Opinion John Durham’s flop is only the latest of many Trump coverup failures


HR King
May 29, 2001
By Paul Waldman
Greg Sargent

May 31, 2022 at 5:36 p.m. EDT

For three years, conservatives hyped John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the FBI’s original investigation of Russia’s effort to help Donald Trump get elected president in 2016. Durham, a prosecutor appointed in 2019 by then-Attorney General William P. Barr, would blow the lid off the real scandal, they said, which was a conspiracy between Democrats and the FBI to get Trump. This would show there was never anything to the Russiagate scandal.
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Durham had all the time and resources he needed. As of last December, a partial accounting found he had spent about $3.8 million. So what did he come up with?
He delivered two indictments, both of people no one ever would have heard of and both for the crime of lying to investigators. On Tuesday, one of them, lawyer Michael Sussmann, was acquitted by a federal jury.
All that time and effort and expense, for one acquittal of one lawyer for supposedly not being upfront with investigators.
Durham does have one more indictment pending, of a researcher who allegedly lied about information he got pertaining to the scandal. But even if he is convicted, one has to ask: Is that all there is?
To appreciate the significance of this moment, you have to remember that Trump and Republicans have spent years working to show that there was never any serious cause for concern about the idea that Russia went to extraordinary lengths to try to swing the 2016 election to Trump.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not find evidence that Trump criminally colluded with Russia. But he found that Russia interfered “in sweeping and systematic fashion” and that Trump’s campaign expected to “benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” Mueller also refrained from explicitly exonerating Trump of criminal obstruction of justice.
Durham had tried to prove that Sussmann had lied to the FBI when he came to them with supposed evidence of some kind of suspicious electronic communication between the Trump Organization and a Russian bank.
Sussmann was accused of concealing the fact that he was working for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and prosecutors painted this as part of a larger scheme by the Clinton campaign to nefariously undermine Trump. Of this Sussmann was acquitted, and jurors indicated that they thought this wasn’t a particularly close call and that the prosecution was politically motivated.
Durham’s probe was supposed to suggest that the FBI investigation that ultimately led to Russiagate was tainted to its core by politics, thus unmasking this whole scandal as a big nothingburger. In this sense, Durham’s flop is only the latest in a long string of failures.
“The Durham probe has turned into what conservatives always accused the Mueller probe of being: a politically premised fishing expedition that has failed to discredit its original target, namely the Russia investigation,” prominent national security lawyer Bradley Moss told us.
None of these efforts have been able to disappear a fundamental truth: The stubborn facts show that Russiagate actually was an extraordinarily grave and disturbing scandal.
Among them: the well-documented Kremlin effort to gin up support for Trump and opposition to Clinton on American social media. Their hacking of Democratic Party systems, resulting in data dumps by WikiLeaks to aid the Trump campaign. The copious contacts between Trump, his family and his advisers with Russian officials. The fact that his own campaign chairman was secretly sharing confidential campaign information with a Russian intelligence officer. And so much more.
Crucially, this was the culmination of years of efforts by Trump, his allies and members of the Republican Party to cast doubt on the seriousness of the Russia scandal. Here’s a partial list:
  • Even before the 2016 election, then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) warned Democrats against organizing a bipartisan statement decrying Russian interference, vowing to cast it as unacceptable partisan politics.
  • Just before release of the Mueller report, Barr pre-spun the contents in a profoundly misleading way designed to make its conclusions appear far less serious.
  • In 2019, when a Justice Department inspector general investigation revealed significant errors and omissions in the FBI’s original applications for surveillance authority, Republicans widely distorted the truth about the findings, claiming this showed much more serious problems with the origins of the Russia probe.
  • During the 2020 election, Trump’s homeland security chief intervened to slow the release of an intelligence report raising alarms about another possible round of Russian electoral interference on Trump’s behalf.
  • When intelligence agencies briefed members of both parties about this specter of Russian interference, this enraged Trump, who could conceive of this only as an effort to harm him politically.
In some ways, that campaign was successful. Trump pardoned a long list of cronies with ties to the Russia scandal (Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos). And every Republican is pretty much required to say it’s no big deal if a hostile foreign power helps a presidential candidate get elected, provided that candidate is a Republican.
But the long-held dream of Trump and his allies to erase the enormous significance and depravity of the Russiagate scandal stands as decidedly unfulfilled. And thus it will likely remain.

