WASHINGTON (AP) – Former President Donald Trump once predicted that a special prosecutor appointed during his administration would uncover the “crime of the century” – a plot to sink his 2016 campaign.
Still, here are the results of a three-year investigation by U.S. Attorney John Durham: two acquittals — the latest on Tuesday — and a former FBI lawyer sentenced to probation.
That falls far short of Trump supporters’ expectations that Durham would uncover a “deep state” conspiracy behind the U.S. government’s investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The outcome led to a questioning of the purpose of Durham’s appointment by former Attorney General William Barr, who tasked him with uncovering misconduct in the Trump-Russia investigation. It also raised questions about whether or when the current attorney general, Merrick Garland, might move to rein in Durham’s work or hasten its completion.
“You really measure the success of an investigation by what it finds in terms of nefarious activity, and he found nothing,” said Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and a former senior Justice Department official.
There is no indication that Durham plans to charge anyone else in his investigation. It is expected to produce a report at some point, but it is unclear whether it will identify any significant wrongdoing or errors beyond those already reported by the Justice Department watchdog.
Barr gave Durham a broad mandate in 2019 to look for wrongdoing by the FBI or other agencies in the early days of their investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. At the time, Durham was a U.S. attorney in Connecticut with decades of experience at the Justice Department, including investigating CIA interrogations of terror suspects.
Trump supporters welcomed the appointment, and not just because of Durham’s bona fides.
The appointment came shortly after special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation concluded, which found significant contacts between Russians and Trump associates but did not allege criminal conspiracy between them. In December 2019, the Justice Department’s inspector general’s report concluded that the Russia investigation was opened for a legitimate reason, but identified numerous flaws in the way it was conducted — giving Trump and his supporters an avenue for attack and optimism over Durham.
But by the end of 2020, there were signs that Durham’s investigation was losing momentum.
One of his top prosecutors resigned without explanation from the Justice Department. Months later, Barr told The Wall Street Journal that he did not believe there was any improper activity during the CIA’s Russia investigation, even though suspicions in the intelligence community helped lead to Durham’s appointment.
The year ended with just one criminal case — a guilty plea by an FBI lawyer who admitted falsifying internal emails related to the surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser. Kevin Clinesmith was sentenced to probation, not prison. Notably, the case involved conduct uncovered in an earlier investigation by the inspector general, not Durham’s team.
Two more criminal cases, also of a narrow nature, faltered. After just a few hours of deliberation, a jury acquitted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, in May. He is accused of lying to the FBI during a meeting in which he told the bureau’s general counsel information about Trump that he thought should be investigated.
On Tuesday, a jury acquitted Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst at a U.S. think tank accused of lying to the FBI about his role in creating the widely discredited dossier — a collection of unproven allegations that sought to link Trump to Russia and was funded by Democrats. During the trial, he attacked the credibility of the FBI agents who were his witnesses.
Despite the lack of convictions, Durham still managed to shed an uncomfortable light on aspects of the Russia investigation. The Danchenko trial, for example, centered on the origins of the dossier, which helped form the basis for secret surveillance applications filed by the FBI to monitor the communications of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Even so, Page was one of a number of subjects investigated by the FBI, and the dossier did not trigger a Russia investigation. The allegations from Durham’s investigation also did not erase the core finding of Mueller’s investigation — that Russia wanted Trump elected and that Trump’s team welcomed the help — or influence jurors.
“While Durham essentially tried to put the FBI itself on trial through these prosecutions by pointing out missteps and mistakes in the early Trump-Russia investigation, the cases painted the FBI as more victim than perpetrator and evidence of any orchestrated scheme by FBI agents- and to direct the investigation for political purposes never materialized,” Robert Mintz, a New Jersey attorney and former federal prosecutor, wrote in an email.
The Justice Department declined to comment on Durham’s future, including how long his team might continue working or when it might report back. Weeks before he resigned, Barr appointed Durham as special counsel to ensure his investigation continued into the Biden administration.
A Durham spokesman declined to comment on criticism of the work.
Garland and senior Justice Department officials, perhaps careful to avoid the perception of meddling in such a politically charged investigation, took a hands-off approach to Durham’s work.
Before Sussmann was indicted, his lawyers approached senior department officials in hopes of preventing an indictment, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. But the Justice Department overruled the protest, allowing the case to proceed.
Now, however, the pressure is mounting not only on Durham to finish, but also on Garland, as attorney general, to push it.
“I think he was very wise to let it run its course,” Saltzburg said of Garland. “I believe the course has passed. It’s over. I believe what Merrick Garland should be saying to Durham is, it’s time to file your report and go home.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Barakat in Alexandria, Virginia contributed to this report.