There was a lot of time spent in the weeds during Wednesday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing with special counsel John Durham. Lawmakers burned hours trying to spin, parse and unpack the dense, 300-page report he issued last month into the origins of the FBI’s 2016 investigation of former President Donald Trump. Names that nobody who hasn’t been glued to the coverage of the Russia probe and its aftermath would recognize got thrown around to a degree that at several points even I was left wondering, “Who?”
It wasn’t the most riveting of hearings, but here’s the bottom line: John Durham found nothing to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. At no point in his testimony did he take the bait from Republicans to give credence to Trump’s “Russia hoax” rhetoric. If anything, Durham went out of the way to praise his predecessor — even if his grasp on what Mueller found proved to be a bit shaky.
John Durham found nothing to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Like Durham’s investigation itself, the hearing was at times a crude doppelgänger of Mueller’s testimony about his findings in 2019. Then, as now, a special counsel defended his work before a divided partisan panel. Then, as now, the special counsel tried to stick to the scope of what was actually in the text of his report. And then, as now, Republicans desperately sought to spin the text before them into a full exoneration of Trump. A major difference is that this time, the laundry list of crimes that Trump has been accused of stretches much longer than it did before, including multiple criminal indictments.
Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, and his colleagues sought to paint Durham’s weak-tea conclusions — that the FBI had the responsibility to investigate claims of Russian collusion but made missteps along the way — as evidence of a vast conspiracy against Trump. Most of the accusations thrown around were relatively incomprehensible, especially since Durham found no specific wrongdoing of note from any particular member of FBI or Justice Department leadership. It was on the whole a rather tepid affair, befitting a rather tepid report that was packed with speculation that Durham couldn’t prove in court.
That’s not to say that the day was completely pointless. Durham confirmed under Democratic questioning that current Attorney General Merrick Garland didn’t interfere with his investigation or tell him that any potential targets were off-limits. He admitted that the reason that former President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still walk free, no matter how much Trumpworld wants them behind bars, is that there’s simply no evidence of wrongdoing. Likewise, none of the three individuals he did prosecute, two of whom were acquitted, were accused of taking part in a supposed “deep state” plot to take down Trump. It’s a far cry from when the former president was promising that Durham’s probe would reveal “the crime of the century.”
Durham surely will remain a touchstone for those who never read a word he wrote but are sure that he fully vindicated Trump in the process.
Instead, Durham said in his opening statement that his report “should not be read to suggest in any way that Russian election interference was not a threat; it was.” And when it came to Mueller himself, Durham didn’t hold back in his praise. “Our object, our aim, was not to dispute Director Mueller,” Durham said. “I have the greatest regard, the highest regard for Director Mueller. He is a patriot.” That’s again not what Trump’s most ardent devotees would like to hear coming from the man who they expected to expose Mueller’s role in the “witch hunt” against Trump.
But Durham seemed shockingly unprepared to discuss Mueller’s actual work and findings under questioning. He also appeared to be blissfully unaware of the way that Trump frequently utilized the material released by the Russians who stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign. “I don’t really read the newspapers or listen to the news,” Durham said when confronted with the fact that the Russian interference was meant to help then-candidate Trump.
In the end, Wednesday’s hearing offered little fodder for sound bites to rile up the GOP base. The lack of recommendations from Durham beyond what the FBI has already done makes it harder to use him in Trump’s ongoing war on the Justice Department for which he has drafted Republicans into fighting. Durham even rejected the idea that Republicans should move to defund the Justice Department and the FBI. And his willingness to admit that there was Russian interference in 2016 means that he has likely outlived his usefulness to Trump.
Towards the end of Durham's testimony, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., channeled the most diehard MAGA supporters, who had been promised for years now that the special counsel would strike a blow against Trump's enemies. "When you are part of the cover-up, Mr. Durham, then it makes our job harder," Gaetz declared, affecting an air of righteous disappointment.
But that’s not to say that Durham's name won’t be thrown around over the coming months and years anyway. He surely will remain a touchstone for those who never read a word he wrote but are sure that he fully vindicated Trump in the process. For the MAGA movement, John Durham was always more useful as a vessel for whatever conspiracy needed a kernel of truth than as an actual investigator.