Special counsel John Durham releases report on Trump-Russia probe

By Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 8:36 PM ET, Mon May 15, 2023
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8:07 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Key things to know about special counsel John Durham’s report on the FBI’s Russia-Trump probe

From CNN's Zachary Cohen

Special counsel John Durham released his final report on Monday in which he casts doubt about the FBI’s decision to launch a full investigation into connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Here are the takeaways from the special counsel’s report:

Durham finds FBI rushed to investigate Trump: The special counsel’s office “conducted more than 480 interviews,” and “obtained and reviewed more than one million documents consisting of more than six million pages,” while also issuing 190 grand jury subpoenas, according to the report.

The Durham report, however, relies on many public findings — including problems with the investigation that were detailed in a 2019 investigation by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz — to question the bureau’s decision to open a full investigation, one the watchdog found to be legal and unbiased.

And while Durham acknowledges the FBI did have reason to open a preliminary review or investigation, he accuses the bureau of failing to uphold its “important mission of strict fidelity to the law in connection with certain events and activities described in this report.”

Claims FBI had no real evidence of collusion before launching probe: Durham concluded that federal investigators did not have “any actual evidence of collusion” between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia before launching a yearslong probe into the matter.

That finding was at the core of Durham’s most scathing criticism of the FBI’s decision to launch a full investigation.

Durham knocked the FBI for failing to take several steps before launching the Trump campaign investigations, such as interviewing relevant witnesses, reviewing its own intelligence databases or using “any of the standard analytical tools typically employed by the FBI in evaluating raw intelligence.”

He suggested that if the FBI had taken those steps, it would have found that US intelligence agencies did not have any evidence tying Trump to Russian leadership officials.

FBI failed to corroborate Steele dossier allegations: The report is critical of the Steele dossier, the explosive document that had been used by the FBI to bolster its case for probable cause to secure surveillance warrants against a former Trump campaign adviser.

Crossfire Hurricane investigation “did not and could not corroborate any of the substantive allegations” contained in the controversial Steele dossier, which was used by the FBI to obtain a FISA warrant, Durham found.

Witness testimony exposed the FBI’s overreliance on the dossier as it sought court approval to wiretap a former Trump campaign adviser in 2016. Other FBI officials described rookie mistakes that undercut the bureau’s brief inquiry into a possible Trump-Russia internet backchannel. At closing arguments during one of last year’s trials, Durham told jurors that “the FBI failed” on many occasions.

Read more about the report.

8:07 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Durham report "offers no meaningful recommendations" on FBI procedures, Durbin says

From CNN's Nicky Robertson 

Senate Judiciary Chairman Dick Durbin said the report from special counsel John Durham report failed to offer any meaningful recommendations on how the FBI could improve the "application of its considerable surveillance authorities in its investigations."

He added:

“Donald Trump once predicted that Special Counsel Durham would uncover the ‘crime of the century.’  Instead, we were given a report that cost taxpayers more than $6.5 million over four years, just for it to reiterate the conclusions of the IG’s 2019 report,” referring to a 2019 report from the Justice Department’s inspector general.

7:55 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Durham interviewed Hillary Clinton on alleged plan to tie Trump to Russia — and found no provable criminal offense

From CNN's Evan Perez

Special Counsel John Durham’s report details his investigation of a purported effort by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign to tie Donald Trump to Russia – and Durham concluded that it “did not, all things considered, amount to a provable criminal offense.”

Durham reveals in a footnote that he interviewed Clinton in May 2022 as part of the probe. The investigation was looking into whether any crimes occurred in the handling of an uncorroborated piece of US intelligence indicating the Russians knew of a Clinton campaign plan to vilify her opponent, Trump, by tying him to Russia.

The 2016 intelligence got the attention of then CIA Director John Brennan, who briefed the Obama White House and referred the issue to the FBI.

During the Trump administration, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released some of Brennan’s notes about the intelligence used in his briefing of former President Barack Obama. 

Ratcliffe publicly said that the intelligence community never corroborated the Russian claims of a Clinton Plan to frame Trump, and didn’t know whether it was fabricated. 

But Durham believes the uncorroborated intelligence should have at least made the FBI question whether it was being used by a political opponent to pursue allegations against the Trump campaign, the report shows. 

