Special counsel John Durham, the Donald Trump-era prosecutor hunting for wrongdoing in the Trump-Russia investigations, came up empty Tuesday after a federal jury returned a not guilty verdict in his first major case against a Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer.
The lawyer, Michael Sussmann, was acquitted on charges of lying to the FBI at a fall 2016 meeting where he passed along a tip about Trump’s ties to Russia. In many ways, the trial was a proxy battleground to relitigate the most heated moments of the 2016 election, and was a crucial test of Durham’s theory that Clinton allies broke the law with their anti-Trump opposition research.
Here’s a breakdown of what this means for Durham, and where the investigation is headed:
What’s the impact of the verdict?
The verdict is a significant blow to the Durham probe. After more than three years, Durham has racked up one guilty plea, one acquittal at trial and has one more trial scheduled for this fall.
Since Durham began his work in 2019, he has been accused by critics of running a politicized operation that is essentially chasing down right-wing conspiracies about the Russia probe. The outcome of the Sussmann case is sure to fuel these criticisms.
“Criminalizing political opposition research-related activity of this type serves no criminal justice purpose,” said Michael Zeldin, a former federal prosecutor at the Justice Department and a former CNN legal analyst. “Hopefully, this verdict will have a chilling impact on future prosecutions if Durham intends to proceed using the same flawed theory of criminal liability.”
The verdict could raise questions about how long Durham should keep going. On paper, he is overseen by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who has the power to shut down the inquiry, overturn major prosecutorial decisions, or limit Durham’s funding. But Garland appears to have taken a completely hands-off approach and has barely spoken publicly about the probe.
How long has the probe lasted?
The Durham inquiry has outlasted the underlying Trump-Russia probes that he is reviewing.
The FBI opened the initial Russia probe, codenamed “Crossfire Hurricane,” in late July 2016. Special counsel Robert Mueller inherited that investigation in May 2017, and he wrapped up his work in March 2019. In all, that means the Justice Department spent about two years and eight months investigating the connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
As Mueller wrapped up his work in spring 2019, then-Attorney General Bill Barr tapped Durham to “investigate the investigators” and review the origins of the FBI’s Russia probe. So far, the Durham investigation has lasted roughly three years and one month, and the probe is ongoing.
What’s Durham’s next trial about?
The only remaining case on Durham’s public court docket is against one of the sources for the infamous Trump-Russia dossier – a compilation of memos written in 2016 by ex-British spy Christopher Steele, who levied explosive and unverified allegations against Trump and his campaign.
The defendant, Russian expat Igor Danchenko, was charged with five counts of lying to the FBI during his interviews in 2017 where investigators tried to corroborate Steele’s claims. Much of the material in the dossier has been debunked or discredited by subsequent federal probes.
Danchenko has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is slated for October in Alexandria, Virginia.
Special counsel prosecutors will likely use the case to put the entire dossier on trial, much like they used the Sussmann case to shine a light on the Clinton campaign’s murky dealings with opposition research groups and its efforts to peddle unverified anti-Trump stories to the press.
What else is Durham investigating?
There is limited visibility into the inner workings of the still-ongoing Durham investigation.
CNN reported in September that Durham issued new subpoenas to the Democratic-linked law firm Perkins Coie after Sussmann’s indictment, signaling a continuing investigation. Prosecutors also said during Sussmann-related hearings that they have an open inquiry related to Rodney Joffe, the tech executive that worked with Sussmann on the Trump-Russia cyber allegations.
Perkins Coie, where Sussmann worked in 2016, hasn’t been accused of any crimes. Joffe’s lawyers say he never broke the law and that Durham is pushing a specious political narrative.
Durham, The New York Times reported, has examined the FBI’s probe into the Clinton Foundation, scrutinized the leak of classified information regarding Trump’s former adviser Michael Flynn, looked into potential CIA misconduct regarding their analysis of Russian meddling, and probed a shadowy professor that right-wing conspiracists believe was part of a “deep state” government plot to undermine Trump.
None of these tentacles of Durham’s wide-ranging investigation have led to any charges yet.
How will this all end?
It’s unclear. As long as Garland doesn’t intervene, Durham can continue his work.
The marginal nature of the charges against Sussmann does raise questions about Garland and Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco’s management of the department. Their hands-off approach to Durham is intended to preempt political criticism from Republicans. But in trying to avoid political criticism, they allowed a highly politicized case to go forward based largely on the testimony of witnesses with forgetful memories, some of whom only appeared to endorse the prosecution’s theory against Sussmann after they found themselves at risk of possible prosecution.
Following the precedent of past special counsels, Durham will likely release a final report with his findings. Garland has previously said he hopes to publicly release “as much as possible” of the eventual Durham report, after it goes through a Justice Department redaction process.
Trump has claimed that the probe will vindicate his claims of Watergate-level crimes against him and his allies. After three years, Durham is nowhere near delivering on those expectations.
CNN’s Evan Perez contributed to this report.