The investigation by special counsel John Durham into the origins of the FBI’s Russia–Trump investigation—Crossfire Hurricane—has now been active for more than two years.
Appointed by Attorney General William Barr following the completion of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, Durham immediately began his work in the spring of 2019.
The announcement of Durham’s appointment was received with much publicity, but conservatives’ hopes for a thorough investigation—with charges for those who had surveilled the Trump campaign—have slowly faded over time.
Barr initially indicated that Durham’s investigation would be completed by the summer of 2020, but as the presidential election loomed closer, it became apparent that the findings of Durham’s probe wouldn’t be released until at least 2021.
Just before the 2020 election, Barr appointed Durham as a special counsel, a move designed to thwart potential pushback from a new administration.
And while interest and speculation continue to surround Durham’s investigation, few details have been made public. Here, we provide an overview of what we know to date.
The Beginnings of the Durham Investigation
Durham, then-U.S. attorney for Connecticut, was appointed by Barr to look at the factual disconnect between the FBI’s official narrative on the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation into the Trump campaign and the actual underlying evidence.
Durham’s investigation may have begun sooner than many people are aware. Notably, just three days after Mueller had concluded his investigation on March 22, 2019, Barr and his closest advisers met personally with Durham. Then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was not included in these meetings.
The next month, on April 9 and 10, 2019, Barr testified before Congress that he was reviewing the FBI’s Russia–Trump investigation. Three days later, it was reported by CNN that “a senior Barr aide arranged for Durham to meet with Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz,” who at the time was investigating the FBI and Justice Department’s (DOJ’s) handling of FISA warrants used in Crossfire Hurricane.
That meeting may have been intended to bring Durham up to speed on the work done by Inspector General Michael Horowitz on the FBI’s improper use of FISA warrants, or it may have been to delineate Horowitz’s work and the work that Durham was about to embark on.
Barr would meet at least two more times in April with Durham.
On May 13, 2019, President Donald Trump issued a memorandum giving declassification authorization to Barr at his request. Barr later stated in an interview with CBS that he also had ongoing support from U.S. intelligence agencies—specifically naming Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Gina Haspel as being on board.
That same day, it was reported for the first time, by The New York Times, that Barr had selected Durham “to get to the bottom of the Justice Department’s investigation into members of the Trump presidential campaign.”
Additionally, the investigation that had been reportedly conducted by U.S. Attorney John Huber into FISA abuse was being taken over personally by Durham and his team.
Initial Focus on CIA and Foreign Nations
One of the first steps taken by Durham in June 2019 was to find out more about the CIA’s knowledge of details surrounding the alleged Russian interference campaign, along with any intelligence that may have flowed to the FBI from the CIA in the summer of 2016.
In the summer of 2019, Barr met with officials from the United Kingdom. Afterward, a UK official claimed that “Barr expressed a belief that the U.S. investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election stemmed from some corrupt origin.”
Barr is said to have further expressed “a suspicion that information had been improperly gathered overseas about people connected with the Trump campaign and that the British may have unwittingly assisted those efforts,” according to an official cited by The Washington Post.
Durham’s early focus on overseas aspects of the investigation was confirmed by a Sept. 25, 2019, DOJ statement, which noted that Durham was “exploring the extent to which a number of countries, including Ukraine, played a role in the counterintelligence investigation directed at the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.”
The statement went on to say that certain Ukrainians, who weren’t members of the Ukrainian government, had volunteered information to Durham.
Immediately following the DOJ statement, Barr and Durham both traveled to Italy on Sept. 27, 2019, and an official at the U.S. Embassy in Italy noted that “they had to scramble to accommodate Barr’s sudden arrival.”
Barr and Durham’s meetings with Italian intelligence officials occurred “after getting authorisation from the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte,” according to The Guardian. The two men were in Italy, according to the article, in order to “find out whether Italy had played a role in the so-called Russiagate affair, whether secret documents had been obtained and, in particular, to collate information on Joseph Mifsud.”
Mifsud is supposed to have told Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that the Russian government had dirt on Hillary Clinton. This claim, while disputed by Mifsud, would not have been particularly unusual, since many journalists and commentators were discussing this issue at the time. Downer later took that information from Papadopoulos to U.S. authorities, an event that the FBI claims kicked off the Russia–Trump investigation.
A Shift in Durham’s Investigation
The Italy trip marked a significant shift in Durham’s investigation—moving from the gathering of background evidence to the active interviewing of witnesses.
Barr and Durham reportedly had at least two meetings with Italian intelligence officials on Sept. 27, 2019, when they listened to a tape recording of a deposition given by Mifsud after he had applied for police protection in Italy. Additionally, Barr and Durham were reportedly shown other evidence the Italians had on Mifsud.
