John Durham is a US attorney who was elevated to a demigod in the Trumpian mythos. First in a preliminary review of the Russia investigation and then as a special counsel with the full independence to act, Durham would cause the “deep state” lies to crumble. “Russiagate” would be shown as the plot against Donald Trump that it truly was. All would be revealed, leaving Trump proven innocent, former special counsel Robert Mueller exposed as a fraud and Democrats like Hillary Clinton behind bars.
That, my friends, is not what happened.
In the two years since then-Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham as special counsel, Durham has produced nothing of the sort. It now appears that his investigation is ending with a whimper. There will be no major bombshell court filings or high-profile trials. Instead, we will soon have the chance to fully weigh Durham’s work against Mueller’s and see who had the right of it all along. (Not that the answer is at all in doubt.)
There will be no major bombshell court filings or high-profile trials.
The New York Times reported Wednesday that the grand jury Durham convened to hear evidence has expired and that he has no plans to call another. For all the time and energy that have gone into his investigation of the Russia investigation, there is precious little to show for it.
The grand jury convened handed up only three indictments, one of which ended in a plea deal and one of which goes to trial next month. The indictment that Trumpworld hyped the most, a charge of lying to the FBI against former Hillary Clinton-allied lawyer Michael Sussman, collapsed at trial — hard. In June, a jury acquitted Sussman, leaving Durham empty-handed. None of the indictments came close to accusing anyone in the upper echelons of power as many MAGA diehards, including Trump, had predicted.
In a way, I can imagine that Mueller himself would sympathize with the position Durham has found himself in. Mueller over the course of his investigation was cast as a Hero of the Republic in (increasingly absurd) liberal memes, the man who would show that Trump was taking orders directly from Russian President Vladimir Putin and topple the tyrant like a modern-day paladin.
Mueller’s efforts led to the indictment and prosecution of numerous members of Trump’s inner circle, including former campaign chief Paul Manafort and adviser Roger Stone, and the Mueller report itself was extremely dire. But for all that, it found no direct evidence of crimes in the Trump campaign’s willingness to work with Russia.
I can imagine that Mueller himself would sympathize with the position Durham has found himself in.
It listed at least 10 instances of likely obstruction of justice by Trump over the course of the investigation, but that didn’t lead to any charges against him, as Mueller clung to the Justice Department’s guidance against criminally charging a sitting president. Mueller’s testimony to Congress was dry and impenetrable, and the sniping between Democrats and Republicans overshadowed the subtle pleas for impeachment he’d included in his report. The stark contrast between the liberal fantasies and reality left Trump feeling triumphant enough to ask in favor of Ukraine’s president, ironically setting the stage for his first impeachment.
But there lies the difference between the two men’s difficulties. Mueller had the evidence to support obstruction charges against Trump but felt unable to bring his case to court. In going after people who aren’t sitting presidents, Durham didn’t face the situation that bound Mueller’s hands — but he clearly doesn’t have the goods.
Over the next three months, Durham will have the chance to rewrite history as his team drafts its final report. He has already proven effective at shoehorning irrelevant spin into his writing, as we saw in the Sussman indictment, as he tried to squeeze in suggestions that the Clinton campaign had set up the Russia investigation in 2016.
Attorney General Merrick Garland will have the final say on whether Durham’s report ever sees the light of day. In my opinion, he should get it out there as soon as possible, to avoid any new conspiracy theories about what might be in its pages that they don’t want Americans to see. In the end, though, any allegations Durham puts into his draft will be allegations that failed to persuade a grand jury or a court. If there were even a chance that they did persuade one or both, we would have been reading about it in legal filings, not an after-action report from a demigod brought down to Earth.