With the release of special counsel John Durham’s report on the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, one of the strangest scandals in American history has ended not with a bang but with the most simpering possible whimper. Although Donald Trump and his supporters on the right claim that the report vindicates their long-held theories of a “deep state” conspiracy against the former president, on examination it offers little more than a rehashing of old arguments that were long ago made irrelevant by the passage of time.
It’s difficult to remember now, but a few years ago Russiagate was widely considered to be the most important news story in the world. The idea that Trump was, in Hillary Clinton’s famous words, Putin’s “puppet” dominated headlines and political conversation, drowning out countless other topics. In August 2019, then–New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet addressed the newspaper’s staff in a town hall and described the editorial thinking of the previous years. According to Baquet, “Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers, was: Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice?” Baquet noted that the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s much-anticipated report in March 2019 forced many to rethink their assumptions about the story. Or should have.
The Mueller report was supposed to be a bombshell. In reality, it was closer to a BB gun: attention-grabbing and theoretically capable even of causing modest injury but in actuality having no long-term effect.
The Mueller report did document that the Russian government tried to interfere in the 2016 election with the intent of helping Trump defeat Clinton, that the Trump campaign welcomed Russian interference, that an array of Trump associates were guilty of crimes that led to Mueller’s securing six convictions and guilty pleas, that there was a pattern of Trump associates with dubious Russian contacts, and that Trump himself repeatedly obstructed justice in trying to thwart the investigation into his activities.
But Mueller never found conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign. And the most damning parts of Mueller’s report—the instances of obstruction—were rendered moot by the unwillingness of the American political and legal system to hold a sitting president accountable. In theory, Congress could have impeached Trump on the obstruction of justice amply documented by Mueller; the Department of Justice could, after Trump left office, have indicted him for those actions.
Trump was later twice impeached, of course—but on the separate matters of abuse of power regarding Ukraine policy and his inciting a mob to attack the Capitol. Under Biden, the Department of Justice has clearly decided that Trump’s obstruction of justice was a sleeping dog that should be left forever undisturbed.
The Mueller report was—at least in part—a victim of liberal hyperbole, which set expectations far too high. (Mueller’s own ineptitude and timidity also ensured a weak report. He turned out to be far from the relentless prosecutor of the liberal imagination). In fact, the behavior of the Trump campaign documented by Mueller, and often proven in court, was genuinely scandalous. But all too many liberals were hoping that Mueller would find evidence of a spy thriller worthy of Frederick Forsyth or Tom Clancy. Writing in New York magazine in July of 2016, Jonathan Chait advanced what he insisted was a “plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion.” This “plausible theory” was that Trump had been a pawn of the Russians from possibly as long ago as 1987. According to Chait’s lurid scenario: “As Trump arranges to meet face-to-face and privately with Vladimir Putin later this month, the collusion between the two men metastasizing from a dark accusation into an open alliance, it would be dangerous not to consider the possibility that the summit is less a negotiation between two heads of state than a meeting between a Russian-intelligence asset and his handler.”
It’s easy enough now to dismiss this sort of liberal fan fiction. On Twitter at the time, I mocked Chait by conjuring up a 1987 meeting in the Kremlin where Putin offered this plan to Mikhail Gorbachev: “We dismantle the USSR & pretend to be defeated but cultivate a buffoonish real estate fraud as an asset. By 2016, he’ll be elected president & destroy America.”
By presenting Trump’s relationship with Putin in such obviously absurd terms, liberals such as Chait added fuel to Trump’s oft-repeated claim that Russiagate was a “hoax.”
Ultimately, however, the Mueller report was rendered moot by not just the unrealistic expectations that burdened it but also the fact that many other scandals and crises of the Trump era turned out to be far worse. Consider all that has happened since 2019: Trump’s attempt to blackmail the Ukrainian government for his political advantage, his incitement of mob violence, his repeated lies about the 2020 election, his family’s enrichment thanks to ties they cultivated with the government of Saudi Arabia, his payment of hush money to hide a politically embarrassing sex scandal (which led to an indictment in New York) and his loss of a $5 million lawsuit over the sexual assault and defamation of E. Jean Carroll. These are all matters that are of much greater real import than anything in the Mueller report.
Then there are the other legal matters still outstanding: Trump’s attempt to sway election officials in Georgia in 2020, his mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House, and his planning of the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Not to mention Trump’s actual record as president, including his inept handling of the Covid crisis and his appointment of far-right justices who continue to make reactionary rulings such as overturning Roe v. Wade. All of these, too, are matters that overshadow anything the Mueller report uncovered.
The Durham report is best understood as the right-wing counterpart to the Mueller report. If the Mueller report was a wet firecracker, the Durham report is an outright dud—a bomb with no powder in it.
Both reports came with high expectations—which were left unfulfilled. In The New York Times, Charlie Savage accurately described the report as the “limping conclusion to John H. Durham’s four-year investigation of the Russia inquiry.” Savage notes that Durham “delivered a report that scolded the FBI but failed to live up to the expectations of supporters of Donald J. Trump that he would uncover a politically motivated ‘deep state’ conspiracy. He charged no high-level FBI or intelligence official with a crime and acknowledged in a footnote that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign did nothing prosecutable, either.” The evidence of FBI sloppiness documented in the report, while troubling, has long been known and was uncovered by Justice Department’s own inspector general, Michael Horowitz.
On Fox News Digital, Trump complained that “I, and much more importantly, the American public have been victims of this long-running and treasonous charade started by the Democrats—started by Comey.” On Twitter, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed, “Democrats attempted a coup against President Trump with their ‘Russia Russia Russia’ hoax.”
The Durham report does not in fact support any of these assertions. Durham’s investigation has yielded even less of a scandal than the Mueller report. Durham brought three indictments of low-level officials—two of which he lost in court. In the third case, Durham extracted a guilty plea from former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, which led to no jail time. As Charlie Savage observes, after Durham’s early investigations came up empty, he “continued for another two and a half years, spending millions of dollars to bring the two demonstrably weak cases involving accusations of false statements; in each instance, a jury…unanimously rejected the charges. One of Mr. Durham’s handpicked prosecutors resigned from his team in protest of the first of those indictments.”
That’s a pretty small return for a story that Trump once described as “the crime of the century.”
Ultimately, only hard-core partisans care about either the Russiagate theory of Trump as Putin’s puppet—or Trump’s counternarrative of a Russia hoax. The rest of the world has moved on.