On Sept. 30, 2019, the DOJ confirmed that Durham was gathering information from numerous sources, including the British and Italian governments. That same day, a news report confirmed that the Australian government was also cooperating with Durham. In an apparent reference to the CIA and FBI, Barr reportedly told foreign officials that he wanted to make sure that the rules governing U.S. agencies had been followed.
In October 2019, Durham personally traveled to the UK for the purposes of interviewing two key witnesses—Alexander Downer and his assistant Erika Thompson—whose roles were integral to the stated reasons behind the FBI’s opening of Crossfire Hurricane.
In advance of his meeting with Downer, Durham reportedly reviewed the communication that was sent to the FBI which, according to the FBI’s official narrative, instigated its investigation.
Downer is believed to have told Durham and his investigators that he wasn’t part of any conspiracy to undermine Trump’s election campaign—he was merely passing on information that he received from Papadopoulos.
Around this same time, former CIA Director John Brennan publicly stated that he expected to be interviewed by Durham, telling MSNBC’s Nicolle Wallace, “I don’t understand the predication of this worldwide effort to try to uncover dirt—real or imagined—that would discredit that investigation in 2016 into Russian interference.”
A week after Brennan’s disclosure, it was reported that Durham was expanding his investigation, “adding agents and resources,” and had expanded the dates being examined, including a new “post-election timeline through the spring of 2017, up to when Robert Mueller was named special counsel.”
Additionally, Durham had added several former FBI officials to his investigative team.
As Durham went about the process of his initial interviews, The New York Times reported that he had already interviewed “about two dozen former and current F.B.I. officials” and that the “number of interviews shows that Mr. Durham’s review is further along than previously known.”
In addition to the dozens of FBI interviews, Durham’s investigative team reportedly “questioned officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.”
Durham also reportedly interviewed “around a half-dozen current and former officials and analysts at the National Security Agency, including its former director, the retired Adm. Michael S. Rogers.”
On Oct. 24, 2019, it was announced that Durham’s investigation had shifted once again—this time into a criminal investigation.
DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz released his report on the FBI’s FISA warrant abuses on Dec. 9, 2019. Horowitz noted that he had not found “any information other than the FFG [Alexander Downer] information was relied upon to predicate the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”
Of particular note was the statement by Durham, who noted that “our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.”
Durham stated that “based on the evidence collected to date,” he had advised Horowitz that his team “[did] not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
The next day, during a Wall Street Journal CEO Council conference, Barr detailed material problems with the FBI’s FISA applications and the subsequent surveillance of members of the Trump campaign, telling the audience, “If you actually spend time looking at what happened, I think you’d be appalled.”
As Barr said, “It’s hard to look at this stuff and not think it was a gross abuse.”
On Jan. 9, 2020, the remainder of Huber’s investigation was formally closed, with no tangible results. The bulk of Huber’s investigation had previously been transferred to Durham when Durham was appointed by Barr, but Huber had been tasked with looking into the Clinton Foundation.
‘One of the Greatest Travesties in American History’
In late 2019 and into 2020, while Durham was in the process of interviewing those involved in the Russia–Trump probe, the DOJ seemed to become increasingly cognizant of the sensitivities that came from operating in an election year.
Barr set new rules for investigations of “politically sensitive individuals” and required that no investigation be opened into a presidential campaign or associated individuals without his direct written approval. Of equal importance, Barr made clear that no publicization of any investigation, new or ongoing, be allowed.
Many in the media portrayed Barr’s directive as a swipe at the FBI’s 2016 investigation, but the memo’s real impact would be felt later in 2020 through the DOJ’s silence on Hunter Biden.
Meanwhile, on Feb. 13, 2020, it was reported by The New York Times that Durham was examining the possibility that former CIA Director Brennan “had a preconceived notion about Russia or was trying to get to a particular result—and was nefariously trying to keep other agencies from seeing the full picture, lest they interfere with that goal.”
Durham was also reportedly looking into “how information from foreign governments or the C.I.A. played any role in stoking suspicions at the F.B.I. about Trump campaign links to Russia.”
Then, on April 3, 2020, Trump fired Inspector General of the Intelligence Community Michael Atkinson.
Barr pointed out that Atkinson had materially overstepped his authority when he sent a whistleblower complaint directly to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) during the impeachment hearings, ignoring contradictory evidence and bypassing the Executive Branch in the process.
Horowitz, who was fully aware of these details, would later defend Atkinson—claiming that Atkinson was fired for “doing his job.”
Barr and Horowitz had previously disagreed on the FBI’s reasoning behind its opening of the Russia–Trump investigation.
On April 9, 2020, Barr made some of his strongest comments regarding the Durham investigation, telling Fox News that he was “troubled by the findings from the probe of the FBI.”
Barr noted that what happened to Trump was “one of the greatest travesties in American history,” and said: “We’re not dealing with just the mistakes or sloppiness. There was something far more troubling here.”
Barr publicly promised: “We’re going to get to the bottom of it. And if people broke the law and we can establish that with the evidence, they will be prosecuted.”
