One of the many intriguing—no, astounding—things about the Donald Trump era is the authority with which his backers speak about documents they have not read.
The latest example is the report submitted by Special Counsel John Durham. That report summarizes the findings of his four-year, multimillion-dollar examination of the origins of the FBI investigation into possible ties between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
Trump partisans insist Durham’s tome—it’s 316 pages long—“proves” the original investigation into the former president’s ties with Russia was baseless and politically motivated.
It does nothing of the sort.
I know—because I read it.
All of it.
Including the footnotes.
That’s how I know that Durham confesses at the beginning that he could not find what he was looking for. His charge from then Attorney General William Barr was to determine whether law enforcement and intelligence agencies violated the law while investigating the 2016 Trump campaign.
Durham initiated three criminal prosecutions as part of his investigation. Two ended in speedy acquittals. The third resulted in a conviction with no prison sentence attached.
Durham acknowledges early on that he couldn’t find much in the way of criminal wrongdoing. He writes that this is because not every ethical lapse or instance of bad judgment rises to the level of criminal conduct.
Nonetheless, he then devotes a fair amount of ink to justifying his prosecution of what proved to be weak cases. His rationale, summarized in laymen’s terms, is that because there was so much smoke, he felt obligated to look for a fire.
And, if he didn’t find one?
Well, he was just doing his duty by searching.
What’s interesting here is that Durham, who by all accounts is a smart guy, doesn’t realize the irony involved. The FBI officials who conducted the Trump-Russia investigation could use the same defense.
This is what fatally weakens Durham’s investigation and report—its determined obliviousness to context and contradiction.
Nowhere in Durham’s account is there any acknowledgement of the time pressures the FBI and other agencies were working under in those hectic final months of the 2016 campaign.
The Wikileaks revelations had touched off a panic about breaches in national security. The presidential campaign featured two candidates who each were distrusted by more than half the American public. The Russian government ruled by murderous autocrat Vladimir Putin had worked to interfere with and sway elections around the world.
When reports began to circulate that Putin was trying to aid one candidate to defeat the other—possibly with the compliance of the first candidate—what were FBI officials supposed to do?
Ignore the problem and hope that it might go away?
They had a duty to check it out.
Durham implicitly admits to this. His most concrete criticism of the FBI’s actions is that the bureau should have conducted a preliminary investigation before it launched a full one.
But the most troubling assertions about Trump-Russia ties surfaced about six weeks before the November election.
That didn’t leave a lot of time to waste on preliminary steps.
Such blindness characterizes the report.
Near the start, Durham says it’s not his intention to tell the Justice Department or the FBI how to operate. Then, much later, he devotes 17 pages to doing just that.
Durham’s investigation was designed to refute the one conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who studied the Trump-Russia ties in depth.
Trump Attorney General Barr rushed to claim Mueller’s work vindicated Trump—a claim the former president tried to amplify and Trump devotees seized upon.
Mueller’s report didn’t absolve Trump or his campaign.
Far from it.
(I know because I read that one, too.)
It demonstrated conclusively that, while the Trump campaign did not coordinate efforts with Russian agents, the Trump team often eagerly accepted help from Russian operatives—and then lied about the contacts afterward. Also, the only thing that spared Trump from likely indictment at the time was a Justice Department policy prohibiting indictments of sitting presidents.
Mueller’s investigation, unlike Durham’s, provided the groundwork for multiple successful prosecutions. The resulting convictions prompted Trump to go on a pardoning spree before he left office.
Those of us who have read both reports understand something important.
That is: Trump was neither as innocent as his supporters say he is or as guilty as his critics conclude he was.
That’s messy, I realize.
The truth often is.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected].