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After four years on the job, special counsel John Durham has released a 300-page report on how the Department of Justice (DOJ) handled the investigation of Donald Trump’s ties to Russia ahead of the 2016 election. And it is all MAGA Republicans wanted it to be… not in that it reveals the “crime of the century,” as Trump has claimed, but rather in that it is obscure enough to provide them with ample ammunition to claim that DOJ conspired against the former president.
You can read the report on the DOJ’S website. It is unlikely that many politicians and pundits thoroughly went through the document before they rushed to offer breathless takes on social media and TV. If they had, they would have quickly figured out that the report did not, in fact, reveal the “crime of the century.”
Though clearly politically motivated, even Durham, who was appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr, couldn’t escape the conclusion that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) should have looked into an initial report that Russia had approached the Trump campaign with vague offers of providing harmful material on Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
It says so right on Page 295, where Durham merely states that, based on the information it received, the FBI should not have opened a full-fledged investigation right away.
“Under the FBI’s guidelines, the investigation could have been opened more appropriately as an assessment or preliminary investigation,” Durham writes. “FBI investigations opened as preliminary investigations, short of full investigations, include time limits and a narrower range of authorized techniques to mitigate risk and avoid unnecessary intrusion.”
As is Durham’s sole suggestion to prevent FBI overreach in the future.
“One possible way to provide additional scrutiny of politically sensitive investigations would be to identify, in advance, an official who is responsible for challenging the steps taken in the investigation,” Durham writes.
Of course, Trump himself encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s email, which promptly happened, and it was later revealed that Donald Trump, Jr. was eager to get a meeting with Russian operatives to receive dirt on Clinton, so it seems reasonable that an investigation was warranted.
In the case of such a high-profile probe, it is appropriate that the DOJ’s actions are scrutinized to make sure that it acted in accordance with the law and to come up with ways to improve in the future. That investigation, however, had already been conducted. In 2019, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report that strongly criticized the FBI’s handling of the case and offered recommendations on how the bureau could improve going forward.
The FBI alluded to them in its response to the Durham report.
“The conduct in 2016 and 2017 that Special Counsel Durham examined was the reason that current FBI leadership already implemented dozens of corrective actions, which have now been in place for some time,” the FBI said in a statement. “Had those reforms been in place in 2016, the missteps identified in the report could have been prevented. This report reinforces the importance of ensuring the FBI continues to do its work with the rigor, objectivity, and professionalism the American people deserve and rightly expect.”
The Horowitz report did not conclude, however, that Trump was the victim of a political conspiracy.
Durham to the Rescue
That, essentially, was Durham’s job, and he tried. And failed.
His investigation resulted in two criminal cases that went to trial, and Durham lost both of them. He did secure a guilty plea from a former FBI lawyer who admitted to altering a document.
All of this is to say that, in looking at the Durham report, a careful understanding of what was in the document and nuanced takes were required.
However, the talking heads who are expected to offer quick takes on the big stories of the day don’t do nuance.
Neither do Trump and his supporters.
And that is why many in the media overstated the importance of Durham’s findings while MAGA world downright distorted it.
The best example of the former was probably CNN host Jake Tapper calling the report “devastating” for the FBI and saying that, it exonerates Trump “to a degree.”
In terms of the latter, prominent Republicans were falling all over themselves to spin the report as evidence of a weaponization of the DOJ (which was not found), demanding the criminal prosecution of government officials (which Durham already attempted), and demanding that the FBI is defunded or even dismantled.
This weaponization of the DOJ against a duly elected President is unprecedented and outright scary.
We live in a free country, not a communist dictatorship.
Those involved in this political witch hunt have a lot of explaining to do.https://t.co/FYFLTTWroy
— Rick Scott (@ScottforFlorida) May 15, 2023
And Trump, of course, also had plenty to say.
“I, and much more importantly, the American public, have been victims of this long-running and treasonous charade started by the Democrats — started by [former FBI Director James] Comey,” the former president said in an interview with Fox News Digital. “There must be a heavy price to pay for putting our country through this.”
A Dual Win for Trump
But Trump not only got to gloat and falsely claim vindication, his rivals for the Republican nomination also had to fall in line.
“The Durham Report confirmed what we already knew: weaponized federal agencies manufactured a false conspiracy theory about Trump-Russia collusion,” tweeted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). “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.”
And Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina, wrote: “The Durham report is damning evidence of the rot in our government. No party, no politician should weaponize government to go after political opponents. There must be consequences or this will never end.”
And therefore, in the end, Durham did his job.