Durham Inquiry Appears to Wind Down as Grand Jury Expires

·6 min read
John Durham, special counsel assigned by the Trump administration to examine the origins of the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign's ties to Russia, in Washington on May 17, 2022. (Samuel Corum/The New York Times)
John Durham, special counsel assigned by the Trump administration to examine the origins of the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign's ties to Russia, in Washington on May 17, 2022. (Samuel Corum/The New York Times)

WASHINGTON — When John Durham was assigned by the Justice Department in 2019 to examine the origins of the investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, President Donald Trump and his supporters expressed a belief that the inquiry would prove that a “deep state” conspiracy including top Obama-era officials had worked to sabotage him.

Now Durham appears to be winding down his three-year inquiry without anything close to the results Trump was seeking. The grand jury that Durham has recently used to hear evidence has expired, and while he could convene another, there are currently no plans to do so, three people familiar with the matter said.

Durham and his team are working to complete a final report by the end of the year, they said, and one of the lead prosecutors on his team is leaving for a job with a prominent law firm.

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Over the course of his inquiry, Durham has developed cases against two people accused of lying to the FBI in relation to outside efforts to investigate purported Trump-Russia ties, but he has not charged any conspiracy or put any high-level officials on trial. The recent developments suggest that the chances of any more indictments are remote.

After Durham’s team completes its report, it will be up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether to make its findings public. The report will be Durham’s opportunity to present any evidence or conclusions that challenge the Justice Department’s basis for opening the investigation in 2016 into the links between Trump and Russia.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

Durham and his team used a grand jury in Washington to indict Michael Sussmann, a prominent cybersecurity lawyer with ties to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign. Sussmann was indicted last year on a charge of making a false statement to the FBI at a meeting in which he shared a tip about potential connections between computers associated with Trump and a Kremlin-linked Russian bank.

Sussmann was acquitted of that charge at trial in May.

A grand jury based in the Eastern District of Virginia last year indicted a Russia analyst who had worked with Christopher Steele, a former British spy who was the author of a dossier of rumors and unproven assertions about Trump. The dossier played no role in the FBI’s decision to begin examining the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. It was used in an application to obtain a warrant to surveil a Trump campaign associate.

The analyst, Igor Danchenko, who is accused of lying to federal investigators, goes on trial next month in Alexandria, Virginia.

In the third case, Durham’s team negotiated a plea deal with an FBI lawyer whom an inspector general had accused of doctoring an email used in preparation for a wiretap renewal application. The plea deal resulted in no prison time.

Trump and his allies have long hoped that Durham would prosecute former FBI and intelligence officials responsible for the Russia investigation, known as Crossfire Hurricane. Trump has described the investigation as a witch hunt and accused the FBI of spying on his presidential campaign.

Last month, in the days after the FBI obtained a search warrant to seize boxes of classified and other government documents he was keeping at his resort in Florida, Trump used social media to amplify the unsubstantiated idea that Durham had uncovered a vast political conspiracy by the Obama administration and the intelligence community to damage him.

At the same time, the former president seemed to acknowledge a lowering of expectations, from indictments to a report.

“The public is waiting ‘with bated breath’ for the Durham Report, which should reveal corruption at a level never seen before in our country,” Trump wrote.

In May 2019, Durham was selected by the attorney general at the time, William Barr, to review the origins of Crossfire Hurricane, an investigation that was eventually completed by Robert Mueller, the special counsel appointed to oversee it. The Mueller report scrutinized numerous links between Trump campaign associates and Russia, but did not find a criminal conspiracy.

Durham’s review eventually evolved into a criminal investigation, allowing him to issue grand jury subpoenas to gather documents and interview witnesses. Shortly before the 2020 election, Barr made him a special counsel, permitting him to stay in place even after Trump left office.

Garland has met with the Durham team a handful of times, and a top official in the deputy attorney general’s office regularly checks in with Durham on the investigation’s progress.

Early this year, Justice Department leadership asked Durham to issue a report on his findings in May. That timing slipped, and now Durham is aiming to submit his report to Garland after the election, the people familiar with the matter said.

The assignment Barr gave to Durham faced difficulties from the beginning.

To begin with, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz, was already conducting an exhaustive review of Crossfire Hurricane.

In late 2019, Horowitz delivered a report that uncovered significant problems with the FBI’s applications for wiretap orders targeting Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser with numerous ties to Russia. But it also concluded that the investigation as a whole had a proper legal basis, and that there was no evidence that “political bias or improper motivation” had led the FBI to open it.

Durham issued an unusual public statement saying without explanation that he disagreed with the inspector general report’s conclusion that Crossfire Hurricane had been properly opened. Horowitz later told Congress that Durham had told him he thought it should have been opened as a “preliminary” investigation rather than a “full” one.

Horowitz’s investigation also discovered an FBI lawyer’s doctoring of the email used in preparation for a wiretap renewal application. He referred the matter for prosecution, and Durham’s team negotiated the resulting plea deal.

In an initial period, Durham seemed to be searching for signs of political bias among the FBI officials Horowitz had already scrutinized and hunting for wrongdoing among intelligence agencies outside Horowitz’s jurisdiction. But those efforts did not result in charges.

In 2020, a top prosecutor and longtime confidant of Durham at the U.S. attorney’s office in Connecticut abruptly quit the team.

Although the charges Durham brought against both Sussmann and Danchenko last fall were narrow, Durham used the indictments to argue that the FBI was deliberately ignoring information that cut against the idea that Trump and his associates had improperly worked with Russia.

Durham’s team argued in court that Clinton campaign associates had misled people into thinking that Trump or his campaign associates had colluded with Russia, although it did not charge such a conspiracy. Durham accused Danchenko of lying to the FBI in ways that made the Steele dossier seem more credible than it was.

Horowitz’s report, however, showed that the FBI had not opened the Russia investigation on the basis of the Steele dossier — contrary to claims by Trump’s supporters.

The coming trial of Danchenko will give Durham another opportunity to scrutinize aspects of the FBI’s Russia investigation.

Andrew DeFilippis, a prosecutor who played a key role in the Sussmann case, has notified the court that he will not take part in the trial of Danchenko. DeFilippis has told colleagues that he is leaving for a job at the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell.

Reached at his desk at the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan last week, DeFilippis declined to comment.

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