Jun 27, 2023

John Durham's testimony.

Special Counsel John Durham testifying before Congress last week. Image: CBS News YouTube
Special Counsel John Durham testifying before Congress last week. Image: CBS News YouTube

Plus, a question about third party candidates.

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: 11 minutes.

We're reviewing what happened during Durham's testimony before Congress. Plus, is now the time for a third party?

Quick hits.

  1. CNN has published the audio recording of former President Donald Trump discussing "highly confidential" papers in his possession. The audio was a key piece of evidence in the federal indictment of Trump. (The audio)
  2. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group, in his first statement since his revolt, reiterated that he didn't seek to overthrow the Russian government. (The comments)
  3. Fox News has chosen Jesse Watters to fill the primetime slot that was previously hosted by Tucker Carlson. (The lineup)
  4. The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal from Louisiana after the state tried to stop its congressional maps from being redrawn. The case now returns to the lower courts. (The ruling
  5. The Biden administration announced the release of $42.5 billion in funding for nationwide broadband internet access, with the goal of extending high-speed broadband to every American by 2030. (The access
  6. BREAKING: The Supreme Court has rejected the independent state legislature theory in a 6-3 decision. (The ruling)

Today's topic.

John Durham's testimony. On Wednesday, Special Counsel John Durham testified for over five hours before Congress. Durham spent four years scrutinizing the origins of the FBI's investigation into possible links between Russia and former President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign. During his testimony, he detailed the "sobering" findings of that investigation outlined in the controversial report he released in May.

In that 316-page report, Durham suggested FBI officials investigating Trump displayed a serious lack of analytical rigor, and said the FBI pursued tips about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia without sufficient skepticism. Durham suggested FBI agents were influenced by confirmation bias and pushed the investigation in a manner that was not typical of the agency.

We covered the report in a May edition of Tangle here, and you can find all our previous coverage of Durham's probe here.

Durham filed charges in three instances as a result of his investigation. Two of those cases he lost in court, while the third resulted in FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleading guilty to doctoring an email while applying for a surveillance application of former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page.

During his testimony, Durham shared that the widely discredited Steele dossier was funded by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. He suggested this document was deeply flawed and used by the FBI to secure surveillance warrants. As he did in his report, Durham reiterated that the FBI had an "affirmative duty" to look into allegations that Trump's campaign had advanced knowledge of Russia dumping hacked Democratic emails, but he also maintained that the information the FBI had at the time did not amount to “a legitimate basis to open as a full investigation.”

Durham also called out instances where FBI officials kept pertinent information, like CIA intelligence that Hillary Clinton had approved a plan to tie then-candidate Trump to Russia, hidden from members of the FBI who were conducting the investigation.

“There were identified, documented, significant failures of a highly sensitive, unique investigation that was undertaken by the FBI,” Durham said. “The investigation clearly reveals that decisions that were made were made in one direction. If there was something that was inconsistent with the notion that Trump was involved in a well coordinated conspiracy with the Russians, that information was largely discarded or ignored.”

In Durham's report, he said the FBI failed to act on clear signs it was being manipulated for political purposes during the 2016 election.

"We found troubling violations of law and policy in the conduct of highly consequential investigations directed at members of a presidential campaign and ultimately, a presidential administration," Durham said. "To me, it matters not whether it was a Republican campaign or a Democrat campaign."

Under questioning from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), Durham agreed that he had the authority to charge Clinton or former FBI Director James Comey, but had not uncovered evidence to charge either of any crime. He also agreed that Attorney General Merrick Garland never interfered with his investigation.

Today, we're going to examine some reactions and details about the testimony from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are praising Durham, arguing his testimony made it clear the investigation was corrupted with bias by the FBI.
  • Some criticize Democrats for continuing to push the collusion narrative.
  • Others say the bombshell testimony should chill Americans who worry about political corruption in law enforcement.

In The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. said collusion "lives" despite the Durham testimony.

Fresh from being censured for collusion lies, "Rep. Adam Schiff spread a collusion lie," Jenkins wrote. "It wasn’t the 'Russian government,' as Mr. Schiff said, but a British music industry publicist who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton, and it was a private Russian lawyer who later showed up at Trump Tower and delivered instead a pitch on sanctions relief apparently on behalf of an oligarch client."

