Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images
the national interest

The Durham Probe Was Barr’s Witch Hunt

A shockingly unethical and failed crusade to vindicate Trump.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Getty Images

There is an enduring pattern in American conservatism in which the right first develops a paranoid interpretation of the liberal Establishment, and then reverse engineers its own version of the monster it has imagined. Conservatives convinced themselves that the mainstream media and universities were mere propaganda organs, then created institutions like the Heritage Foundation and Fox News, warped reflections of their own overheated critique. The January 6 insurrection was, of course, in the mind of its participants, a “response” to the imagined vote-fraud conspiracy and its antifa/BLM shock troops.

John Durham’s investigation is a classic episode in this tradition. The American right first convinced itself that Robert Mueller and the deep state, using the cover of dispassionate professionalism, had launched a partisan witch hunt to smear Donald Trump. In response, it created a right-wing mirror image, as fervently partisan and unhinged as they believed their enemies to be.

The New York Times has a deeply reported narrative showing how Durham’s counter-investigation of the Russia probe, cooked up by William Barr at Donald Trump’s urging, was just as abusive, partisan, and unhinged as Trump’s defenders made Mueller out to be.

The purpose of special counsel is to wall off a politically sensitive investigation from the attorney general. But Durham, reports the Times, was working closely with Barr behind closed doors all along. The two Republicans dined and drank together, and came to share Barr’s Fox News–brained beliefs that Trump had been the victim of a conspiracy.

Rather than preventing Barr from meddling in a politicized investigation, this arrangement inverted that purpose and laundered Barr’s involvement through Durham’s putative independence. “At some point, some particularly ill-informed critic of the administration may try to paint Durham as a right-wing hack or Republican loyalist,” wrote National Review’s Jim Geraghty in a fawning profile, singling out the NAACP’s Sherrilyn Ifill for having the temerity to suggest Durham might have been compromised by serving Trump’s ends.

Durham and Barr kept failing to prove the deep-state conspiracy they imagined, but continued to press forward anyway. At one point they seized upon hacked Russian memos that intelligence analysts deemed obviously fake, instead treating them as a valuable intelligence trove, and tried to prove it out, even harassing one of the targets to obtain his emails (which contained nothing incriminating). It weirdly reflected the Trumpist accusation that Robert Mueller had been tricked into pursuing Russian disinformation.

As Durham kept failing to find support for the conspiracy he was pursuing, and which Barr kept floating in public, his deputies chafed at his obsession. Eventually, one of them resigned in protest when he brought charges against Michael Sussmann, a target of the right. As his former lieutenants expected, Durham’s case was defeated in court.

The weirdest episode of all uncovered by the Times centers around a tip Durham received during a trip he took with Barr — again, colluding with the figure he was supposed to be independent from — to Italy, in pursuit of one of Barr’s conspiracy theories. On the visit, Italian officials supplied credible evidence of a financial crime by Donald Trump. This, of course, was not only outside Durham’s remit, but directly undermined it. He was trying to lock up Mr. Trump’s enemies, not Mr. Trump himself.

Barr responded by handing the lead over to Durham. (What happened to the lead remains a fascinating dangling thread.) But the fact that there was now real evidence of an actual crime made its way into the media. And the media assumed the crime must have been committed by the people Durham was appointed to investigate. And so the media reported this fact as an indication Durham was going to bring criminal charges against the deep state.

The conservative media breathlessly hyped up Durham’s probe, treating every claim by Barr and every accusation by Durham as though it were proof. “These last two DOJ indictments — first of Hillary’s lawyer, then of Christopher Steele’s main source — show that the Clinton campaign funded and fed to the FBI a gigantic batch of lies in the 2016 election, which the vast bulk of the media spent 3 years ratifying and spreading,” insisted a breathless Glenn Greenwald.

Of course, the indictments merely alleged this, and conspicuously failed to prove it. His indictments followed a pattern of making sweeping claims, but only trying to prove very narrow crimes, and then failing to do so. But the conservative-messaging apparatus, which was otherwise engaged in relentless cynicism of the FBI, treated Durham as beyond reproach, even invincible.

He became the right-wing version of the superhero figure Mueller had become in the mind of the most optimistic resistance liberals. “If Durham chooses to bring charges against any official who launched the Trump probe, history suggests he is extremely likely to persuade a jury to convict the accused and sustain those convictions upon appeal,” wrote Geraghty, a prediction that proved extremely false.

It was, of course, perfectly appropriate for the Justice Department to oversee the FBI investigation of Trump. The problem is that the investigation happened without Durham. Michael Horowitz, the Department’s inspector general, conducted a thorough investigation of the FBI probe into Russia’s intervention in the 2016 campaign. He found, aside from one low-level FBI staffer, that the FBI acted properly and the investigation of Trump was predicated on a tip the bureau received from a foreign diplomat. It was not cooked up by Hillary, Obama, or any other Fox News hate figure.

Barr appointed Durham to contravene that finding. It was the conservative counter-Establishment operating in its familiar way. They looked at the work of staid nonpartisan bureaucrats — in this case, Michael Horowitz — and rejecting their conclusions as liberal bias. In response, they constructed a wildly partisan and frequently unethical operation to lend credence to their fantasies.

This failure will not dim their luster in the eyes of the right. It will consecrate their martyrdom.

“The biggest scandal of Russiagate was that the U.S. security state fabricated false stories and false evidence, and then laundered them to the nation’s largest media outlets, which mindlessly published them,” wrote Greenwald. This is a wildly distorted description of how the Russia scandal unfolded, but a perfect account of the behavior by Trump and his conservative-media allies.

The paranoid style of American conservatism is imprinted upon the institutions it creates. The Durham probe will go down in history as a monument to the right’s fever-dream defenses of Trump’s corruption.

The Durham Probe Was Barr’s Witch Hunt