october surprise

How Trump and Barr’s October Surprise Went Bust

U.S. Attorney General William Barr. Photo: Ting Shen Xinhua/eyevine/Redux

On September 10, Nora Dannehy resigned as the deputy to John Durham, the federal prosecutor investigating the government’s probe into the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. Dannehy left her post and the Justice Department in part because of Attorney General William Barr’s pressure on Durham to release a report on his investigation’s findings before Election Day, according to a person familiar with her thinking. Trump had long been hoping a report out this fall would damage Democrats, including Joe Biden, and help him win reelection. In Trump’s terminology, Durham’s report would reveal an “attempted overthrow” of his administration by Democratic insiders. But Justice Department guidelines restrict prosecutors from taking such actions within 60 days of an election because they might affect the outcome of the election. Both Durham and Dannehy believed that if they complied with Barr’s demands they would be violating this doctrine, according to two people familiar with their thinking.

Durham, who is the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, and Dannehy were also troubled that Barr had purposely misrepresented their work in numerous public comments, the two people said. According to two sources familiar with the probe, there has been no evidence found, after 18 months of investigation, to support Barr’s claims that Trump was targeted by politically biased Obama officials to prevent his election. (The probe remains ongoing.) In fact, the sources said, the Durham investigation has so far uncovered no evidence of any wrongdoing by Biden or Barack Obama, or that they were even involved with the Russia investigation. There “was no evidence … not even remotely … indicating Obama or Biden did anything wrong,” as one person put it.

Shortly after the resignation of his prized deputy and with the election looming on the horizon, Durham phoned Barr. He forcefully told the attorney general that his office would not be releasing a report or taking any other significant public actions before Election Day, according to a person with knowledge of the phone call. Dannehy’s resignation constituted an implied but unspoken threat to Barr that Durham or others on his team might resign if the attorney general attempted to force the issue, according to a person familiar with Durham’s thinking.

After hearing from Durham in September, Barr informed the president and allies that there would be no October surprise, causing Trump to lash out. “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes — the greatest political crimes in the history of our country — then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win,” he told Fox Business last month. “[These] people should be indicted, this was the greatest political crime in the history of our country. And that includes Obama and it includes Biden.”

U.S. Attorney John Durham. Photo: Bob Child/AP

The president had been hoping for a repeat of what happened during the 2016 election, when, with just 11 days left, then-FBI director James Comey announced the reopening of the bureau’s Hillary Clinton email investigation. Comey’s decision is widely seen to have hurt Clinton at a crucial moment and helped Trump pull off a come-from-behind victory. For more than a year and a half, Trump believed that Durham’s investigation would confirm the conspiracy theory that the “deep state” — senior officials of the Justice Department, FBI, and intelligence community — had worked to sabotage his presidency with false accusations that he had colluded with Russia. The Justice Department’s inspector general last year reported finding no “evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” of the Russia investigators, and so far, the only charge brought by Durham’s office has been against an ex-FBI lawyer who pleaded guilty to falsifying an email used to obtain a warrant for electronic surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page.

For his part, Barr was hyping what the Durham investigation would find since at least the spring and suggested it would be bad for Democrats. “There is a difference between an abuse of power and a federal crime. Not every abuse of power, no matter how outrageous, is a federal crime,” Barr told reporters in May. “As to President Obama and Vice-President Biden, whatever their level of involvement, based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others.” One person familiar with the Durham investigation called Barr’s comments a backhanded attempt to insinuate that Obama and Biden had abused their powers. Barr’s ongoing commentary regarding Durham’s investigation appears to have violated Justice Department policy that officials should “not confirm the existence or otherwise comment about ongoing investigations.”

While discussing Durham’s investigation, Barr’s rhetoric also increasingly paralleled Trump’s. In contrast to the president, Barr delivered his comments in a measured and restrained manner, while Trump’s claims have been coarse and hyperbolic. Barr has suggested that the DOJ and FBI’s investigations of the president was “one of the greatest travesties” in American history and a “bogus scandal,” whereas Trump simply called the investigations a “hoax.” Barr has said the “greatest danger to our free system” is when law enforcement and intelligence agencies try to “affect the outcome of an election.” Trump accused them of an attempted “coup” against him. Barr has said that the “completely bogus narrative” caused by the investigations “was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press.” Trump blamed the “fake media,” period.

After hearing there would be no October surprise, Trump excoriated Barr, telling Rush Limbaugh: “I think it’s a terrible thing, and I’ll say it to his face.”