John Durham’s latest, and presumably final, humiliation is the capstone of his failed attempt to prove a conspiracy theory that has long been accepted as settled fact in the conservative universe. This theory holds that, in 2016, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, or James Comey (or maybe all of them — the mastermind changes in different iterations) devised a plot to smear Donald Trump by ginning up an FBI investigation into his completely innocent and superficial connections to Russia. The purpose of the scheme was to paint Trump as a Russian stooge. Somehow, the plotters forgot to activate its key step: leaking the existence of the FBI probe before the election. In any event, the planned October surprise became a January surprise, hampering Trump’s presidency until Robert Mueller was eventually forced to admit there was no collusion, after which the damage had already been done.
The actual events of this period are clear. Trump began exhibiting a suspicious pattern of behavior in relation to Russia. He lavished its dictator with praise, surrounded himself with people who were sympathetic to and/or paid by Moscow, hinted at his own business deals with Russia but defied precedent by refusing to publish his tax returns, and appointed a man who had managed the presidential run of a Russian puppet in another country as his own campaign manager.
Many people were alarmed by these things and wanted to get to the bottom of them. It is true that the same people also did not want Trump to win the election, but it completely misapprehends their motives to assume that their only goal for investigating his deeply suspicious Russia connections was a desire to smear him. If anything, this rationale is backward: Trump’s ties to Russia made national security officials oppose him. What national security official would be happy about having a president who was in bed with, and creepily submissive to, one of the country’s biggest global enemies?
The Justice Department appointed an inspector general to investigate the FBI’s probe of Trump’s ties to Russia and found that, despite some low-level mistakes, the probe had been adequately predicated. There was no evidence it was directed by Trump’s enemies, undertaken for political reasons, or fundamentally improper in conception.
But Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr refused to accept these findings and instead appointed a special counsel, John Durham, who would be tasked with confirming their conspiracy theory. Durham failed to uncover any conspiracy because it did not exist. He tried to charge Michael Sussmann with lying to the FBI, only for Sussmann to be acquitted. Durham then tried to charge Igor Danchenko with lying to the FBI, only for the jury to acquit him as well. The charges failed because, contrary to Durham’s insinuations, neither man was acting in bad faith. They were both trying, sometimes in a bumbling, Burn After Reading fashion, to pass on to the FBI what they thought they knew about a murky but genuinely unnerving situation.
Some reasons they had to suspect Trump’s relations with Russia turned out to be false. The Steele dossier was a shoddy collection of gossip that many of us considered plausible, if unproven. But that dossier wasn’t the basis for the FBI investigation of Trump, nor was it the basis for the suspicions held by the national security community. Those suspicions existed long before Steele’s gossip became public.
The combination of facts uncovered by the news media and Mueller did not debunk the concerns about Trump’s ties to Russia but instead substantiated them. The most damning single fact Mueller proved was that Moscow had dangled a deal worth several hundred million dollars during the campaign, making Trump vulnerable to both Russian bribery and blackmail (the latter because he was publicly denying any dealings with Russia at the time). But many other surrounding facts supported the pattern: from Trump asking for and then exploiting the Russian hack of Democratic emails to his constant repetition of even the most esoteric pieces of Russian propaganda.
If the national security community’s suspicions about Trump seemed far-fetched, like something out of a spy film, it is because Americans don’t pay close attention to Russia’s efforts to corrupt other governments. In Europe, scandals involving high-level officials bribed or blackmailed by Russian intelligence are routine. Just Tuesday, Germany suspended the head of its cybersecurity agency over alleged links to Russian intelligence.
Another reason Trump has succeeded in making his conspiracy theory sound plausible is that conservative media have devoted astonishing levels of energy to disseminating it. After the Mueller Report, with its tightly circumscribed methods and deliberately obtuse language, Trump’s critics mostly abandoned the issue, while his supporters were just getting started. The right-wing media have been filled with screeds about Russiagate and hopeful predictions that Durham would blow the whole thing open. It is as if Democrats continued to talk about the Starr report constantly in the early aughts. Barr, who frequently teased the public with predictions of dark crimes to be uncovered, fanned the flames of expectation for Durham.
I have little doubt that most Republicans actually do believe the conspiracy theory. They reside within an information bubble that excludes all evidence of Trump’s culpability and recirculates endless insinuations of a deep-state witch hunt. They have already pivoted to arguing that the only problem for Durham is that juries and reporters are biased and that the real truth is out there.
They will keep going and going because their culture treats frank internal examination on any subject as heresy. But to the outside world, Durham’s total failure is conclusive. It is why I argued all along that his appointment was a good thing: It would prove the Republican Party’s conspiracy theory was a fever dream. And so it has.