In her interview with Durham’s investigators, Clinton expressed sympathy for Durham’s hunt. She calls it, “really sad,” adding “I get it, you have to go down every rabbit hole.” 

She called the intelligence that was consuming Durham’s time bogus, saying it “looked like Russian disinformation to me.”

A spokesman for Clinton didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Durham concludes that it would be impossible to prosecute anyone for their handling of the Clinton Plan intelligence. He said it “amounted to a significant intelligence failure,” but not a crime.

5:53 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Analysis: A full FBI investigation into the Trump-Russia probe allowed agents to use invasive intel tools

Analysis from Josh Campbell, CNN Correspondent and former FBI special agent

Special counsel John Durham concluded that the FBI should have never launched a full investigation into connections between Donald Trump's campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election. 

The bureau does have a distinction between the types of investigations it can launch — and having a full probe allowed agents to use broader surveillance tools when looking into the Trump team Russia. 

Here's the difference between a full FBI investigation — which Durham has criticized in the Trump-Russia probe — and a preliminary investigation. 

A preliminary investigation requires a lower threshold to open than a full investigation, and for that reason also means the agents can’t use more invasive tools like Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants and other court authorized surveillance. 

Specifically, according to the FBI's Domestic Investigations and Operations Guide, during a preliminary investigation:

  • An agent must have “information or allegation” of a federal crime being committed or about to be committed.
  • It requires a relatively low threshold to open.
  • The investigation can only be open for six months without the agent running the case taking one of three actions: seeking a renewal, converting it to a Full investigation if authorized, or closing the case. 
  • Cannot use intrusive tools like FISA and other electronic surveillance.

A full investigation is more extensive and agents have access to more tools. During a full investigation: 

  • An agent must have an “articulable factual basis” that a crime has or is about to occur in order to open the case. It’s a relatively high standard to open requiring more than merely an allegation of criminal wrongdoing.
  • No timeline for the investigation, but typically assessed by FBI supervisors annually to determine whether it should remain open.
  • All lawful tools, including intrusive surveillance allowed.

Bottom line, if the FBI had opened the investigation into the Trump-Russia probe as a preliminary vs. a full one, they would not have been permitted to use the host of FISA tools that ultimately became the subject of scrutiny by Durham, the Trump team, and DOJ's inspector general. Opening the case as a preliminary investigation would have also limited the amount of information the FBI could collect as it sought to uncover potential ties between members of the Trump team and Russia. 

5:12 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Here's what Trump said about the Durham report

From CNN's Kristen Holmes and Sara Murray

Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire in April.
Former President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attends a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire in April. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Former President Donald Trump responded to special counsel John Durham’s report that concluded that the FBI should never have launched a full-blown investigation into connections between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. 

“WOW! After extensive research, Special Counsel John Durham concludes the FBI never should have launched the Trump-Russia Probe!” Trump posted to Truth Social Monday. “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!”

Durham was appointed special counsel under former Attorney General William Barr to investigate potential misconduct in the Trump-Russia probe. 

4:32 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Read the full Durham report

From CNN staff

Special counsel John Durham, on Monday, released his highly anticipated report surrounding the investigation into Donald Trump's campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.

Read the full report here:

4:28 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Investigation into the Trump-Russia probe led to mixed results over the last 3 years

From CNN's Zachary Cohen, Devan Cole, Tierney Sneed, Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen

Former Attorney General William Barr tapped special counsel John Durham in 2019 to review the origins of the Russia probe, and the scope of Durham’s work grew over the years.

He scrutinized the FBI’s handling of the Steele dossier, leaks of classified information about Trump-Russia contacts, and possible CIA misconduct regarding its analysis of Russian meddling, among other topics.

Largely, his inquiry seemed to always zero in on former President Donald Trump’s political opponents and perceived enemies.

When Durham began his probe, he was seen as an apolitical truth-seeker with a knack for investigating complex cases, including government scandals.

But that reputation waned over the years, especially after Durham took the unprecedented step of publicly rebuking the Justice Department inspector general after the watchdog released a report finding that the FBI’s decision to open the Trump-Russia probe was legally justified and untainted by bias.

