May 17, 2023

John Durham's final report.

John Durham's final report.
Special Counsel John Durham, who then-United States Attorney General William Barr appointed in 2019 after the release of the Mueller report to probe the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation, arrives for his trial at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia on May 17, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Ron Sachs/Consolidated News Pictures/Getty Images)

The long-awaited report examines the Trump-Russia investigation.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 12 minutes.

Today, we're covering John Durham's report on the Trump-Russia probe and what it means. Plus, a question about the bystanders in the Daniel Penny-Jordan Neely case.

Correction & clarification.

In yesterday's newsletter, I noted that Daniel Penny had raised over $2 million in a GoFundMe for his defense. In fact, Penny raised the money on GiveSendGo, not GoFundMe, a notable distinction given GoFundMe has faced some criticism for banning certain donation drives.

Separately, I published a sloppy thought yesterday I wanted to clarify. I wrote that, "Nobody should be able to kill someone without being tried for a crime." As many readers pointed out, this is a rather ridiculous absolutist position to take. And I agree. There are plenty of instances where someone acts in self defense or might use lethal force reasonably and should not end up facing a trial for a crime. I don't currently believe Penny's actions are an example of that, but those cases certainly exist. It was a mistake to imply otherwise.

The GoFundMe error is our 84th correction in Tangle's 199-week history and our first since May 4th. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Quick hits.

  1. President Joe Biden and congressional leaders resumed debt ceiling talks yesterday, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) said a deal could be struck by the weekend. (The meeting)
  2. State Attorney General Daniel Cameron (R) won Kentucky's gubernatorial primary and will face Andy Beshear (D) in November (The results). Separately, Cherelle Parker, who has advocated the return of stop and frisk and hiring more police to fight crime, won the Democratic primary in Philadelphia's mayoral race. (The results)
  3. A former employee of Rudy Giuliani sued him, alleging sexual harassment, assault, and violations of New York labor laws. She also alleged Giuliani was selling presidential pardons for $2 million, and claims she has tapes to support some of her allegations. (The accusation)
  4. North Carolina lawmakers voted to override Gov. Roy Cooper's (D) veto of a 12-week abortion ban. (The override)
  5. The World Meteorological Organization forecasted Earth has a 66% chance of breaking the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold set in the 2015 Paris Agreement in the next five years. (The forecast)

Today's topic.

The Durham report. On Monday, special counsel John Durham released his long-awaited report examining how the FBI handled its investigation of Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russia. Durham's report came after four years investigating the FBI’s investigation, and after losing both of the criminal cases he took to trial.

Back up: Remember the Trump-Russia investigation? The one that occupied special counsel Robert Mueller for two years? There were questions about how that investigation was conducted. In 2019, Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a report on the investigation, criticizing how the FBI applied for surveillance warrants and ultimately concluding the investigation was warranted.

That same year, Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham as a new special counsel to look into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe, and to find out if everything that led to the investigation was above board.

Durham ultimately indicted three people and secured one guilty plea from FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who admitted in 2020 to altering an email while seeking a judge’s approval to monitor Trump adviser Carter Page.

Now what? In his 300-page report, Durham said FBI officials who decided to launch the investigation into Trump displayed a "serious lack of analytical rigor." He was sharply critical of the FBI's handling of the investigation but did not offer any new revelations or propose any new charges.

In his report, Durham criticized the FBI for pursuing a vague tip about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian authorities and concluded that the FBI was more cautious and skeptical of foreign influence on the Clinton campaign than on the Trump campaign. He noted how quickly the FBI began scrutinizing the Trump campaign, and how its investigation “based on raw, unanalyzed, and uncorroborated intelligence also reflected a noticeable departure from how it approached” similar allegations about Clinton. He also reported that the FBI provided briefings to the Clinton campaign but not to the Trump campaign.

Durham also wrote that the FBI was influenced by confirmation bias in its decision making and willfully ignored material information that did not support the narrative of collusion between Trump and Russia. Much like a previously published inspector general report, Durham found that FBI officials were aggressively pushing the Trump-Russia investigation forward in a manner not typical of the agency.

Durham did not make any new recommendations for changes at the FBI, though he suggested exploring the creation of an oversight position that would review the decisions behind each step of politically charged investigations. The lack of any other recommendations is due, in part, to current FBI Director Christopher Wray having already instituted dozens of new policies for how the bureau handles surveillance warrants and other issues related to Durham and Horowitz’s investigations.

“Had those reforms been in place in 2016, the missteps identified in the report could have been prevented,” the FBI said in response to Durham's report.

Durham conducted more than 480 interviews, reviewed over six million pages of documents, and issued 190 subpoenas for his report. The investigation cost over $6 million.