But as Durham noted, "not only did the FBI open a case on a presidential campaign in the middle of an election, it did so on a piece of evidence that broke all records for vagueness and thinness, involving an opaque remark by an unimportant Trump volunteer to an Australian diplomat." Meanwhile, the two most solid pieces of evidence suggested no collusion. One was an FBI-falsified CIA email to say Carter Page hadn't been a CIA informant when he had, and the other was intelligence the FBI kept from the team investigating collusion that the Clinton campaign was planning to promote "collusion fictions against the Trump campaign."

In Fox News, David Marcus said Durham's testimony should "chill" Americans "to the core."

“Durham told the House Judiciary Committee, 'The FBI was too willing to accept and use politically funded and uncorroborated opposition research, such as the Steele dossier. The FBI relied on the dossier and FISA applications, knowing there was likely material originating from a political campaign or political opponent.' And whose political campaign you might ask was funneling this false information to the FBI?" Marcus asked. "Why that would be Hillary Clinton’s.”

"Put bluntly, according to Durham, the FBI had ample evidence to believe that the dirt dug up on Trump was coming from Clinton’s camp, that it was opposition research, not the product of a legitimate investigation, but they didn’t care," Marcus wrote. "In another stunning revelation, we learned that the original head of Crossfire Hurricane, as the probe into Trump was known, was never shown key information that pointed to the Clinton campaign as the source." This all came at a time when FBI agents "Peter Stzrok and Lisa Page were texting love notes about how they would never let Trump become president."

In The Federalist, Tristan Justice said Durham "put to rest" any doubts about the Department of Justice's weaponization by left-wing ideologues.

"Testifying with the calm and collected demeanor of a credible prosecutor, Durham made clear 'there is not a single substantive piece of information in the [Steele] dossier that has ever been corroborated by the FBI or, to my knowledge, anyone else.' Durham said FBI agents even apologized to him 'for the manner in which that [Crossfire Hurricane] investigation was undertaken.' Durham also told lawmakers at the hearing that the FBI ignored evidence indicating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton planned to link Trump to Russia," Justice wrote.

When questioned by Adam Schiff, Durham even "pointed out the representative’s own history of soliciting dirt from foreign sources on political opponents." Schiff pressed Durham on a 2016 meeting between Trump's children, campaign manager, and a Russian lawyer where they were promised dirt on Clinton. Durham said, "I don't think the situation is unique in your [Schiff's] experience." That was a reference to 2017, when "Schiff became the target of a prank by Russian radio hosts who posed as Ukrainian politicians claiming to have nude photos of Trump."

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left say the hearings went terribly for Trumpworld and Republicans.
  • Some point out the ways in which Durham supported the narrative that Trump needed to be investigated and that Russia posed a serious threat.
  • Others suggest that Durham got embarrassed by Democrats who forced him to acknowledge Mueller’s conclusions.

In MSNBC, Hayes Brown said Durham said "exactly what Trumpworld didn't want to hear."

"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," Brown wrote. "At no point in his testimony did he take the bait from Republicans to give credence to Trump’s 'Russia hoax' rhetoric." Brown said. "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."

"That’s not to say that the day was completely pointless," Brown wrote. Durham confirmed under Democratic questioning that "Attorney General Merrick Garland didn’t interfere with his investigation," he "admitted" that former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton still walk free because "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.” What we got was a far cry from what Trump called “'the crime of the century.'"

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait criticized Durham for knowing so little about Mueller's investigation into Trump.

"The man seems to have become so hopelessly brain-poisoned by Fox News he has lost all touch with facts outside the Republican information bubble," Chait said. Eric Swalwell asked Durham about a deal outlined in the Mueller report "in which the Russian government promised Trump several hundreds of millions of dollars in profit at no risk to himself to license a tower in Moscow." Durham said he didn't know anything about that. "When Adam Schiff asked Durham if the Russians released stolen information through cutouts, he replied, 'I’m not sure.' Schiff responded, 'The answer is yes.'"

"When Schiff asked Durham if he knew that, hours after Trump publicly asked Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails and release them, Russian hackers made an attempt to hack Clinton emails, Durham replied, 'If that happened, I’m not aware of that.' When asked if Trump referred to those stolen emails more than 100 times on the campaign trail, Durham answered, 'I don’t really read the newspapers and listen to the news.'" Of course, “being unaware of all these facts” explains why Durham “would assume the FBI investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia was a witch hunt."

In Above The Law, Liz Dye said Durham got "pantsed" by Democrats during the hearings.