Both Barr and Durham were publicly critical of the December 2019 inspector general report on the FBI’s Russia investigation.

That report contained blistering criticisms of FBI’s reliance on an unverified opposition research dossier on Trump and Russia and the FISA warrants that cited the dossier’s allegations, but Inspector General Michael Horowitz wrote he did not find “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” to open investigations that initially focused on four Trump campaign aides and advisers.

Former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, which inherited the initial Russia probe, released a detailed accounting of Russia’s effort to interfere in the 2016 election.

Mueller found no evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, but investigators documented numerous contacts between Trump associates and Russians.

The final Mueller report did not rely on the opposition research dossier.

The FBI has made reforms to the way it obtains warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in light of the inspector general’s report — which led to FBI invalidating two of the four warrants it obtained on the Trump campaign adviser – as well as a follow up investigation revealing widespread problems with FISA court applications.

In congressional testimony in 2020, FBI Director Chris Wray said that the FBI had implemented more than 40 changes aimed at making the FISA process more stringent in response to Horowitz’s report.

5:04 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

John Durham went to trial twice during his probe, both ended in acquittal

From CNN's Zachary Cohen, Devan Cole, Tierney Sneed, Jeremy Herb and Marshall Cohen

Russian analyst Igor Danchenko, center, arrives at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse on October 11, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia.
Russian analyst Igor Danchenko, center, arrives at the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse on October 11, 2022 in Alexandria, Virginia. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Special counsel John Durham scrutinized the FBI’s handling of the dossier, leaks of classified information about Trump-Russia contacts and possible CIA misconduct regarding its analysis of Russian meddling, among other topics during the course of his investigation.

But, he only pressed forward with two trials during his probe, both ending in acquittal.

Before the 2020 election, Barr elevated Durham to “special counsel” status, further protecting his position and making it politically difficult for the Biden-run Justice Department to control or shut down the investigation.

During the trials, Trump and his allies continued to make bold predictions about what would be uncovered in the probe, particularly after Durham released vague allegations through court filings. Trump last year told Fox News that Durham was exposing the “crime of the century.”

His case against Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann ended with an acquittal in May. Durham charged Sussmann with lying to a top FBI official in September 2016 while passing along a tip about Trump’s ties to Russia. Sussmann’s lawyers accused Durham of bullying witnesses into changing their story and cherry-picking evidence to fuel claims of an anti-Trump conspiracy. After his acquittal, Sussmann said he was “falsely accused” by Durham.

In October, Durham personally oversaw his trial against Trump-Russia dossier source Igor Danchenko, who was charged with lying to the FBI about his sub-sourcing. Durham handled most of the arguments and witness questioning, but things quickly got off the rails.

He attacked his own witnesses when they helped the defense, and the judge threw out one of the five charges mid-trial. The Virginia jury reached “not guilty” verdicts on all remaining counts.

4:21 p.m. ET, May 15, 2023

Who is special counsel John Durham?

From CNN's Jack Forrest and Marshall Cohen

Special counsel John Durham leaves federal court in May 2022.
Special counsel John Durham leaves federal court in May 2022. Julia Nikhinson/Reuters

John Durham, the special counsel who led the investigation into potential misconduct in the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe, has made a career of investigating high-profile public corruption.

In a 300-plus page report, the Trump administration appointee determined that the FBI should never have launched its investigation into connections between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, according to the report compiled over three years and released on Monday.

Durham, 73, was appointed to serve as special counsel in October 2020 by then-Attorney General William Barr. He previously was the Justice Department’s top prosecutor in Connecticut — a position he was appointed to in 2017 and left in 2021.

Durham became a lawyer in 1975. He is known for having handled high-profile, sensitive investigations in both Democratic and Republican administrations during his decadeslong career with the Justice Department.

He was appointed by then-Attorney General Janet Reno in 1999 to investigate corruption surrounding the use of FBI informants in Boston, and later by then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey to investigate the CIA’s destruction of videotapes of detainee interrogations in 2008. Durham closed the latter probe without bringing any charges.

In addition to his work as a special prosecutor, Durham has extensive experience as a trial lawyer. He went after gangs in New Haven, prosecuted mob figures, and secured a guilty plea from former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, a Republican who admitted to corruption.