The Durham Indictment Fuels the Real Russia Hoax

It has triggered yet more bogus claims from Trump and his Russia scandal denialists.

U.S. Attorney John Durham speaks to reporters on the steps of U.S. District Court in New Haven, Connecticut.Bob Child/AP

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Following special counsel John Durham’s indictment last week of Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to an FBI official, a host of Trump cultists and Trump-Russia scandal denialists have hyperbolically suggested that this single charge proves Donald Trump’s false claim that Russiagate was a hoax whipped up by his political foes, the media, and (of course) the Deep State. Trump himself proclaimed that the indictment “revealed” the “years of Fake Russia, Russia, Russia stories.” Fox News shouting-head Dan Bongino exclaimed the indictment showed the Russia “collusion hoax” was “larger than we thought.” Glenn Greenwald, a longtime pitchman for the witch-hunt conspiracy theory, huffed that the Sussmann charge amounted to an “allegation of criminal impropriety regarding Russiagate’s origins.” Writing in the Daily Caller, J.D. Gordon, a Trump campaign aide in 2016, noted that this indictment bolstered the case for Congress impeaching “federal officials over Russiagate.” (He didn’t specify which federal officials.)

No soap.

As I pointed out in my new This Land newsletter, with the Sussmann indictment, Durham failed to deliver what the Trumpers most craved: evidence that the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation was fraudulently orchestrated by a nefarious cabal. The indictment accuses Sussmann of one instance of lying to James Baker, then the top FBI lawyer, during a September 2016 meeting in which Sussmann shared with Baker technical data assembled by cyber experts that suggested to them there might have been a secret communication channel between Trump’s business and a Russian bank. The indictment alleges Sussmann told Baker he was not representing any client in regard to this issue, though at the time he was representing a tech executive involved in this research effort and had billed his time related to this to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Sussmann’s lawyers assert that he never told Baker he wasn’t representing a client and that the billing records are wrong. 

Let’s put aside the question of guilt and do the math. It’s a confirmed fact that the FBI initiated its Russia investigation on July 31, 2016. The Sussmann-Baker meeting happened months later. It had nothing to do with the start of the probe. Moreover, the issue at hand—this unusual internet communication between servers at a Russian bank and a business related to Trump—was never a key part of the Russia investigation. The FBI found no evidence of a covert link between Trump and this Russian bank. Special Counsel Robert Mueller didn’t mention it in his final report. This ended up being an irrelevant piece of the Russian investigation.

As I noted in the newsletter:

The Trumpers and anti-Russiagate propagandists keep grasping for straws. They are like QAnoners waiting for Trump’s reinstatement as commander in chief… But even if Durham were to find evidence of inappropriate actions related to the FBI’s decision to investigate Trump associates in connection with Putin’s attack, that would not change the fundamentals: Putin mounted a covert assault on American democracy to assist Trump, and the Trump camp, which falsely denied this attack was happening while it was secretly interacting with Russian operatives, was complicit.

The indictment itself is also problematic. In a long Twitter thread, laywer Ken White said that if Sussmann did lie to conceal his ties to Democratic interests to encourage the FBI to kickstart an investigation related to Trump, that would be a serious violation of the law. But in an interview with congressional investigators, Baker said he had no recollection of Sussmann saying he had no clients regarding this matter. (The main piece of evidence in this case seems to be a memo written by another FBI official following a conversation he had with Baker.) Baker also told Congress it would not have mattered to him if Sussmann had said he was there on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign; he would have taken the same action. 

White noted there are “distinctly odd things about this indictment that take it outside the norm.” He explained, “It’s based on a face-to-face oral statement with one government witness, Baker. I don’t recall seeing another [lying to the feds] case like that.” He added, “the 27-page indictment is, to my reading, performative and seemingly focused on delivering a narrative of Trump-as-victim rather than a necessary exposition about Sussmann’s alleged crime. It’s a one-count [indictment]; that usually doesn’t require so much verbiage.” This raises the question of whether it’s a political prosecution.

Former US attorney Barbara McQuade took a sharper swing at the indictment. She contended the case is rather weak and is indeed a political move:

Another clue about why this case is being filed is the amount of detail contained in the 27-page indictment. It discusses the Clinton campaign’s efforts to engage in opposition research on former President Donald Trump, much of it beyond the scope of the very narrow offense with which Sussmann is charged. It may be that Durham is using this indictment as a vehicle to disseminate what he has found to the public so that Trump and his allies can paint a false equivalence between the conduct of the Trump and Clinton campaigns… With this indictment, Trump can now say that it was Clinton who brought information to the FBI about links to Russia in the first place and yet again claim the Mueller investigation was a hoax.

Which is exactly what Trump and his handmaids have done. It’s a false accusation. But for years, Trump and his cultists have deployed disinformation, deception, and distraction to undermine an investigation that clearly showed his betrayal of American democracy. This latest episode is just another round in the Trumpers’ ceaseless war on the truth. They will do whatever they can to deny the ugly realities of the Russia scandal and to cover up Trump’s treachery. 

McQuade writes, “Instead of a quest for justice, the [Sussmann] indictment appears to be one more shot fired in the information war… The Mueller Report spells out all the ways in which the Russia investigation was not a hoax. The only hoax is the charge contained in this indictment.” Actually, the big hoax is Trump and his henchmen’s claim that the Trump-Russia scandal was a Deep State-Democratic con game. That in itself has been one of the biggest Trump cons. And there’s no end in sight.

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If you’re reading this, a fundraising pitch at the bottom of an article, you must find our team’s reporting valuable and we hope you’ll consider supporting it with a donation of any amount right now if you can.

It’s really that simple. But if you’d like to read a bit more, our membership lead, Brian Hiatt, has a post for you highlighting some of our newsroom's impressive, impactful work of late—including two big investigations in just one day and covering voting rights the way it needs to be done—that we hope you’ll agree is worth supporting.

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