What if – and bear with me here – John Durham’s effort to undermine the Russia investigation doesn’t have the goods?

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The last time anyone saw them, the goal posts were about three miles west of Ottumwa, Iowa, after being dragged there, painful foot by foot, from their original position. just outside the William P. Barr Department of Justice.

Ever since Donald Trump first sought to undermine the investigation into whether members of his 2016 campaign knew about or worked with Russia’s efforts to help his candidacy, the goals have been in motion. Time and again, he and his allies have presented an alternate explanation for the investigation that shifted all questions of legality and ethics onto his real and perceived adversaries. Maybe what the media should really was aimed at exposing Michael Flynn or Peter Strzok’s text messages or Carter Page’s tenure or Christopher Steele’s dossier or the machinations of Hillary Clinton’s competing campaign. I probably forgot a few.

In each of these infinitely high cases, the strategy was the same: take something legitimately uncertain or easy to perceive as uncertain and remount the Russian probe on it. That the “real” triggers for the Russia investigation changed so much is pretty strong evidence that they weren’t the real triggers at all. An investigation centered on the obvious ties between Trump’s team and Russia – his campaign manager’s ties to Russian officials, an adviser who was already on the FBI’s radar during a trip to Moscow in July 2016, another adviser getting an apparent red flag about the Russian hack, his son’s interaction with a Kremlin-linked lawyer — has repeatedly been portrayed as being about something else, something invariably harder to pin down.

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Nowhere has more institutional energy been invested than in the formal investigation into the Russian investigation Barr authorized more than three years ago. US Attorney John Durham, later elevated to special counsel, was given the mandate to determine where the Russia investigation came from and, if necessary, to overturn conventional wisdom about its origins. And no one will say he shied away from that task, as he regularly provided the conservative media with new places to locate their goalposts. When the Justice Department’s Inspector General released a lengthy report determining that the initial Russia investigation was based on the available evidence, Barr and Durham quickly issued a “not-so-fast-paced” style statement suggesting that the another shoe had not yet fallen.

It was due to fall on Tuesday morning. For months, Durham has apparently been constructing the argument that the Clinton campaign bears central responsibility for the emergence of the Russia investigation. After indicting a lawyer who worked for a firm hired by Clinton for lying to the FBI, Durham released small bits of information about what he and his team learned that could be interpreted as suggesting he was building a case not against the Probe Russia but rather against Clinton.

You may recall, for example, when Durham previously filed a court filing involving the attorney, Michael Sussmann, and his firm approaching federal investigators with electronic data that appeared to come from Trump’s White House. This became the peg for various “Clinton spied on Trump’s presidency!!” takes, including from Trump. But that wasn’t true: Sussmann had data on the apparent presence of unusual Russian cellphones near the White House, but only while Barack Obama was president. On the contrary, it was exonerating, suggesting that Sussmann and the researcher he was in contact with were more focused on Russia’s activities than Trump’s. At another point, a Durham file was interpreted as suggesting the data was somehow faked. That too quickly evaporated.

What Durham’s team hoped to prove was that Sussmann misled the FBI about his work for Clinton when he sought to get them to investigate an unexplained connection between Trump’s private company and a Russian bank. Instead of providing the first significant reinforcement of the conspiracy theory that the Russia investigation was downstream of Clinton’s efforts, a jury found that Durham failed to prove his case.

Even if he had, however, it is clear that this particular theory was not the spur to the Russia investigation. In September 2016, when Sussmann met with the FBI, the bureau was already investigating individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and already aware of Russia’s efforts to influence the election. This idea that Clinton was the trigger for all of this was clearly seductive; The Trump administration had launched it about a month before the 2020 contest. When Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager Robby Mook testified at Sussmann’s trial that Clinton had approved the leak of the (dubious and quickly debunked!) On a Trump bank connection, Trump allies again attempted to reverse it as evidence of Clinton’s overall culpability despite the obvious timing issues. “The Russia investigation was Clinton’s fault” appeals more than “there were real questions about Trump’s team and Russia.”

That’s the point. It seems clear, based on Barr’s public comments, that he is skeptical of how the Russia investigation began, which is certainly his right. It also seems clear that Durham was tasked with proving this skepticism correct. This effort is not going well. For those orbiting Trump, it doesn’t matter. The investigation itself and a small part of it is enough to simply say that the point has been proven, because (like the “stolen election” claims) belief is what is concrete and proof of that belief is what which is malleable and evolving.

The Durham investigation has become everything Trump and his allies have accused of being Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation: a fishing expedition that went on for a long time without bring up anything that significantly helps the central case. Mueller could cite dozens of indictments and a voluminous exploration of how Russia tried to sway the 2016 election two years into his mission. Three years into Durham’s start, he failed to earn a conviction on his central attacking line.

For objective observers, there was always reason to be skeptical of Durham’s ability to fulfill his mandate to prove that the Russia investigation was dubious and, by unstated extension, that Trump was right all along. . It seems much more unlikely now.

Here’s hoping the goal movers stayed fit.


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