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Special counsel John Durham concludes FBI never should have launched full Trump-Russia probe

<i>Julia Nikhinson/Reuters</i><br/>In this May 2022 photo
Julia Nikhinson/Reuters
In this May 2022 photo

By Zachary Cohen, Devan Cole, Tierney Sneed, Evan Perez, Hannah Rabinowitz, Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen, CNN

Special counsel John Durham concluded that the FBI should never have launched a full investigation into connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, according to a report compiled over three years by the Trump-administration appointee and released on Monday.

Durham’s 300-plus page report also states that the FBI used “raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence,” to launch the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into Trump and Russia but used a different standard when weighing concerns about alleged election interference regarding Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The special counsel, however, did not recommend any new charges against individuals or “wholesale changes” about how the FBI handles politically charged investigations, despite strongly criticizing the agency’s behavior.

“Based on the review of Crossfire Hurricane and related intelligence activities, we conclude that the (Justice) Department and FBI failed to uphold their important mission of strict fidelity to the law in connection with certain events and activities described in this report,” Durham wrote.

The report also concludes that “at least on the part of certain personnel intimately involved in the matter” there was “a predisposition to open an investigation into Trump.”

Durham’s findings that the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign should not have happened are at odds with a previous Justice Department inspector general investigation into the FBI’s Russia probe, which identified problems with the investigation but concluded in December 2019 there was sufficient justification to open the inquiry.

Attorney General Merrick Garland sent Durham’s report to congressional lawmakers and released the report on Monday.

In a letter to Congress accompanying the report, Garland said, “Special Counsel Durham’s unclassified report is attached in full as submitted to me, without any additions, redactions, or other modifications.”

Durham’s conclusions condemning the FBI’s investigation into Trump is sure to fuel the debate about Russia, Trump, the FBI and the 2016 presidential election that is still swirling more than six years after and as Trump is campaigning once again for the White House.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan announced that he has reached out to the Department of Justice to have Durham testify next week.

The investigation was launched in May 2019 by Trump’s former Attorney General William Barr — a probe that Trump and his right-wing allies repeatedly predicted would “investigate the investigators” and lead to bombshell indictments of those who scrutinized the former president. Four years later, Durham’s investigation yielded one minor conviction, two losses at trial and a probe that fell short of the lofty goals set by the former president.

Durham only secured one conviction: the guilty plea of a low-level FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, who avoided jail after admitting to doctoring an email about a surveillance warrant. Durham’s other two prosecutions — against a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer and the primary source for the Trump-Russia dossier — ended with embarrassing acquittals.

In a statement Monday, the FBI said its leadership has “already implemented dozens of corrective actions, which have now been in place for some time,” in response to the conduct examined by Durham. “Had those reforms been in place in 2016, the missteps identified in the report could have been prevented,” the statement adds.

Trump blasted the FBI in a Truth Social post.

“WOW! After extensive research, Special Counsel John Durham concludes the FBI never should have launched the Trump-Russia Probe!” Trump posted Monday. “In other words, the American Public was scammed, just as it is being scammed right now by those who don’t want to see GREATNESS for AMERICA!”

No ‘evidence of collusion’

Despite acknowledging the FBI had sufficient reason to open a preliminary assessment or at most a preliminary investigation, the report states that the bureau should not have gone as far as opening a full probe into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were coordinating with the Russian government.

“Indeed, based on the evidence gathered in the multiple exhaustive and costly federal investigations of these matters, including the instant investigation, neither U.S. law enforcement nor the Intelligence Community appears to have possessed any actual evidence of collusion in their holdings at the commencement of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” Durham said in his report.

Durham mentions former FBI Deputy Director and CNN senior law enforcement analyst Andrew McCabe and zeros in on Peter Strzok, the ex-deputy director of the counter-intelligence division.

“Strzok, at a minimum, had pronounced hostile feelings toward Trump,” Durham wrote, while quoting in a footnote previously known texts between Strzok and Lisa Page, then an FBI attorney.

In his 2019 report, DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz specifically said Strzok and Page did not affect the start of the investigation or didn’t act out of political bias.

“While Lisa Page attended some of the discussions regarding the opening of the investigations, she did not play a role in the decision to open Crossfire Hurricane or the four individual cases,” Horowitz wrote.

Strzok and McCabe both sued the FBI after they were fired from the FBI.

Monday, Durham knocked the FBI for failing to take several steps before launching the Trump campaign investigations, such as interviewing relevant witnesses, reviewing its own intelligence databases or using “any of the standard analytical tools typically employed by the FBI in evaluating raw intelligence.”

Durham suggested that if the FBI had taken those steps, it would have found that US intelligence agencies did not have any evidence tying Trump to Russian leadership officials.

The report cites for comparison examples of how the FBI approached investigations concerning former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic White House nominee Clinton. Durham points to specifically to “highly significant intelligence” the FBI “received from a trusted foreign source pointing to a Clinton campaign plan to vilify Trump by tying him to Vladimir Putin so as to divert attention from her own concerns relating to her use of a private email server.”

“Unlike the FBI’s opening of a full investigation of unknown members of the Trump campaign based on raw, uncorroborated information, in this separate matter involving a purported Clinton campaign plan, the FBI never opened any type of inquiry, issued any taskings, employed any analytical personnel, or produced any analytical products in connection with the information,” the report said.

Durham notes that the FBI did not open an investigation into a purported plan by foreign operatives to target the Clinton campaign but rather took other steps in response to those concerns, which included providing defensive briefings for the then-Democratic presidential nominee and her staff.

