probation.
But two other cases, both involving alleged false statements to the FBI, resulted in jury acquittals.
Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, was found not guilty of lying to the FBI during a meeting where he presented computer information he wanted the FBI to investigate. Another jury acquitted Igor Danchenko, a Russian-American analyst, of charges that he lied to the FBI about his role in creating a discredited dossier on Trump.
WHAT SPECIFICALLY DID DURHAM FIND?
Durham found that the FBI acted too hastily and relied on raw and uncorroborated intelligence in launching the Trump-Russia investigation.
He said the FBI had no information about any actual contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officials at the time the investigation was opened.
He also argued that FBI investigators were prone to “confirmation bias,” repeatedly ignoring or rationalizing away information that could have undermined the premise of their investigation, and he noted that the FBI failed to corroborate a single material claim from a research paper that it relied on during the course of the investigation.
“An objective and honest assessment of these pieces of information should have caused the FBI to question not only the preaching of the Crossfire Hurricane, but also to reflect on whether the FBI was being manipulated for political or other purposes,” the report said. The FBI’s code name for the Trump-Russia investigation. “Unfortunately, it didn’t.”
WHAT DID THE FBI SAY?
The FBI pointed out that it had long ago taken dozens of corrective actions. Had those measures been in place in 2016, it says, the errors at the center of the report could have been prevented.
It also took pains to note that the conduct in the report took place before the current director, Christopher Wray, took the job in the fall of 2017.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
It didn’t take long for Republicans in Congress to react. Rope. Jim Jordan, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said he had invited Durham to testify on Capitol Hill next week. Trump also sought to seize on the report, saying it showed how the American public had been “deceived.”
Although the FBI says it has already taken some steps, Durham said it’s possible more reforms may be needed. One idea, he said, would be to provide additional scrutiny to politically sensitive investigations by identifying an official who would be responsible for challenging the steps taken in an investigation.
He said his team had considered but not ultimately recommended measures that would limit the FBI’s investigative powers, including its use of tools under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to intercept suspected spies or terrorists.
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