The Durham report and the inevitable end of Fox’s anti-Mueller farce

Sean Hannity discussing John Durham on Fox News

Citation Fox News Channel

Sean Hannity and his Fox News colleagues spent years furiously defending Donald Trump by denouncing special counsel Robert Mueller’s federal probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election as a witch hunt. They promised that prosecutor John Durham would expose its origins as a criminal conspiracy that reached the highest levels of the Obama administration. Now that four-year investigation is now closed after Durham failed to garner prison time for a single person — but Hannity is still crowing that he’s been proved right.

“Every single thing that we reported to you on this program, we were correct. We've been vindicated time and again, especially today,” Hannity said at the top of his show on Monday, hours after Durham released his final report. He added that Durham showed the Russia probe “looks more like an attempted coup, a nearly three-year-running political smear job against Donald J. Trump, all orchestrated by Democrats with the help of the DOJ and the FBI and, of course, the never-ending lies of the media mob.”

Others on Fox offered similarly over-the-top responses that fell well short of the facts, with commentators denouncing the FBI as “the Stasi” and “a domestic terror organization.”

Hannity is perhaps the single figure most responsible for the Durham probe. The Fox host turned his show into the fulcrum of Fox’s anti-Mueller propaganda effort and issued constant calls for an investigation of the investigators, which caught Trump’s Fox-obsessed eye. Trump’s own reelection campaign even credited Hannity with the launch of Durham’s investigation. But it’s easy to make broad conspiracy claims for your Fox show, and much harder to prove them in a courtroom. 

When Trump administration Attorney General William Barr appointed Durham special counsel in October 2020, he authorized Durham to “investigate whether any federal official, employee, or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence, or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, individuals associated with those campaigns, and individuals associated with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller, Ill,” and to “prosecute federal crimes” resulting from that inquiry.

Durham’s investigation ultimately led to only three indictments. He secured a guilty plea from FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who altered a document used to justify the surveillance of a Trump campaign aide and was sentenced to probation. Durham’s prosecutions of former Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann and Russian national Igor Danchenko on false statements charges were both unsuccessful.

Having failed to successfully identify and prosecute crimes, Durham dramatically expanded the purview of his final report and filed what amounts to a 300-plus-page op-ed. The report drew headlines, overwrought cable news outbursts, and over-the-top statements from GOP officials for its criticism of both the FBI’s 2016 decision to initiate Crossfire Hurricane, the investigation that ultimately became the Mueller probe, and its conduct of that inquiry. Durham’s take disagrees with a previous assessment from the Justice Department inspector general that the probe was properly predicated. But Durham ultimately concludes that, in his opinion, the Crossfire Hurricane probe “could have been opened more appropriately as an assessment or preliminary investigation,” which Just Security’s Ryan Goodman notes would almost certainly have eventually become a full investigation in any case.

Durham’s shell game pales compared to Mueller’s results. The Mueller probe generated 37 indictments and successful prosecutions or guilty pleas from Trump’s former campaign manager, top national security adviser, and longtime legal fixer and political adviser, among others. And his final report detailed the Russian government’s systematic effort to influence the 2016 presidential election in order to help Trump, the many ways Trump’s associates participated in that endeavor, and how the then-president sought to obstruct the probe.

Durham’s meager achievements also fall dramatically short of what Hannity and his crew said he would accomplish. Hannity spent years creating an alternate narrative in which then-President Barack Obama had directed a criminal conspiracy of high-ranking Department of Justice and FBI officials aimed at getting Trump through the Russia probe, and arguing that the Durham investigation would ultimately prosecute the malefactors. “People need to be exposed,” he said in March 2018. “Crimes were committed at the highest levels, and people in the end need to go to jail.”

In January 2019, hours after the Senate confirmed Barr, Hannity effectively urged the new attorney general to turn his monologues into a prosecutorial roadmap. He called for the targeting of 10 “deep state actors,” including former FBI Director James Comey, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, for their roles in the Russia probe. 

It took only four months for Barr to follow through on Hannity’s demands, assigning Durham to review the origins of the Russia investigation in May 2019. Hannity cheered the move that night as  “huge news, a colossal step forward for equal justice, and equal application under our laws” and “a big part of what is coming.” Over the course of the show, he suggested that Durham’s probe could lead to charges against Comey and other top DOJ and FBI officials including Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and James Baker, claiming that they had “committed real crimes.”

Four years later, Durham’s probe is over. He never ensnared Obama, or Comey, or Brennan, or Clapper, or McCabe, or Strzok, or Page, or Baker. He managed a single guilty plea from a low-level official who didn’t serve a day in jail. But he did provide Hannity with fodder for hundreds of frothy segments. And for a Fox host who seems to think his viewers aren’t very smart, that’s apparently enough to declare a win.