Trump’s ‘Crime of the Century’ Promise Fails in the End
In Washington During his time in office, former President Donald Trump promised that a special prosecutor would unearth “the crime of the century” – a plot to derail his 2016 campaign.
But here are the outcomes of the three-year investigation by prosecutor John Durham: two trial acquittals, the most recent of which was on Tuesday, and a former FBI lawyer who was given a probationary sentence.
That has gone well short of what Trump supporters had hoped Durham would uncover about a “deep state” conspiracy guiding the American government’s inquiry into connections between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The result has raised questions about Durham’s nomination by former Attorney General William Barr, who gave him the job of looking for misbehavior in the Trump-Russia investigation. It has also sparked speculation about whether or when the current attorney general, Merrick Garland, may take action to slow down or expedite Durham’s work.
Stephen Saltzburg, a law professor at George Washington University and a former top Justice Department official, said: “You really judge the success of an inquiry by what it reveals in terms of pernicious action, and he’s revealed nothing.”
There are no indications that Durham intends to file charges against further individuals. He is supposed to write a report at some point, but it’s not obvious if he will find any substantial wrongdoing or mistakes beyond what the Justice Department’s watchdog has already found.
In the early stages of their investigation into any cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia, Barr gave Durham a broad scope in 2019 to look into misconduct by the FBI or other agencies. Durham was the U.S. attorney for Connecticut at the time, and he had extensive Justice Department expertise, including looking into CIA interrogations of potential terrorists.
Not simply because of Durham’s credentials, but also because of the appointment, Trump fans applauded.
The nomination came soon after special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, which discovered significant interactions between Russians and Trump aides but did not assert a criminal conspiracy between them.
Despite finding that the Russia investigation was launched on a legal basis, a Justice Department inspector general report released in December 2019 found significant flaws in the way it was handled, allowing Trump and his allies ammunition to criticize Durham.
But by the end of 2020, Durham’s inquiry appeared to be losing steam.
His chief prosecutor left the Justice Department without providing an explanation. Despite the fact that doubts about the intelligence community had contributed to Durham’s selection in the first place, Barr stated to The Wall Street Journal some months later that he did not think there had been illegal behavior during the CIA’s Russia probe.
Only one criminal case was resolved before the year came to an end: an FBI lawyer who admitted to tampering with an internal email in connection with the surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser entered a guilty plea. Kevin Clinesmith was sentenced to probation, rather than prison. Notably, Durham’s staff was not involved in this matter; rather, the conduct in question was discovered by the inspector general during a previous investigation.
Two other criminal prosecutions that were similarly specific failed. A jury in May exonerated Michael Sussmann, a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, after only a brief period of deliberation. In a meeting where he gave the FBI’s senior lawyer information about Trump that he believed warranted further investigation, he was accused of lying to the agency.
Igor Danchenko, a Russian analyst at a U.S. think tank, was found not guilty by a jury on Tuesday after being charged with lying to the FBI about his involvement in the production of the widely debunked Trump-Russia dossier, which was funded by Democrats and aimed to link Trump to Russia. He questioned the reliability of FBI agents who testified against him during the trial.
Durham has succeeded in casting a negative light on elements of the Russia probe despite the lack of convictions. For instance, the Danchenko trial focused on the dossier’s beginnings, which served as the foundation for the FBI’s covert surveillance applications to track the conversations of Carter Page, an ex-Trump campaign adviser.
Even so, the FBI looked into many different threads, including Page, and the dossier did not start the investigation into Russian interference. In addition, neither the Mueller investigation’s main finding — that Russia wanted Trump elected and that Trump’s campaign welcomed the assistance — nor the jury’s verdict have been altered by the claims from Durham’s investigation.
The cases painted the FBI as more victim than perpetrator and evidence of any orchestrated scheme by FBI agents to steer the investigation for political purposes never materialized, according to Robert Mintz, a New Jersey attorney, and former federal prosecutor.
“While Durham effectively tried to put the FBI itself on trial through these prosecutions by pointing to mistakes and errors in the early Trump-Russia probe,” Mintz wrote in an email.
Regarding Durham’s future, including how long his team might work or when he might provide a report, the Justice Department declined to say. Barr named Durham as a special counsel weeks before he announced his resignation to make sure his inquiry would go on through the Biden administration.
Durham’s spokeswoman failed to respond to criticism of the project.
Garland and senior Justice Department officials have maintained a hands-off attitude to Durham’s work, maybe cautious to avoid the perception of interfering in such a politically heated probe.
According to a person with knowledge of the situation who insisted on anonymity to discuss private talks, Sussmann’s counsel made an appeal to senior department officials prior to the indictment in an effort to avoid a charge. However, the Justice Department rejected the objection and allowed the lawsuit to go forward.
However, there is now increased pressure on Garland, who is the attorney general, to encourage Durham to finish.
Garland, according to Saltzburg, “was quite prudent to let this run its course.” “I think the course has been completed. It is done. I think Merrick Garland ought to tell Durham to turn in his report and head home.