"Four years and $6.5 million of taxpayer money later, all he had to show for it was one false statements plea by a line attorney, whose crime was ferreted out by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, and swift acquittals in the only two cases he brought to trial," Dye said. "Durham concluded his efforts with a 316-page report full of unsubstantiated allegations of skullduggery by the Clinton campaign and FBI bias, but without making any substantive recommendations on how the DOJ should change its policies.”

Hoping "to squeeze a drop or two of political juice out of Durham’s dud of an investigation," Republicans asked him to testify publicly. Instead, he got "ritually pantsed by the committee's Democrats." Durham's "big reveal" was that the Crossfire Hurricane investigation "should have been opened as a pre-investigation, or a baby investigation, or maybe a mild query. He pooh poohs the fact that it was opened after Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos bragged to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer that the Russians were going to help Trump’s campaign by releasing hacked information about Hillary Clinton. Which they then did." 

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. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • I actually left feeling bad for Durham.
  • No matter what he said, the partisans on both sides tried to tell their own version of events.
  • In the end, what he uncovered was damaging for the FBI, but it was not "the crime of the century."

There are plenty of things to take away from the testimony, but the biggest thing I felt was sympathy for the impossible situation Durham has found himself in. 

Ever since his probe began, he has — by the pressures of both norms and policy — had to stay silent. For four years, between Republicans claiming he was going to uncover the crime of the century and The New York Times reporting that his team was quitting because he was on a witch hunt of his own, Durham has never gotten to speak. That means that every move, every part of his investigation, and every sentence in every report has gone through the partisan meat grinder before Durham had the chance to explain his work to the public.

And last week, when Durham did speak, it became pretty clear pretty quickly that he was simply trying to do the job he was asked to do.

Consider this: In his opening statement, Durham said plainly that his report "should not be read to suggest in any way that Russian election interference was not a threat; it was." This is the opposite of how many conservatives interpreted his words, and was often interpreted by many Democrats to be what Durham truly believed. He said plainly: "I have the greatest regard, the highest regard for Director Mueller. He is a patriot." Remember: Durham was investigating the roots of the investigation Mueller took over, but made it clear he believed the special counsel did an admirable job in his work.

At the same time, Durham also made no bones about the things the FBI missed. He said plainly that, when presented with evidence the Clinton campaign was going to try to tie Trump to Russia, the FBI failed to "apply the same standards to allegations it received about the Clinton and Trump campaigns." He hammered the much-hyped Steele dossier, saying under oath that as far as he knows, "there is not a single substantive piece of information in the [Steele] dossier that has ever been corroborated by the FBI or, to my knowledge, anyone else."

Durham's report, and his words, are those of a man genuinely striving to stick to the facts, which don’t corroborate any fully partisan version of events. This is why Democrats called the report a "dud" (it didn't reveal the explosive criminal conspiracy Trump and others said it would) and why Republicans hail it as “damning” (it did make it clear the public was misled and confirmation bias infected the FBI).

Durham said both that an investigation into allegations about Trump colluding with Russia was needed, but also that the full-scale investigation wasn’t yet justified at the time that it was initiated. He praised the work of Mueller but said many of the Trump-collusion allegations could be traced back to the Clinton campaign.

The most disappointing part of his testimony was, as Jonathan Chait wrote under ‘What the left is saying,’ how little he knew (or pretended not to know) about Mueller’s actual findings. Most jarring was when Schiff asked Durham about Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort passing polling data to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian intelligence agent, which was probably the closest thing the investigation ever found to collusion. This was what the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee called a "grave counterintelligence threat," yet Durham suggested the question was "going beyond the depth" of his knowledge. Whether he was dodging or being honest, it wasn’t a great look for a man in his shoes.

Still, what Durham got for his attempt to stick to his work and make it clear this was both a damaging report for the FBI and the Clinton campaign while also decidedly not the crime of the century was this: Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) accused him of being part of the cover-up and suggested the four years he dedicated to the investigation was essentially a farce. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) said the whole thing was a "nothingburger" that was "set up to hurt the Mueller report" and tied Durham to Trump, saying "everybody's reputation who gets involved with Donald Trump is damaged."

In effect, both sides spent very little time listening to what he actually had to say and a lot of time hammering home their partisan talking points that deviated from his report. Welcome to Washington, D.C.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Our two parties have drifted so far apart, it's hard for them to compromise on anything. The net result is each time we elect a president from the party not in power, the new president begins the effort of undoing what the previous administration did. It's a waste of time and money with our country going nowhere. Couple that with the strong prospect of another presidential election with two incompetent candidates (Biden vs Trump) makes me wonder if there would ever be a better time for a 3rd party — one that is more centrist. Is there time for such a party to form, pick a candidate and get on the ballot in enough states to have a chance at being elected?