McCabe defended the FBI’s handling of the investigation in an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper Monday night, saying that he “vehemently” disagreed with the report’s findings and calling Durham’s probe a “political errand” on behalf of Trump.

“Look, the fact is, we knew what the Russians were doing and had done in an effort to help Donald Trump,” he said on “Anderson Cooper 360.”

“And if we had had any information, any intelligence or information, that indicated that the Clinton campaign was colluding with the Russians, we would have investigated that as well,” McCabe added. “But that information doesn’t exist and to my knowledge was not happening.”

Durham proposes new FBI position on ‘politically sensitive’ investigations

While declining to recommend any changes to FBI policy, Durham is floating a proposal to create a career position for a nonpartisan FBI lawyer or agent who would be tasked with challenging steps taken in “politically sensitive investigations,” including surveillance warrant applications.

The proposal was put forward by Stewart Baker, a former government lawyer who held top roles at the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security.

“As a way to ensure full consideration of the issues in applications that may present very difficult – and vitally important – issues, we recommend that the Department seriously consider Baker’s proposal for an official to challenge both a politically sensitive FISA application and other stages of the investigation,” the Durham report says.

Steele dossier’s role

The report is also critical of the Steele dossier, an explosive document that had been used by the FBI to bolster its case for probable cause to secure surveillance warrants against a former Trump campaign adviser.

The Steele dossier contained unverified allegations about Trump’s connections to Russia, including his alleged business dealings, rumors of lurid trysts in Moscow and claims that his campaign collaborated with the Kremlin in 2016.

Durham says he found that the Crossfire Hurricane investigation “did not and could not corroborate any of the substantive allegations” contained in the controversial Steele dossier, which was used by the FBI to obtain a FISA warrant.

“As noted, it was not until mid-September that the Crossfire Hurricane investigators received several of the Steele Reports. Within days of their receipt, the unvetted and unverified Steele Reports were used to support probable cause in the FBI’s FISA applications targeting (Carter) Page, a U.S. citizen who, for a period of time, had been an advisor to Trump,” the report says.

“As discussed later in the report, this was done at a time when the FBI knew that the same information Steele had provided to the FBI had also been fed to the media and others in Washington, D.C,” it adds.

Witness testimony exposed the FBI’s overreliance on the dossier as it sought court approval to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser in 2016. Other FBI officials described rookie mistakes that undercut the bureau’s brief inquiry into a possible Trump-Russia internet backchannel. At closing arguments during one of last year’s trials, Durham told jurors that “the FBI failed” on many occasions.

But Durham did not recommend sweeping changes or new policies around how politically sensitive investigations are handled. Instead, the report calls for “a renewed fidelity” to the guidelines and politics the DOJ and FBI now have in place.

Mixed results over 3+ years

Barr tapped Durham in 2019 to review the origins of the Russia probe, and the scope of Durham’s work grew over the years. He scrutinized the FBI’s handling of the dossier, leaks of classified information about Trump-Russia contacts, possible CIA misconduct regarding its analysis of Russian meddling, among other topics. Largely, his inquiry seemed to always zero in on Trump’s political opponents and perceived enemies.

When Durham began his probe, he was seen as an apolitical truth-seeker with a knack for investigating complex cases, including government scandals. But that reputation waned over the years, especially after Durham took the unprecedented step of publicly rebuking the Justice Department inspector general, after the watchdog released a report finding that the FBI’s decision to open the Trump-Russia probe was legally justified and untainted by bias.

Both Barr and Durham were publicly critical of the inspector general report. That report contained blistering criticisms of FBI’s reliance on Steele and the FISA warrants that cited the dossier’s allegations, but Horowitz wrote he did not find “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” to open investigations that initially focused on four Trump campaign aides and advisers.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which inherited the initial Russia probe, released a detailed accounting of Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election. Mueller found no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but investigators documented numerous contacts between Trump associates and Russians. The final Mueller report did not rely on the opposition research dossier.

The FBI has made reforms to the way it obtains warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in light of the inspector general’s report — which led to FBI invalidating two of the four warrants it obtained on the Trump campaign adviser — as well as a follow up investigation revealing widespread problems with FISA court applications.

In congressional testimony in 2020, FBI Director Chris Wray said that the FBI had implemented more than 40 changes aimed at making the FISA process more stringent in response to Horowitz’s report.

Two acquittals

Before the 2020 election, Barr elevated Durham to “special counsel” status, further protecting his position and making it politically difficult for the Biden-run Justice Department to control or shut down the investigation.

Durham pressed forward with two trials over the course of his probe.

During the trials, Trump and his allies continued to make bold predictions about what would be uncovered in the probe, particularly after Durham released vague allegations through court filings. Trump last year told Fox News that Durham was exposing the “crime of the century.”

His case against Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann ended with an acquittal in May 2022. Durham charged Sussmann with lying to a top FBI official in September 2016 while passing along a tip about Trump’s ties to Russia. Sussmann’s lawyers accused Durham of bullying witnesses into changing their story and cherry-picking evidence to fuel claims of an anti-Trump conspiracy. After his acquittal, Sussmann said he was “falsely accused” by Durham.

In October, Durham personally oversaw his trial against Trump-Russia dossier source Igor Danchenko, who was charged with lying to the FBI about his sub-sourcing. Durham handled most of arguments and witness questioning, but things quickly got off the rails.

He attacked his own witnesses when they helped the defense, and the judge threw out one of the five charges mid-trial. The Virginia jury reached “not guilty” verdicts on all remaining counts.

This story has been updated with additional details.

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CNN’s Jack Forrest contributed to this report.

Article Topic Follows: CNN - US Politics

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