The inquiry into Russiagate lets the FBI and the media off the hook
Early this week, Special Counsel John Durham released his much-anticipated report on the years-long investigation into alleged collusion between Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian Government. Slated to be another major milestone in the affair now known as Russiagate, the moment has been met — at least in the media — with a muted response.
“After Years of Political Hype, the Durham Inquiry Failed to Deliver,” the New York Times declared in its headline. The Associated Press, while more even-handed, took a similar approach, noting that the inquiry merely supplied “fodder to Trump supporters” while, at the same time, offering proof that it was no more than a “politically motivated farce”.
Behind the media’s highly calibrated equivocation is the core tension at the heart of the inquiry. When former attorney general Bill Barr stipulated “a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel”, he gave the most narrow aspect of the inquiry greater weight than its broadest and gravest. The dying-fall headline of the report blotted out its explosive contents — to everyone’s benefit, save the American public.
In this context, the resulting lack of a successful criminal prosecution led the inquiry to be declared, on its own narrowly defined terms, a “failure”. But the meat of the report provides a breathtaking look into how the FBI, along with parts of the Intelligence Community, not only violated but ran roughshod over well-established norms. As the report states:
This is the most powerful law enforcement agency on earth investigating an elected president on the thinnest of pretexts — and failing to maintain even basic standards of rigour, neutrality and investigatory scepticism. Such is the nature of the Durham report that selecting almost any section at random produces bombshell observations.
By far the most alarming revelation of the report is buried on page 81. There, Durham explains the full significance of what he calls the Clinton Plan. As early as 2016, the CIA was in possession of intelligence that Hillary Clinton’s team “had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against [Trump] by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
While this intelligence was declassified in 2020, what Durham shows is its significance — and the reaction to it by the FBI which, again, raises serious questions about the competence of its investigators. Specifically, the report found that the Clinton Plan intelligence was:
This was the smoking gun. And yet, despite this, according to Durham, “no FBI personnel who were interviewed by the Office recalled Crossfire Hurricane [the investigation into Trump by the FBI] personnel taking any action to vet the Clinton Plan intelligence.”
Among the mainstream media, Jake Tapper was a lone voice in observing that the report provides a “devastating” appraisal of the FBI in what is likely its most consequential investigation in its history — whether a US president was corrupted by a foreign adversary. And even here Tapper blunted his observation, noting that the report “exonerated Trump”. But that framing once again places the onus on Trump — a figure who was seemingly presumed guilty — while sidestepping an agency which not only failed in its duty, but which also flouted the principles that undergird its very legitimacy.
In the end, the Durham report did not “fail to deliver,” as the New York Times would have it. It was a stunning success as the grand finale of a years-long effort to whitewash what might be the greatest scandal the American justice system has seen in decades, if not ever. With its remit so narrow and its bar set so high, the inquiry will invariably let everyone, from the FBI and DOJ to the Intelligence Community and of course the media, “officially” put Russiagate to bed. They could wash their hands of it. And so, it seems, they have.