President Trump, who once promised the report would unveil a conspiracy among intelligence officials to undermine his campaign and called it "the crime of the century," reacted on Truth Social:

“WOW! After extensive research, Special Counsel John Durham concludes the FBI never should have launched the Trump-Russia Probe! 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!”

Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor in New York who led Trump-related investigations, called the report a “political hatchet job” and said it “retreads the same material that both Mueller and the IG found to justify the opening of the 2016 Russia investigation.”

You can find our previous coverage of the Durham probe here.

Today, we’re going to examine some reactions from the right and left to the report, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right celebrate the report’s findings, saying it confirms the FBI was out to get Trump and the agency helped spread disinformation.
  • Some say it "exonerates" Trump and makes it clear the Trump-Russia investigation was filled with innuendo and animus toward Trump.
  • Others say it's the latest evidence that the allegations against Trump were a hoax.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board said the report "makes it clear that a partisan FBI became a funnel for disinformation" from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Durham lost two cases, but his indictments "laid out how the Clinton campaign used foreign nationals, an oppo-research outfit, and political insiders to feed the FBI and the media lies about Trump collusion," the board said. Durham's specific findings included "no basis for investigation," given that "the FBI lacked 'any actual evidence of collusion' between the Trump campaign and Russia." The investigation included "bias" and "partisan hostility" that "played a role in the probe,” and "double standards," including "several instances in which the FBI was concerned that agents of foreign governments were seeking influence by donating to the Clinton campaign or the Clinton Foundation" but did not investigate it.

Finally, Durham found "willful ignorance," including "numerous examples of the FBI ignoring evidence that it was being used by the Clinton campaign to execute a political dirty trick." The whole thing may have even begun as a "Russian intelligence operation," given two members of Russia's intel service were aware of Steele's election investigation, meaning his sources may have been compromised.

In Newsweek, Alan Dershowitz said the report "exonerates Trump" and "implicates the anti-Trump double standard."

"The FBI applied a completely different standard to the Trump campaign, opening a full-scale criminal investigation, despite the absence of 'any actual evidence of collusion' between that campaign and Russia," all while they had evidence the Clinton campaign was planning to vilify Trump by tying him to Vladimir Putin. Durham's report says plainly "'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.'"

"The report also documents the special animus toward Trump 'at least on the part of certain persons intimately involved in the matter,'" and notes "this animus was not limited to partisan Democrats. Many Republicans and independents shared the view that Trump was uniquely dangerous to national security and that anything that could be done to prevent his presidency should be done, regardless of the evidence and lack thereof," Dershowitz said. "The Durham Report is a small but essential step in the right direction."

In Fox News, Gregg Jarrett said "the FBI was instrumental in perpetrating the Russia hoax."

"The bureau never had any plausible evidence or verified intelligence when it wrongfully launched a dilating and damaging investigation of Donald Trump," he wrote. "Nothing was ever vetted or corroborated. Indeed, the FBI knew it was a pernicious lie from the outset." Under James Comey, Andrew McCabe, and Peter Strzok the agency "manipulated facts and contorted the law to frame an innocent person for unidentified crimes that he did not commit."

"The FBI discovered almost immediately in the summer of 2016 that the claims of Trump-Russia collusion had been manufactured by Hillary Clinton and her confederates. The damning fiction constituted what is surely the dirtiest trick in American politics, and it triggered the greatest mass delusion in history," Jarrett said. "The mainstream media, riven with bias, became witting accessories to the lie and effectively convicted Trump in the court of public opinion without a whiff of supportable evidence."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left said Durham brought little new information to light.
  • While some concede the FBI was unethical in some of its behavior, many point to the lack of criminal convictions from the four-year probe, especially compared to Mueller’s 36 charges.
  • Some accuse Durham of wasting $6.5 million of taxpayer money for partisan gain.

The Washington Post editorial board said Durham revealed "nothing except a broken process."

"Despite some commentators’ efforts to portray the actual result of the four-year investigation as damning, the reality is that the Justice Department special counsel uncovered next to nothing," the board said. "The upshot: There were flaws in the FBI’s handling of the matter, especially involving dubious Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications to surveil 2016 Trump adviser Carter Page, but they flowed from confirmation bias rather than politically motivated misconduct. Though Mr. Durham continues to disagree that it was appropriate for the FBI to open a full investigation, rather than a preliminary one, he makes no finding that doing so was prohibited under agency rules."

"There was no involvement by the CIA, National Security Agency or any other snoops. And there is no reason to send anyone to prison," the board wrote. "Indeed, the special counsel faced two acquittals in the cases he developed and a guilty plea resulting from a referral by the Justice Department’s inspector general... Even now, conservatives are seizing on Mr. Durham’s report, which contains indignant rhetoric that suggests dramatically more wrongdoing than its substance backs up, to assert a deep-state plot."

