Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Durham investigation ends not with a bang but with a whimper

 John Durham started his special counsel investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia allegations in 2019. Prior to the 2020 elections, Donald Trump and many of his allies seemed to expect an October surprise from Durham that would salvage Trump’s flagging campaign. Instead, Durham finally released his report this week, more than two years past the election.

Duraham’s investigation was based on the allegation that the FBI improperly investigated the Trump campaign and had engaged in illegal spying. At one point, the tinfoil hat crowd and QAnon adherents believed that Durham was part of the “Storm” that would sweep Trump’s opponents from Washington and usher in the millennial reign. Or something like that.

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Instead, Durham only brought charges against three individuals and his final report criticizes the FBI but won’t cause any heads to roll. The one conviction netted by the report was FBI lawyer - not agent - Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted to doctoring an email that was used to support a FISA application for Carter Page, a campaign advisor to Donald Trump in 2016.

Two other indictments resulted in acquittals. Michael Sussman, a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and Igor Danchenko, a private intelligence analyst who provided much of the Steele dossier, were both found not guilty of lying to the FBI.

The full Durham report, snappily titled, “Report on Matters Related to Intelligence Activities and Investigations Arising Out of the 2016 Presidential Campaigns,” is available on the Department of Justice website.

The report does criticize the FBI, but the criticism is based more on the agency’s acting on confirmation bias than on illegal activities. Durham found that the “speed and manner in which the FBI opened and investigated Crossfire Hurricane during the presidential election season based on raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence also reflected a noticeable departure from how it approached prior matters involving possible attempted foreign election interference plans aimed at the Clinton campaign.”

The report states that the “Department [of Justice] and the FBI failed to uphold their important mission of strict fidelity to the law in connection with certain events and activities” pertaining to the investigation of Trump campaign members.

It also points out that “senior FBI personnel displayed a serious lack of analytical rigor towards the information that they received, especially information received from politically affiliated persons and entities.”

“The Department did not adequately examine or question these materials and the motivations of those providing them, even when at about the same time the Director of the FBI and others learned of significant and potentially contrary intelligence,” the report continues. The investigation cited a “lack of analytical rigor, apparent confirmation bias, and an over-willingness to rely on information from individuals connected to political opponents” that led to a lack of objectivity on the part of investigators.

In a Truth Social post, Donald Trump responded, saying, “WOW! After extensive research, Special Counsel John Durham concludes the FBI never should have launched the Trump-Russia Probe! In other words, the American Public was scammed, just as it is being scammed right now by those who don’t want to see GREATNESS for AMERICA!”

Durham says that there should have been an attempt to find better intelligence, but he stops far short of Trump’s claims. The report “does not recommend any wholesale changes in the guidelines and policies that the Department and the FBI now have in place to ensure proper conduct and accountability in how counterintelligence activities are carried out.”

Durham also faults the FBI for rationalizing away contradictory information, ignoring some exculpatory information, and failing to pursue investigations into leads that were not in line with the prevailing theories of the case. This is indicative of confirmation bias and groupthink. It’s bad police work but not illegal, and it is not necessarily an intentional targeting.

I do like a suggestion made at the end of the report to create a position for a “nonpartisan FBI agent or lawyer” to play devil’s advocate in challenging partisan investigations and FISA requests. This might solve the problem of overzealous investigations but not necessarily that of letting politicians get away with metaphorical or literal murder. We shouldn’t give politicians a free pass if there is evidence of wrongdoing, but we also shouldn’t allow partisans in government to investigate them without adequate cause, whether intentionally or not.

Trump partisans will seize on the criticism of the FBI and claim that The Former Guy was right again and that yesterday’s conspiracy theory is tomorrow’s headline, but this is only partly correct. Frequently, Trump’s supporters seem to forget what he actually said by the time all the investigations are done and he is not going to remind them of the stuff that he missed the mark on.

So yes, there is evidence that the FBI investigators gave more credence to opposition research from the Clinton campaign than they should have, but that wasn’t the gist of Trump’s claims. Among other things, Trump claimed that “Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” and that “DOJ put a spy in the Trump campaign.

Trump promised a scandal that would shake the government to its foundation, but evidence for these claims never materialized and that has not changed with the Durham report. As I’ve pointed out several times in the past (in 20172019, and 2022), there was no federal spying on the Trump campaign. Instead, there was surveillance of former members of the Trump campaign such as Paul Manafort and Carter Page after they left the campaign. Page seems to have been innocent, but Manafort went to federal prison.

The report is not nothing for the FBI. It’s a black eye and a blow to the agency’s reputation, but it falls far short of the sensational claims made by Trump and his cohorts over the years. Evidence for Team Trump’s claims is as thin as the original evidence for the Trump-Russia claims.

The flip side is that former FBI agent Peter Strzok tweeted a list of Trump associates that have been convicted, and then asked, “Point me to the confirmation bias here?”

The problem with Strzok’s interpretation of events is that two of the convictions he cites, Mike Flynn, and George Papadopoulos, were for lying to federal agents, crimes that wouldn’t have been committed without the investigation. Manafort, Rick Gates, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen were undoubtedly dirty but were never convicted on charges related to conspiring with Russia to fix the election.

The Daily Wire reports that Strzok said early in the investigation, “There’s nothing to this, but we have to run it to the ground.”

Given the stakes, that’s an attitude that I approve of.

As with many incidents during the Trump era, it seems that neither side is entirely clean, but that the breathless sky-is-falling pronouncements of The Former Guy fall way short. The FBI wasn’t corrupt, but it also wasn’t blameless. There was also plenty of corruption to go around in the Trump campaign.

When presented with allegations that Trump had conspired with Russia, it would have been inappropriate to do nothing, but Durham makes the point that immediately revving up a full investigation was also inappropriate. A better solution would have been to vet the sources of the original claims and check the information being passed along.

I’ve said before that public officials need to avoid the appearance of impropriety. The actions of some agents didn’t rise to the point of being illegal, but they were improper and damaged the agency.

The people involved in Crossfire Hurricane seem to have mostly left the agency in the intervening years. That is appropriate.

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CONGRESSMAN’S OFFICE ATTACKED: The Fairfax, Va. office of Democrat Rep. Gerry Connally was attacked by a man wielding a baseball bat. Two staffers were injured by 49-year-old Xuan Kha Tran Pham. Capital Police did not release a motive for the attack, but CNN reports that family members said Xuan was schizophrenic.

GIULIANI LAWSUIT: A former employee is suing Rudy Giuliani, alleging sexual harassment and a scheme to sell pardons from Trump. The details are somewhat stomach-turning.

NEW MEXICO MASS SHOOTING: A teenage shooter killed three people and wounded two police officers in Farmington before being killed by police. The shooter reportdly used three weapons including “an AR-style rifle.” No information on motive was released.

BACK TO BAKHMUT: Just a few months ago, pro-Russia pundits were pointing to the imminent fall of Bakhmut as evidence that Russia was turning things around in Ukraine. Fast-forward to the present and Ukraine is not only still in possession of Bakhmut but making gains. It isn’t clear if this is part of Ukraine’s long-awaited spring offensive, but Russian government troops were reported to be fleeing and the head of the private Wagner group allegedly offered to sell out Russian forces if Ukraine would pull back from positions where Wagner mercenaries were taking heavy losses.

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