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Sussmann Acquittal Raises Question: What Is Durham Actually Trying to Do?

WASHINGTON — Even before 12 jurors voted to acquit Michael Sussmann of lying to the F.B.I. in a rebuke of the Trump-era special counsel, John H. Durham, supporters of Donald J. Trump were already laying the groundwork to declare that the prosecutor won despite losing in court.

What really mattered, they essentially claimed, was that Mr. Durham had succeeded in exposing how Hillary Clinton framed Mr. Trump for the “Russia collusion hoax,” an argument that ricocheted across the right-wing news media.

Indeed, Mr. Durham did show that associates of the 2016 Clinton campaign — a victim of Russian hacking — wanted reporters to write about the allegations that played a role in the case, an obscure theory about the possibility of a covert communications channel between Mr. Trump and Russia. But most news outlets were skeptical, and the F.B.I. swiftly discounted the matter.

Still, that Mr. Durham’s cheerleaders have embraced this explanation for Mr. Durham’s actions is striking. Stephen Gillers, a New York University professor of legal ethics, said the case was “incredibly weak” and he doubted a prosecutor pursuing normal law enforcement goals would have brought it.

For starters, he appeared largely redundant: Michael E. Horowitz, the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, was already scrutinizing the origins of the investigation into possible ties between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia.

Mr. Durham seemed to begin by searching for signs of political bias among F.B.I. officials Mr. Horowitz had already scrutinized and by hunting for wrongdoing among intelligence agencies outside Mr. Horowitz’s jurisdiction. No charges resulted.

In December 2019, Mr. Horowitz issued his report uncovering serious flaws with certain wiretap applications but debunking Trump supporters’ baseless theory that the overall investigation was a “deep state” conspiracy. The F.B.I. officials had sufficient legal basis to open it, he found.

In a break with his earlier silence toward his investigative work, Mr. Durham issued a statement disagreeing that there was an adequate basis for the investigation and suggesting that he had access to more information. He has yet to disclose what that is.

Mr. Horowitz also uncovered that an F.B.I. lawyer had doctored an email used in preparation for wiretap applications, referring the matter for prosecution. While Mr. Durham’s team had not developed the case, it negotiated a plea agreement that resulted in no prison time. That is its only conviction to date.

Mr. Trump and his supporters expressed frustration that Mr. Durham failed to charge any deep state conspiracy before the 2020 election.

But Mr. Durham’s reputation with Trump supporters began to reverse course last fall, when he charged Mr. Sussmann in connection with telling the F.B.I. about the suspected covert communications channel, involving a server for Russia’s Alfa Bank.

Soon after, he indicted a researcher for the Steele dossier — a discredited compendium of rumors about Trump-Russia links compiled for an opposition research firm funded by Democrats — for lying to the F.B.I. about some sources.

Credit…Samuel Corum for The New York Times

In both cases, Mr. Durham festooned the narrow charges with copious information, heavy with insinuations that there had been a conspiracy to trick people into thinking Mr. Trump colluded with Russia — not by “deep state” officials, but by associates of Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 campaign.

This narrative was not the original hope of Trump supporters, but has nevertheless provided them with new material to continue relitigating the events of 2016 and the Russia investigation.

Mr. Durham’s court filings have become fodder for the conservative news media to express outrage about purported wrongdoing to Mr. Trump, typically conflating the Alfa Bank and Steele dossier matters with the official investigation.

When Mrs. Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, testified at the trial that she approved efforts to get reporters to write about Alfa Bank, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial headlined “Hillary Clinton Did It,” subtitled “Her 2016 campaign manager says she approved a plan to plant a false Russia claim with a reporter.”

The piece offered no basis for implying that Mrs. Clinton believed the allegations were false. It also inaccurately stated the campaign had “created” the allegations, and made no mention of the most important news if the charge was what mattered: The campaign neither authorized nor wanted Mr. Sussmann to go to the F.B.I., he testified, undermining Mr. Durham’s narrative that Mr. Sussmann represented the campaign at a key meeting.

Some of the most explosive Durham filings themselves have proved to be misleading or tangential to the case.

The indictment of Mr. Sussmann selectively quoted from emails among the researchers who developed the Alfa Bank suspicions, fostering an impression that they did not believe their own analysis. But the full emails included passages in which the researchers expressed enthusiastic belief in their final handiwork.

Moreover, the material seemed extraneous to a mere false-statement indictment because Mr. Sussmann was not part of those conversations. Indeed, the judge ruled nearly all that evidence inadmissible at the trial.

In a pretrial filing in February, prosecutors added a few ambiguous sentences about separate concerns the researchers developed regarding data suggesting that Russian smartphones had been connecting to sensitive networks, including Trump Tower and the White House.

Singling those out, the conservative news media erupted in a furor, inaccurately informing readers that Mr. Durham had evidence that the Clinton campaign paid to spy on the network of the Trump White House.

Mr. Durham’s filing had not actually said that. The campaign did not pay the cybersecurity researchers, and the White House network data they had sifted for signs of possible Russian infiltration came from Barack Obama’s presidency. Mr. Durham disavowed responsibility for “misinterpreted facts.”

Whatever his motives, Mr. Durham’s investigation has demonstrably functioned as a kind of fun-house mirror image of aspects of the work of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel in the Russia investigation.

Some liberal commentators once seemed to routinely suggest that developments in Mr. Mueller’s investigation meant the walls were closing in on Mr. Trump. But while Mr. Mueller’s March 2019 report detailed “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump campaign,” he charged no Trump associate with conspiring with Russia.

Similarly, pro-Trump commentators have repeatedly stoked expectations that Mr. Durham would soon charge some of Mr. Trump’s perceived enemies with a conspiracy to do him wrong. But after more than three years, he has offered only insinuations.

There are limits to any equivalence. The F.B.I., as Mr. Horowitz indicated, had a sound factual basis to open the Russia investigation; Mr. Barr’s mandate to Mr. Durham appears to have been to investigate a series of conspiracy theories.

Mr. Mueller’s team also charged or obtained guilty pleas from about three dozen people and companies and wrote a lengthy report in less time than Mr. Durham has taken to develop only two indicted cases, the first of which just ended in failure. After the verdict on Tuesday, the jury forewoman told reporters the case should not have been prosecuted.

But on the night of the acquittal, Sean Hannity of Fox News said Mr. Sussmann was “just a small player in this whole case,” and dismissed the verdict as nothing more than political bias among a jury pool drawn from a heavily Democratic district.

The trial, he assured his millions of viewers, was just a “preview of coming attractions.”

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