By Petr Svab
April 22, 2022 Updated: April 24, 2022
Cases handled by special counsel John Durham have produced a flurry of notable discoveries that shed more light on the sprawling yearslong investigation. Durham so far has three indictments and one guilty plea under his belt, with some indications that there may be more in the pipeline.
Durham was tasked around March-May 2019 with reviewing the 2016-2017 FBI investigation of alleged nefarious ties between candidate and later President Donald Trump and Russia. In October 2020, then-Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham a special counsel. In February 2021, Durham resigned his position as a federal prosecutor after 35 years with the Department of Justice (DOJ), where he handled some of the most prominent investigations of FBI misconduct. At age 72, his current job may just be the last chapter and culmination of his career.
The investigation has led Durham into some of the deep recesses of the D.C. political machine. As the current record indicates, multiple federal agencies, including the FBI and the CIA, were sickened on Trump and his associates by operatives tied to the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the presidential campaign of former State Secretary Hillary Clinton. The FBI launched a sprawling investigation into Trump’s campaign with some of the FBI officials most deeply involved in the probe privately expressing strong animus against Trump and preference for Clinton.
A stream of leaks from the federal bureaucracy facilitated an avalanche of misinformation that to this day has many Americans convinced that Trump was secretly in cahoots with Moscow. The pale of the media frenzy as well as the FBI probe—which was taken over in May 2017 by a special counsel, former FBI head Robert Mueller—hamstrung Trump’s foreign policy toward Russia. The repercussions are still felt today, some experts have argued.
Mueller ultimately concluded that no Trump-Russia collusion to sway the 2016 election could be established. Durham is looking at both the origin of the Russia probe as well as how it was conducted before Mueller took over.
In stark contrast to the Mueller probe, there’s been a dearth of leaks from Durham’s team.
As far as the reports go, Durham has enlisted assistance from the governments of the United Kingdom, Italy, and Australia. He’s interviewed dozens of individuals, including former CIA Director John Brennan, and subpoenaed thousands of documents.
His first indictment, in August 2020, targeted former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith for altering a CIA email to say that former Trump campaign aide Carter Page was “not a source,” when in fact he was providing information to the agency. The message was then used as a part of an application to extend surveillance of Page. FBI Director Christopher Wray later admitted that the surveillance was illegal.
Clinesmith pleaded guilty and in January 2021 received a year of probation and 400 hours of community service. Prosecutors demanded six months in jail. His license to practice law in D.C. was reinstated after less than a year.
In September 2021, Durham indicted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who in 2016 represented the Clinton campaign, for lying to the FBI. Sussmann approached then-FBI General Counsel James Baker in October 2016 with information about a supposed secret communications channel between Trump and a Russian bank, which, it turned out, was false. Sussmann allegedly told Barker he wasn’t there representing any client, when in fact he was billing the time to the Clinton campaign. Sussmann’s lawyers attacked the indictment for relying on a single witness, Baker, but then Durham revealed an email from Sussmann to Baker explicitly saying Sussmann was reaching out not representing any client.
In November 2021, Durham indicted Igor Danchenko, a Russia analyst formerly with the Brookings Institution, for lying to the FBI. Danchenko was paid to collect dirt on Trump by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was in turn hired (through intermediaries) to collect dirt on Trump by the Clinton campaign.
As it turned out, much of the resulting “Steele dossier” was fabricated. Danchenko told the FBI some of the information came from Belarus-born real estate agent Sergei Millian, which was false, Durham’s indictment said. In fact, Millian never spoke with Danchenko.
A significant portion of what Danchenko collected appears to have been provided to him by longtime Clinton operative Charles Dolan, who himself has deep ties to Russia. The information, laced with fabrications, was then folded by Steele into his dossier. Dolan admitted to the FBI that he provided (and fabricated) some of the information.
Recent filings in the Sussmann case revealed that the lawyer, formerly with the DOJ, peddled to the CIA data that showed supposedly suspicious existence of a Russian-made phone in Trump’s vicinity. The CIA assessed the data was “user-created,” possibly fabricated, and contradicted itself, according to Durham’s team.
Earlier this week, Sussmann, the Clinton campaign, the DNC, Sussmann’s former employer and law firm Perkins Coie, Fusion GPS (retained by Perkins Coie to research Trump), and several Clinton operatives asked the court to prevent revelation of certain emails and documents that they say are protected by attorney-client privilege. They largely argue that Perkins Coie was hired by the Clinton campaign to provide legal services and the research on Trump was done to support those services and is thus covered by the privilege. The Durham team disputes that.
The trial is scheduled for mid-May.
The Durham team in recent court documents hinted at an assertion that there was a conspiracy between the various operatives tied to the Clinton campaign. Criminal conspiracy is a federal crime, but it needs to be tied to an underlying crime. Two or more people have to agree to break a federal law and then take at least one “overt act”—even if innocuous on its own—to carry out the plan. Durham has so far brought no conspiracy charges.
John Ratcliffe, the former director of national intelligence under Trump, said last year he believes “there will be many indictments based on the intelligence that I gave to John Durham and that I have seen.”
All three current cases of Durham’s have highlighted the tight-knit nature of the federal judicial and law enforcement community in the D.C. area.
The judge in the Clinesmith case, James Boasberg, sits on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that approved spying on Page based primarily on the Steele dossier and partly on the false information provided by Clinesmith.
The judge in the Danchenko case, Anthony Trenga, presided over the Mueller-brought case against former business partner of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, former national security adviser to President Donald Trump. Trenga threw out the conviction in that case for a lack of evidence.
The judge in the Sussmann case, Christopher Reid Cooper, used to be a colleague of Sussmann’s at the DOJ. His wife, Amy Jeffress, is a lawyer for Lisa Page, formerly a high-level FBI attorney who’s now suing the DOJ. Page was deeply embedded in the Russia investigation. She was also a mistress of Peter Strzok, former head of FBI counterintelligence operations and a point man in the Russia probe. Cooper and Jeffress also have close ties to the Democratic Party. Cooper served on the 2008 transition team of President Barack Obama, Jeffress spent 20 years at the DOJ and was a national security counselor for Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, and their wedding was officiated by Merrick Garland, the current Attorney General.
Petr Svab is a reporter covering New York. Previously, he covered national topics including politics, economy, education, and law enforcement.