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HR King
May 29, 2001
David E. Kendall, a lawyer at Williams & Connolly, represents 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Well, that was a quick acquittal! The Michael Sussmann prosecution brought by Trump administration special counsel John Durham tried to generate a Clinton-conspiracy bang but ended with a not-guilty-verdict whimper.
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The actual case against Sussmann was both narrow and paper-thin from the start. He was charged with lying to the FBI’s general counsel in a one-on-one, unrecorded meeting on Sept. 19, 2016, about whom he was speaking for — not on the report he presented about mysterious communications between the Trump Organization and a Vladimir Putin crony’s Russian bank (which the FBI later declared unsubstantiated).

While the alleged lie was simple, straightforward and could have been explained in two pages, it was encased in 27 pages of dark and inchoate allegations of wrongdoing by a number of Clintonites. What was the lie? Not that Sussmann provided false evidence of Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with the Russians — that was neither alleged nor proven. Not that there was a vast conspiracy to falsely besmirch Trump as seeking Russian assistance — that was neither alleged nor proven. Not that there was a successful deception of the FBI — many witnesses testified they were well aware of Sussmann’s many Democratic connections and clients. The Durham indictment charged only that Sussmann had failed to tell the FBI general counsel why he was meeting with him. The jury saw through the fog of misdirection and innuendo in the indictment’s overstuffed allegations and quickly returned a not-guilty verdict.


Then-Attorney General William P. Barr had asked Durham in 2019 to investigate government intelligence gathering into Russian interactions with Trump’s 2016 campaign — and later promoted Durham to special counsel. The Sussmann prosecution was in fact a clever effort to de-Putinize Trump, by suggesting that he and his successful presidential campaign were the victims of a nefarious Democratic conspiracy to tar it with false and unmerited allegations of Russian assistance. Durham’s counterfactual scenario generated endless speculation and fulmination among the MAGA faithful, including by Trump, but it collapsed when proof had to be introduced in open court subject to the rules of evidence.
Paul Waldman and Greg Sargent: John Durham’s flop is only the latest of many Trump coverup failures
With his oversized and oblivious ego, the former president has never acknowledged the reality that the Russians zealously tried to help him defeat Hillary Clinton. In a 2016 presidential debate, he denied the Russians were releasing hacked emails to injure the Democrats, positing that it could have been done by “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” At a joint news conference with Putin in July 2018, after another special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, had indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for U.S. election interference, Trump announced that he believed Putin’s denials and not the unanimous conclusions of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

Despite the setback of the Sussmann verdict, it’s possible that Durham will ultimately draft a report that does in words what he has so far been unable to do in court — proclaim Trump is a victim and that the allegations of Russian support for him were a “hoax” of the Democrats or the “deep state.” Such a report will have all the appeal and credibility of a self-published memoir. A future whitewash in a special counsel report is bound to fail in light of the overwhelming, undeniable and ineluctable amount of evidence of Russian government efforts to help Trump and harm Clinton. The U.S. intelligence community, except for the FBI, made this announcement in October 2016, and the FBI joined the assessment in January 2017.

Mueller’s final report detailed “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign.” He obtained indictments in 2018 of 13 Russian individuals and three companies operating a troll farm in the United States to help the Trump campaign and then the indictments of the 12 Russian military intelligence officers who had directed the effort. He obtained six convictions of Trump officials who had connections to the Russians. The bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found that “the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multifaceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election” to favor Trump.
The myopia of the Durham prosecutors was never more dramatic than when they argued that Sussmann’s actions in contacting the FBI were part of a Democratic effort to create an “October surprise” to torpedo the Trump campaign.

There was, of course, a truly dramatic and lethal surprise that October, but it came at the expense of the Democratic candidate and, many polling experts think, tipped the election to Trump: On Oct. 28, 2016, then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced he was reopening the Clinton emails investigation — at a time when the bureau had studiously kept secret its own three-month-old investigation of the Trump campaign’s dealing with the Russians.
No wonder the jury reached its verdict so quickly.