In The New Republic, Tori Otten said Durham's investigation "ended with a whimper."

"Trump promised at the time that Durham would uncover the 'crime of the century.' Instead, in a more than 300-page report released Monday, Durham sharply criticized the FBI but failed to bring about the raft of criminal convictions the previous administration had expected," Otten said. "Over the course of Durham’s entire investigation, his team only charged three people. A former FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering an email the bureau cited when applying to eavesdrop on an ex-Trump campaign aide. The other two defendants, a lawyer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and an analyst for a Russian American think tank, were both acquitted of charges of lying to the FBI."

"Mueller, by comparison, issued about 36 criminal charges, including for half a dozen Trump associates. He determined that Russia had intervened in the election for Trump, which the campaign welcomed, but that it had not actively colluded with Team Trump," Otten said. "This is not the first time the Republicans have touted an investigation that turned up a whole lot of nothing. House Republicans have been investigating President Joe Biden and his family for months but have been unable to provide any actual evidence linking Biden to any wrongdoing."

In The Daily Beast, Shan Wu said Durham owes Americans an apology "for wasting their money."

"As a prosecutor who served as a supervisor on an independent counsel investigation, I find Durham’s investigation to be a complete waste of taxpayer dollars," Wu wrote. After $6.5 million and four years, it "yielded nothing." Recall that Mueller's probe yielded indictments of "34 individuals, two companies, and convictions of top Trump campaign officials." Instead, he aided and abetted "the killing of a lot of trees" for a 300-plus page report that reads "like a plagiarized version" of the Inspector General report from 2019.

"Durham adds nothing new to the OIG report but does sound like he pulled from Wikipedia concepts like 'confirmation bias' to make it look like he was adding new conclusions to what the OIG had already concluded," Wu said. "Of course, confirmation bias is a real psychological term defined roughly as how people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. But it shouldn’t take four years and $6.5 million to warn that confirmation bias isn’t among the best practices for criminal investigations or, for that matter, any investigation."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • The report is a damning look at the FBI, but falls well short of what Trump said it would reveal.
  • That doesn't mean there isn't valuable information here, including affirmations about bias and issues at the FBI.
  • We should be very clear about what Durham does and does not say.

There are so many complicating factors here it's enough to make my head spin.

I'm not exactly sure the best way to approach this, but a few things seem right to me. From the conservative or Trump perspective, I think the argument is correct that 1) The FBI broke the law in parts of its Trump surveillance, 2) There were clearly anti-Trump agents driving this investigation forward, 3) The beginning of the investigation was based on paper-thin evidence, and 4) The agency was leaking to the media, who was exaggerating stories to the public, with the aim of making the investigation as politically damaging for Trump as it could be.

We already published a lengthy, 6,000-plus word piece on all the things the media got wrong about the Trump-Russia story and the many ways the FBI contributed to those narratives, which I think is a much bigger (though somewhat interconnected) story than the one laid out by Durham.

To the left's point, I think there are three good arguments: 1) Trump over-promised on the "crime of the century" when really the only crime Durham got a conviction for was a single lawyer doctoring an email, 2) Durham's investigation does nothing to undermine the actual crimes Mueller found, and 3) Durham himself concedes that neither the lack of judgment nor the pernicious anti-Trump bias he found at the FBI crossed the realm into criminal activity.

Remember: Durham isn't claiming that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election or did not want Trump to win or was not behind Wikileaks. In fact, his claims would expand the role they and other foreign nations had: Russia could also have been responsible for the Trump-Russia allegations by compromising Christopher Steele, and other foreign governments could have been attempting to influence the Clinton campaign (though the FBI never investigated it).

In other words, the "Russia hoax" is not that Russia's role didn't exist, or that there weren't contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign, or that the Trump team didn't at times welcome the assist in their battle with Clinton. It's that there was some outspoken and obvious anti-Trump bias inside the FBI, and that the initial evidence for collusion was far too thin and never should have been enough to open a full investigation into Trump’s campaign. Even Durham says the evidence was enough for a preliminary investigation, which would have been a “sensible step” (pg. 295). Horowitz disagreed with that assessment, but neither Horowitz nor Durham came to the conclusion that the investigation didn’t eventually uncover enough evidence to merit its existence. This is made clear by the simple fact that Mueller landed several major convictions as a result of the probe.

So what's all this mean? It means Trump is right that the FBI acted unethically in its pursuit of investigating him, and that the spy agencies clearly displayed favoritism for Clinton and treated her differently in 2016 (despite Comey damaging her with an announcement about an investigation into her emails eleven days before the election). For some, this anti-Trump bias will be proof of the "deep state," and for others (like the traditionally FBI-critical left) it'll be more evidence our law enforcement can act unethically or with bias behind closed doors. I don't feel the need to label it either way.

