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Special counsel John Durham this week issued his final report after a four-year review of the FBI's decision to investigate the 2016 Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia, concluding that the agency's basis for launching the inquiry was "seriously flawed." Durham said the FBI relied on "raw, unanalyzed and uncorroborated intelligence" when it applied for electronic surveillance search warrants against Trump campaign aides, and rushed into a politically explosive inquiry based on flimsy suspicions that Trump colluded with Moscow to boost his chances in the 2016 presidential election. Durham said FBI agents dismissed "information that ran counter to the narrative of a Trump/Russia collusive relationship."
But the report lacked major new revelations about the Russia investigation — known as "Crossfire Hurricane" — that the FBI opened after an Australian diplomat reported that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had boasted to him that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton, who was Trump's Democratic opponent. Durham made no new charges, wrapping up his work with a mixed and limited record: One guilty plea from a little-known FBI employee, and losses in the only two criminal cases prosecutors took to trial.
Then-President Donald Trump, whose attorney general William Barr appointed Durham, had predicted Durham would uncover the "crime of the century." Trump's allies, too, had expected Durham to find proof of wrongdoing by intelligence and law enforcement officials. Did Durham deliver evidence that the FBI's investigation of Trump was partisan, or was Durham's investigation itself a politically motivated attempt to clean up Trump's reputation?
'A partisan FBI'
Durham "makes clear that a partisan FBI became a funnel for disinformation from the Hillary Clinton campaign through a secret investigation the bureau never should have launched," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "The pretext for the probe — a random conversation between unpaid Trump adviser George Papadopoulos and an Australian diplomat — was so flimsy that FBI agents complained it was 'thin' and British intelligence was incredulous." The report shows that many factors led the FBI astray, from the "bias" of investigators like former agent Peter Strzok to the agency's "willful" disregarding of indications that Clinton's campaign was using it to spread lies about Trump, like the ones in the shady Steele dossier. It will take years to "undo the damage" of the Russia collusion hoax, "but the Durham accounting is a start."
Trump's "fantasies of Durham prosecuting and locking up a coterie of deep state agents who orchestrated the 'crime of the century' against him are just that — fantasies — but the civil liberties problems inside the FBI are very real," said C.J. Ciaramella at Reason. Durham's investigation "highlighted serious deficiencies" with the FBI's "sloppy" warrant applications before the "highly secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is supposed to provide oversight of surveillance activities by U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies." Other reports, including a 2019 "bombshell" from the Justice Department Office of Inspector General, have corroborated Durham's finding that the FBI botched applications to "a court with no outside review or oversight," and that should be "alarming" to us all.
All smoke and no fire
"Rarely has a government report taken so long — in years and pages — to tell the public so little," said the Los Angeles Times in an editorial. The nation waited four years for Durham to uncover what Trump promised was a criminal conspiracy to derail his campaign, and the best Durham could produce was "a ponderous, 316-page tome that interminably chews over information that has long been in the public record." Anyone who "has the time and patience to wade through the report" will only find a few familiar, petty complaints about FBI procedure. But "Durham's mission was always questionable. After the FBI received a tip from an Australian diplomat that the Trump campaign had advance knowledge of the Russia-linked hacking of Democratic Party emails, the bureau had no responsible choice but to investigate the matter."
Durham's report shined a light on a troubling investigation all right — his own, said Charlie Savage in The New York Times. There were "real world flaws" in the Russia investigation, but the Justice Department watchdog, Michael E. Horowitz, had already gone over those in detail. Barr appointed Durham to find something more — a smoking gun proving Donald Trump's baseless claim there was a "deep-state" conspiracy to take him down. Barr set up Durham to fail, and he did, ultimately settling for scolding the FBI when he uncovered no crimes, and complaining of "confirmation bias" because he couldn't uncover political bias. Durham's report did reveal one problem that must be addressed. This country needs to find a way to "shield sensitive law enforcement investigations from politics without creating prosecutors who can run amok, never to be held to account."