The John Durham Probe Gave Trump What He Wanted

Trump’s vindication can never be failed; it can only be delayed.

Black-and-white photograph of John Durham
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

John Durham, the U.S. attorney whom former Attorney General Bill Barr appointed to investigate the origins of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, is reportedly near to wrapping up his work.

The grand jury he was using to hear evidence is expiring; there’s no indication he will convene another, and members of his team are leaving, having produced a rather thin record. Since his appointment in May 2019, Durham has obtained the conviction of an FBI lawyer for what a federal judge deemed a mere “inappropriate shortcut” in a warrant application, swiftly lost a case against a lawyer for the Hillary Clinton campaign, and charged a Russia analyst in a case that has not yet gone to trial.

One reasonable reaction to this development would be surprise that Durham was still going at all, some three and a half years on. Another would be to shake one’s head and declare the probe a waste of time and money.

These are correct, but they miss the point. Even if Durham approached the probe with earnest sincerity, the real reason he was appointed is that Donald Trump’s political con requires the promise of total vindication right around the corner. For a time, Durham provided that hope for Trump backers. But now, as Trump moves on to other ploys, the Durham probe has served its purpose, even though it has produced no major convictions or epiphanies.

From the start, the probe was a red herring. The public already knew that the FBI had investigated the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian agents, and the reasons for suspicion were not mysterious. Campaign manager Paul Manafort was notoriously tied to the Kremlin and passed information to a suspected Russian agent; members of the Trump family met with Russians at Trump Tower in an attempt to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton; one low-level aide boasted to an Australian diplomat that Russia was aiding the Trump campaign; and the longtime Trump associate Roger Stone seems to have helped broker a leak of Clinton campaign emails hacked by Russians.

The important thing to remember is that collusion happened. This is surprisingly easy to forget, even though so much of it happened in plain view, because Trump has spent so long spinning through one supposed vindication after another for his behavior, only to move on to a new one as the old one falters. To name just a few, he’s previously given us claims that former President Barack Obama had Trump’s “wires tapped” at Trump Tower (there was never evidence for this). Then there was the Nunes memo (don’t beat yourself up if you don’t remember; it was nothing). Then there was the case of Carter Page, a minor Trump associate who was suspected of being a Russian agent but instead seems to have just been a really weird guy who got a bad rap, but whose case also didn’t affect the federal inquiry into Trump.

This pattern of failed vindications was clear by early 2018, but although Barr is styling himself as a bold truth teller who demolishes Trump’s claims of election fraud and condemns the former president’s attacks on the Justice Department, he was a willing accomplice not long ago. In spring 2019, Barr implied illicit spying on the Trump campaign and then appointed Durham, a veteran federal prosecutor with a good, nonpartisan reputation, to investigate the origins of the Russia investigation.

The hope for Trump supporters was that someone was going to crack open the case and show that the investigation was cooked up by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, presumably with the help of Bill Ayers, George Soros, and the ghost of Richard J. Daley. Many times when I’ve written about malfeasance by Trump over the past three years, I have received emails from angry supporters telling me to just wait until John Durham blows it open. I’m still waiting.

Trump hasn’t been waiting, though. The former president recognized that the fact of an investigation was far more important than the results. It worked with the Benghazi investigation, about which House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy was accidentally honest, and in the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, which didn’t produce charges but did hobble her presidential campaign. By the time Trump was extorting Volodymyr Zelensky by withholding defense supplies in 2019, all Trump wanted was for Ukraine to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden. He didn’t even care whether it actually happened, because the talking point is what he needed.

Each successive new gambit offers the tantalizing prospect that the crooked behavior everyone has seen on public display from Trump over the past seven years is somehow actually the product of nefarious plotting by his opponents. Now Trump is on to a new battle over his alleged absconding with presidential records, including highly sensitive information, to Mar-a-Lago. Once again, he has claims of hoaxes. Once again, they don’t hold water. Yet hope springs eternal among MAGA backers, well fertilized by manure spread by the former president. Trump’s vindication can never be failed; it can only be delayed.