Durham’s report doesn't mean Russia had no role in the 2016 election or that the Trump camp was innocent of any wrongdoing. Ironically, Durham's words about the FBI's conduct could also apply to the Trump team's conduct: “The law does not always make a person’s bad judgment, even horribly bad judgment” a crime, he wrote.

Almost a year ago, in June of 2022, I wrote this about Durham's investigation:

Is there more? Right now, we've got one more trial coming, in which we'll learn a lot more about the Steele dossier's origins. In February, I said Durham was tugging at how deeply connected the Clinton campaign was to the obsessive coverage around "Trump-Russia collusion," but new charges or evidence was needed to make it the political scandal Trump has framed it as. It's not over yet, but I'm becoming increasingly skeptical that Durham is going to unveil that vast conspiracy Trump, Barr and others said would be brought to light. In the meantime, we'll be here waiting.

There was no crime of the century. There was a critical institution corrupted with bias who, thankfully, has already implemented some reforms and should continue to do so. As Durham himself said, it's not the rules so much as the people that created problems — and that's an intractable issue that I don't have a great solution for.

Now, both sides will get into their corners and play their partisan roles, but we should be measured in our language about what this report does (and doesn't) confirm. The former president can feel vindicated in his allegations about the bias against him, but Durham did not produce any revelations of the vast conspiracy he and his supporters alleged were coming.

Your questions, answered.

Q: If Daniel Penny is guilty of a crime, wouldn’t the other two (I think there were two) people who assisted be guilty of a crime and [shouldn’t they] be charged? I guess that is my personal hesitancy of why I think this is politically motivated…because the others assisted in his death and haven't been charged.

— Augustine from Dubuque, Iowa

Tangle: It's a great question. As I noted in our initial coverage of the story, there was very little discussion about the two bystanders who aided Penny. One of those bystanders appeared to be black, which some news organizations have not made note of.

My best answer to your question — and this is not a justification, just an answer — is that the two others weren't administering the fatal chokehold. Given that the cause of death was ruled as compression of the neck, and only one person was holding Neely in a chokehold, it would make sense that Penny is the object of the charges. I don't think not charging the bystanders necessarily proves Bragg is politically motivated here. I'm not certain that both of them will evade charges forever, either; but it is curious how little attention they are getting.

That being said, I do think the other two bystanders are critical to Penny's defense and this story. Obviously, Penny wasn't the only person on the train who thought Neely needed to be restrained, and one of the bystanders even actively defended Penny from onlookers insisting he let Neely go. I'm sure their perspectives and roles will be a huge part of any trial, though I don't see them facing similar charges given Neely's cause of death.

Blindspot report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The left missed a story about Donald Trump criticizing a Florida abortion law as being "too harsh."

The right missed a story about Russia announcing it was going to build a village outside Moscow for conservative American and Canadian expats.

Under the radar.

A whistleblower from the IRS who claimed the Justice Department is interfering with the Hunter Biden investigation says "he and his entire investigative team are being removed" from the investigation, according to a letter his attorneys sent to Congress. One of those attorneys has met with members of Congress to tell them what the whistleblower has to share with investigators, and has further alleged the investigation has been hindered by "preferential treatment and politics." CBS News has the story.


  • 675. The length, in days, of Mueller's investigation into the Trump-Russia allegations.
  • 34. The number of people indicted as a result of the Mueller investigation.
  • $25 million. The estimated cost of the Mueller investigation.
  • 480. The number of interviews in Durham's investigation.
  • 190. The number of grand jury subpoenas in John Durham's investigation.
  • $6.5 million. The estimated cost of the Durham investigation.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering the Buffalo shooting.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the video of Daniel Penny and Jordan Neely's altercation (warning: graphic content).
  • Changed minds? 56.25% of Tangle readers said "I think Daniel Penny was right to intervene, but went too far and should be charged with a crime," compared to 36.98% on May 8. 23.98% said, "I think Daniel Penny was right to intervene, and should not be charged with a crime," compared to 25.43% a week ago. 8.64% said "I think Daniel Penny was wrong to intervene and should be charged with a crime," compared to 11.66% a week ago. Just 10.3% said they were unsure, had no opinion, or selected "other," compared to 21.9% a week ago.
  • Nothing to do with politics: This guy playing with a gigantic bear.
  • Don't forget to check out The Daily Chatter.
  • Take the poll. How would you describe the FBI's investigation of Trump? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

A math teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, just became her state’s Teacher of the Year for her "One Good Thing" ritual. Every day, Rebecka Peterson posts one good thing that happened in her classroom that day on her blog. The daily writing has been extended to her students, as she encourages them to do the same in their handwritten journals. Peterson is now a finalist to win the National Teacher of the Year award. You can check out her blog here.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.