(CNN) A long-awaited report by Republican-appointed special counsel John Durham failed to find the “crime of the century” that ex-President Donald Trump said targeted him at the center of the Russia investigation. But it delivered him a potential political payoff nonetheless.
The 300-page conclusion to a three-year probe also dealt another blow to the Federal Bureau of Investigation over its handling of the reputation-shredding 2016 election. Durham said that the bureau’s full-scale probe into multiple links between the Trump campaign and Russians should never have been launched, arguing that investigators “discounted or willfully ignored” information that did not support preliminary theories that there was collusion between Trump and Russia. And he called on the Justice Department to appoint an official to oversee politically sensitive probes. But while Durham criticized confirmation bias and mistakes in the FBI, he did not unveil any new prosecutions — undermining Trump’s predictions of a sweeping purge of the bureau — and had no recommendations for further reforms in the FBI.
Still in a passage of the report that is certain to be highlighted by the former GOP president for political purposes, he argued that neither US law enforcement officials nor the intelligence community appears to have had “any actual evidence of collusion” before investigating Trump. And the special counsel also criticized the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier, a now largely debunked document that was used by the FBI to secure surveillance warrants against a former Trump campaign adviser.
But not much of what Durham revealed on Monday was new and while it was not the complete fail that some partisan media commentators on the left claimed, it certainly lacked the kind of blockbuster indictments once predicted by the former president and his family.
Those debates aside, the polarization of American politics, everything involving Trump and the bitter aftermath of the 2016 election means that perceptions of links between his team and Russia will depend for many citizens on their ideological perspective and opinion of Trump.
That means the Durham report’s main legacy is now certain to be political. It offered an immediate opening for the former commander in chief who has never worried about nuance. Trump was quick to claim vindication for his claims that a massive deep state plot was designed to thwart him from power seven years ago, even though the report made no such firm conclusion. And Trump trampled the scope of Durham’s conclusions to infer that by extension, multiple current criminal probes against him — including two by another special counsel into his attempts to overthrow the 2020 election and his hoarding of classified documents, are politically motivated. “The American Public was scammed, just as it is being scammed right now by those who don’t want to see GREATNESS for AMERICA!” Trump wrote on Truth Social.
Another Trump ally, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, argued the report showed the “rule of law in America is subservient to political outcomes. It is a very dangerous development and moment in American history,” he said in a statement. Some might consider Graham’s comments ironic since the same charge was often leveled at Trump while he was in office, and the ex-president challenged the rule of law in his bid to remain in office in 2020.
But House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, a top Trump ally, signaled he’ll use Durham’s report to invigorate his probe into what he claims is the “weaponization” of government against Trump and Republicans. Jordan’s accusations represent a popular belief among pro-Trump conservatives, but they have so far failed to make a convincing jump into mainstream political debates.
Still, Trump’s original purpose in demanding an investigation into the FBI was to create a political shield over past and future investigations, he won a significant victory on Monday. The former president has promised a gutting of US intelligence and law enforcement agencies that have held him to account if he is elected to a second term in 2024. And his strength in the GOP means that Republicans who might challenge him for the nomination must fall into line.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for instance lashed out at “weaponized federal agencies” manufacturing a Russia collusion narrative. “It reminds us of the need to clean house at these agencies, as they’ve never been held accountable for this egregious abuse of power,” DeSantis wrote on Twitter.
FBI under pressure again over Trump investigations
Skeptics of the investigation have long pointed out that it was started by former Attorney General William Barr when he was under fierce pressure from the then-president to investigate those investigating his 2016 campaign. Some analysts said the fact Durham only managed to win one conviction related to the Russia investigation and reproduced criticisms of the FBI’s conduct from a previous inspector general’s report proved that the probe was an expensive waste of money set up to prove a false political theory.
Former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, who is now a senior CNN national security analyst, blasted the report Monday as a “political errand” to exact retribution against Trump’s enemies in the FBI.
Despite McCabe’s critique however, the findings of the Durham report are likely to make the FBI even more loath to launch investigations involving political campaigns during presidential elections. The bureau has already implemented multiple reforms to address conclusions of the prior inspector general’s report that found problems with applications for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Warrants.
The election that never ends
The Durham report also deepens the imbroglio caused by the 2016 election when the FBI was also accused of influencing the campaign to the detriment of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by publicly reopening a probe into her handling of classified emails days before Election Day. Now it stands accused by a special counsel of improperly investigating the Republican nominee as well. While Democrats might mistrust Durham’s motivations. They are urging on a current special counsel Jack Smith in the hope that he will indict Trump. Cherry-picking between special counsels is only likely to further hamper distrust in the rule of law and the Justice Department’s independence.
In another politically sensitive part of his report, Durham found that the FBI did not pursue allegations against Clinton with the same vigor with which they acted against Trump. Clinton’s supporters will however consider that charge as laughable, given that they blame then FBI Director James Comey for swinging the election against her with his public statements on her emails. At the same time, Americans had no idea that Trump was under investigation as well.
The lingering and toxic overhang of the 2016 election does not end there. That fateful presidential race is the trigger for another legal issue still causing political eruptions — the hush money payments made by Trump to adult film actress Stormy Daniels that resulted in him becoming the first ex-president ever to be indicted. The resulting charges over allegedly fraudulent book keeping have already ensured that the campaign for the 2024 election is embroiled in the turbulent first Trump presidential bid seven years ago.
Legal experts criticize Durham
While Republicans highlighted parts of Durham’s report that appeared to validate their own baked in conclusions about what it would say, some legal experts considered it deeply underwhelming.
“It’s a bit of a dud,” Ryan Goodman, an NYU School of Law professor, told CNN’s Erin Burnett, arguing that Durham’s contention that FBI agents had found countervailing evidence that they ignored to upgrade a preliminary probe into Trump into a full-scale investigation was questionable.
Elliot Williams, a CNN legal analyst, said that the report failed to live up to Trump’s accusations. In that Durham did not find “systemic abuses” that Trump partisans had hoped to see.
And McCabe, the FBI’s deputy director at the time of the Trump investigation, said he “vehemently” disagreed with the report and argued it represented a “deep misunderstanding” of what was known at the time. He pointed out that the Trump investigation was launched at a time when Russia was attacking Democratic National Committee servers and had used stolen information to attack Clinton. The investigation was only launched after the bureau received evidence from a friendly foreign government that the Trump campaign had been offered help by the Russians. He said that the FBI would have investigated Clinton under similar circumstances.
In fact, while Durham criticized the FBI for moving to a full scale investigation of Trump, he did state that the bureau did have reason to open a preliminary review. And while he criticized the fact that a full probe was instigated, the outcome of that investigation — which developed into Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe did not bring any criminal charges against Trump. Mueller declined to conclude that Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 campaign. He did however detail multiple links between Trump’s campaign and Russians and showed that several senior figures expected to benefit from any intervention in the election by Moscow. And while again laying no charges, Mueller detailed multiple instances of apparent obstruction of justice by Trump.
Democrats are also trying to extract legal capital from the report — specifically from the lack of bombshell accusations of new charges.
Democratic Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois criticized Durham for making “no meaningful recommendations on how the FBI can improve the application of its considerable surveillance authorities in its investigations,” that went beyond the inspector general’s report.
While conservatives criticized the Biden administration over what they claim are politically motivated Justice Department investigations, it was notable that Durham thanked Attorney General Merrick Garland for allowing his investigation to proceed without interference.
But all Trump needed from the report was a headline and a general narrative of suspicion against the FBI. He will do the rest.