— Ken from Lisbon, Wisconsin

Tangle: I probably get this question from readers once a week, and it's one that has a simple answer but big caveats. Yes, I think we would benefit from a third party — but only if there is a legitimate, respectable candidate leading that party.

First, I feel compelled to point out that bipartisan legislation actually happens more than we think, the idea that Congress "does nothing" is a little overstated, and the story that each new president uses executive actions to undo the previous president's executive actions isn't as widely true as we believe. Congress may not be doing as much as it did in the 1970s, but we're still getting new legislation, and Biden has actually been pretty successful at pushing bipartisan legislation. More likely is that Congress isn't passing the laws many individuals want, which every individual would define through their own partisan lens.

Still, you're right that Americans are not happy with the current political system. Neither the Republican nor Democratic party has a favorability rating over 44%. Joe Biden, the current president and frontrunner for the 2024 Democratic nomination, has a 41.5% approval rating. Donald Trump, the former president and Republican frontrunner, has a 40% approval rating. 38% called the idea of a Trump-Biden rematch "exhausting." And it's worse still for Congress, which has only once in the last 15 years had an approval rating that ticked over 30%.

So, is this the right moment for a third party candidate? Like I said, I think it’s always the right moment; but it doesn't matter unless that party is represented by a legitimate presidential candidate.

If enough people don't believe that the third option is "real" enough, they'll just choose the lesser of two evils. But if there is a third option who can rally enough of a populist base, then this is probably the ideal moment for a candidate like that to build momentum and really strike for a new paradigm. In particular, RFK Jr. could probably rally broad populist support on the right and left, but his vaccine skepticism that he uses to draw in a lot of support is like an albatross around his neck for voters who could otherwise be drawn to the rest of his message. Joe Manchin could pull support from moderate Republicans and center-left Democrats, but he’s probably too loathed by the partisans on each side to win over a significant base.

I'm generally an optimist, but my honest read is this: The electorate's fear of the party they dislike is greater than their willingness to support an outsider candidate who speaks to many of their ideals. And I think, for the foreseeable future, you should be prepared for more of the same.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft of guidelines for the research of the therapeutic use of psychedelics. The release of the guidelines will begin a 60-day public comment period and moves the agency one step closer toward potentially legalizing psychedelics like psilocybin (in magic mushrooms) and MDMA (ecstasy) for clinical use. To this point, research on the drugs has largely been backed by private sponsors, though they've shown real promise for treating addiction, mental health disorders, PTSD, and depression. Axios has the story


  • 65%. The percentage of Americans who said the Mueller investigation was "somewhat" or "very" fair, according to a poll from July 2019.
  • 60%. The percentage of Republicans or lean-Republican voters who said the Mueller investigation was "somewhat" or "very" fair, according to a poll from July 2019.
  • 71%. The percentage of Democrats or lean-Democrat voters who said the Mueller investigation was "somewhat" or "very" fair, according to a poll from July 2019.
  • 43.1%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said the Trump-Russia investigation "was an attempt to hurt Trump politically, and should not have been conducted," according to a May newsletter survey.
  • 42.4%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said the Trump-Russia investigation “was sloppily done, but there were good reasons to start it."
  • 6.7%. The percentage of Tangle readers who said the Trump-Russia investigation “was conducted reasonably and uncovered serious criminal acts."

The extras.


August 3rd.


Come meet the Tangle team!

Have a nice day.

Cragun Foulger thought his dream to hike the West Coast Trail (or WCT) of Canada's Vancouver Island was dashed earlier this month when the airline lost all of his hiking gear. The WCT is a picturesque multi-day hike, a bucket-list item for many experienced hikers, and an experience Foulger could feel slipping away from him. "I kind of went through all the cycles of grief in about 15 minutes," he told the CBC. Once his gear was lost, Foulger took to the Facebook group that he used to help prepare for the trip to explain what happened and to thank everyone for their support in his planning. But the group members wouldn't let his journey end there, offering to pick him up and supply him with a backpack, tent, poles, sleeping bag and other necessary equipment. Thanks to the community effort, Foulger was able to hike the trail. The experience was "beyond what I could have imagined," he said. Sunny Skyz has the story.

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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.