Subsequent reporting on Durham’s investigation appeared to back Barr’s promise. The New York Times reported that Durham was examining the origins of news articles published in early 2017—including the felony leak to The Washington Post regarding retired Gen. Michael Flynn.
And on May 14, 2020, a DOJ spokesperson stated that Durham was already looking into the “issue of unmasking as part of this broader review.”
The unmasking of Trump officials seemed to be aligned with the large number of stories in early 2017 that repeatedly came from anonymous sources within the intelligence community.
It was at this point that divergent information began to suddenly appear.
Events Foreshadow Further Shifts in Durham’s Investigation
On May 18, 2020, during a news conference, Barr said that Durham’s investigation wasn’t focused on either Barack Obama or Joe Biden. “Based on the information I have today, I don’t expect Mr. Durham’s work will lead to a criminal investigation of either man. Our concern over potential criminality is focused on others,” he said.
On June 21, 2020, Barr told Fox News that Durham’s investigation was progressing rapidly and that he expected more developments “before the end of the summer.” Barr also noted that Durham’s investigation was “not going to stop because of the election.”
But Barr then added, somewhat ominously, “What happens after the election may depend on who wins the election.”
During questioning before the House Judiciary Committee, Barr refused to rule out a Durham report in advance of the 2020 presidential election—but again noted that the investigation wasn’t focused, nor was it expected to focus, on either Obama or Biden.
On Aug. 19, 2020, a year-and-a-half into the Durham probe, FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a single count of making a false statement stemming from his role overseeing the Carter Page FISA process.
Prior to joining the Trump campaign, Page had been a source for the CIA, providing information on his business dealings in Russia. Had the FISA court known about Page’s role as a CIA source, it would almost certainly not have issued a warrant.
Clinesmith hid this fact from the FISA court, altering an email that stated that Page was a source for the CIA, to instead say that Page was specifically not a source. Doctoring evidence is a serious crime, even more so if done by an FBI lawyer during the application process for a FISA warrant.
When Clinesmith’s case came before a judge, he insisted that his statement wasn’t false, telling the judge that he had altered the email to make it more accurate.
Clinesmith not only altered the email about Page’s status, but also falsely claimed that Christopher Steele’s source—whose stories formed the foundation of the FISA warrant—was based in Russia when he was actually based in Washington. It doesn’t appear that Durham ever raised this issue with the court.
The FISA court would almost certainly have refused to issue a warrant based on that information.
Clinesmith was sentenced to probation.
Shortly after the Clinesmith plea, on Aug. 21, 2020, Brennan was interviewed by Durham for eight hours at CIA headquarters. Brennan himself had previously stated his CIA had provided the FBI with information that directly served to prompt the FBI to initiate its investigation.
According to Brennan’s spokesperson Nick Shapiro, Brennan was told during his interview that he wasn’t a target of Durham’s investigation.
On Oct. 14, 2020, the New York Post broke the news that it had come into possession of Hunter Biden’s laptop, which appeared to show Joe Biden’s knowledge and potential involvement with his son Hunter’s business dealings, directly contradicting public claims made by the presidential candidate.
The DOJ also had a copy of the laptop’s hard drive and had placed Hunter under formal investigation. Barr ordered DOJ personnel to ensure that the existence of the investigation didn’t become public.
After the 2020 election, while Trump was mounting election challenges, Barr effectively put his thumb on the scale when he declared on Dec. 1 in an interview with The Associated Press that he hadn’t seen a level of fraud that would have altered the election’s outcome.
The sudden and significant shifts that appeared to be occuring at the DOJ were highlighted in December when Barr told The Wall Street Journal that the CIA had “stayed in its lane” during the Russia–Trump investigation, seemingly contradicting earlier reports.
And a recent CNN article suggested that Durham had apparently found no wrongdoing by Obama-era intelligence officials who worked outside of the FBI.
Durham appears to have come full circle. Having started with looking at the origins of the FBI’s Russia–Trump probe, his investigation broadened considerably, only to return and refocus on FBI officials.
Durham did, however, petition a British court to compel Steele to produce documents, and on Dec. 31, 2020, Durham issued a subpoena for the Brookings Institution’s records on its former staff member Igor Danchenko, the primary sub-source for the Steele dossier. These actions appear to leave open the possibility that Steele and Danchenko remain on Durham’s radar.
Durham’s investigation has always fallen under the jurisdiction of the DOJ. Biden’s new appointees, which included many of the same people who had promoted the Russia–Trump collusion narrative, raises concerns of potential political interference.
In one of his final acts as attorney general, Barr appointed Durham as special counsel, a move ostensibly meant to insulate Durham from Biden’s DOJ.
It remains to be seen whether Durham’s appointment as special counsel was sufficient.
Correction: The year in which Barr and Durham traveled to Italy has been corrected. The Epoch Times regrets the error.