Durham is Too Late to Stop the Madness
A Special Counsel report chronicles how intelligence agencies engineered a national hysteria, but its publication comes too late to reverse the damage
I read Special Counsel John Durham’s “Report on Matters Related to Intelligence Activities and Investigations Arising Out of the 2016 Presidential Campaigns” yesterday in a state I can only describe as psychic exhaustion. As Sue Schmidt’s “Eight Key Takeaways” summary shows, the stuff in this report should kill the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory ten times over, but we know better than that. This story never dies. Every time you shoot at it, it splits into six new deep state fantasies.
I’ve given up. Nearly seven years ago this idiotic tale dropped in my relatively uncomplicated life like a grenade, upending professional relationships, friendships, even family life. Those of us in media who were skeptics or even just uninterested were cast out as from a religious sect — colleagues unironically called us “denialists” — denounced in the best case as pathological wreckers and refuseniks, in the worst as literal agents of the FSB.
Especially through March 22, 2019, when the devastating news broke that the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller would be delivered without new indictments, the vehemence of this national wig-out was breathtaking. Jail-Trumpism truly became a religion during this time. I remember walking down the corridor of our Jersey City apartment building to walk the dog, hearing Rachel Maddow’s nightly crazy-casts blasting out from behind door after door, like the Songs of Angkar filling a Cambodian village.
News was an endless Millerite sit-in, with anchors daily preaching the “beginning of the end.” These calls grew in intensity heading into the Christmas season before Mueller’s report dropped. That winter, after a year-plus of waiting for the sounds of judicial hoofbeats on rooftops, grown men and women across the country composed heartfelt wish-lists to the inaccessible Special Counsel who, no kidding at all, became the cosmopolitan adult’s Santa Claus. I hope future historians see it, but in case they don’t, can we take a moment to remember how bananas it was?
Recall the women of Saturday Night Live singing “Mueller, All I Want For Christmas is You”:
Sick of hearing breaking news, and Giuliani’s interviews
Our balls are fully blue! Mueller all I want for Christmas is you..!
We don’t need a long-ass doc, just a single page that shocks
Mueller please come through, ‘cause our only other option IS A COUP!
On CBS, Stephen Colbert’s The Late Show — just beginning its transformation into midnight gulag entertainment as Stalin might have imagined it — celebrated the “holiday collusion season” with “Robert Mueller’s 12 Days of Christmas”:
Not to be outdone in security-state comedy, Jimmy Fallon pumped out “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not lie to the FBI” in a Springsteen rendition of “Robert Mueller’s Coming to Town.” Sing it loud: It isn’t fake news for goodness’ sake!
Along with the corporate productions came a slew of amateur efforts produced by ardent YouTubers. Each seems more amazing than the next in its childlike earnestness. “Mueller Baby” pleads, “Send in an indictment tonight!” For sheer wine-set cringe, “We Wish You a Mueller Christmas” set the standard. Nothing like bringing your minor children into your digital hanging posse:
The Christmas songs, Mueller votive candles, and $18 “Saint Mueller” prints were comic flip-sides to a miserably serious phenomenon. As the Durham report details, the national hysteria was engineered. Trump was mocked for calling it all a “witch hunt” because he was referring mainly to himself, but a witch hunt is what it was and still is, only the witches weren’t just in the White House. They were everywhere, and it was presumed all needed to be tracked down and exposed.
Early on, CNN pioneered the now-common practice of knocking on the doors of people accused of heretical beliefs, sending reporter Drew Griffin to Florida to confront a clueless elderly Trump supporter about attending a Trump rally purportedly organized by the Internet Research Agency. On TV, people like familiar campaign trail scribe John Heilemann wondered aloud, about California’s Devin Nunes: “Is it possible that we actually have a Russian agent running the House Intel Committee on the Republican side?”
Nunes fell under suspicion because he was the first to start disclosing facts Durham just fleshed out in detail: that the criminal investigation of Donald Trump was based on vapor, a conspiracy theory concocted by actually-colluding confederates in the Clinton campaign, CIA, FBI, and news media. Remember, at one time it was denied that the Clinton campaign was connected at all to the infamous Steele Dossier, which was used to dupe (we hope!) the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) into approving electronic monitoring in the Trump-Russia investigation. As even Maggie Haberman put it, “Folks involved in funding this lied about it, and with sanctimony, for a year.”
Durham shows how much more lying went on even than previously thought. For instance, despite the fact that “Crossfire Hurricane investigators did not and could not corroborate any of the substantive allegations contained in the Steele reporting,” the FBI paid Steele’s primary source, Igor Danchenko, $220,000 over 3.5 years, and wanted to keep paying him an additional $300,000, despite never producing any actionable intelligence. Think of the implications of one other detail about the FBI’s handling of Danchenko:
In late December 2016, the FBI determined that Igor Danchenko, a U.S.-based Russian national living in Washington, D.C., was Steele’s primary subsource. Notwithstanding this fact, the FBI and the Department did not correct in the final two FISA applications targeting Page the characterization of the primary sub-source as being “Russia-based.”
The “Trump-Russia” investigation was built without Russians. The stated predicate was a conversation an American reportedly had with an Australian about a Maltese professor. The public was told, in breathless tones by papers like the New York Times, that the patient zero of the probe, young aide George Papadopoulos, “opened up” to an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer. We were told he shared with Downer that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” a revelation the Times described:
Interviews and previously undisclosed documents show that Mr. Papadopoulos played a critical role in this drama and reveal a Russian operation that was more aggressive and widespread than previously known…
How far would this story have gone if we’d known even the FBI knew Papadopoulos never said anything about “dirt” or “emails,” or that even Downer “did not get the sense Papadopoulos was the middle-man to coordinate with the Russians”?
The same culture that celebrates the bugging of the Watergate as the archetypal corruption story won’t blink at the portrait of political spying painted in the Durham report.
We read about informants over and over prodding people connected to the Trump campaign in search of incriminating statements. One CI “challenged” Papadopoulos with “approximately 200 prompts or baited statements which elicited approximately 174 clearly exculpatory statements from Papadopoulos,” not one of which was relayed to the FISA court, to say nothing of media.
One doubts even Democrats want the FBI feeling free to send informants into political campaigns on “thin” pretexts — that’s an actual quote from an FBI legal attaché the report, “Damn, that’s thin” — to poke low-level functionaries with “prompts,” with the aim of landing them in jail. Or do they? Apparently, they do.
Mueller’s failure to deliver Christmas wishes ought to have been the end of the faith. Like the Great Disappointment, it just reset expectations for new theories of deliverance. People like me took too long to realize this was not rational argument, but religious crusade, one that still lives on the the New York City prosecution of Trump, an unapologetic outgrowth of the vaprous Russia probe.
Whether it was the Mueller fiasco or the report of Obama-appointed Inspector General Michael Horowitz (which ought to have vindicated Nunes, who was instead vilified even more) or even the Twitter Files revelations about Hamilton 68 and the scores of phony “Russian bot” stories, we now know nothing punctures the national madness. It’ll be the same with this report. The lunatic is on the grass, and nothing will coax him off.