Attorney Michael Sussmann was found not guilty of lying to the FBI in special counsel John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Mueller probe. Right-wing media and commentators floundered to find a response that would keep their narrative afloat, both turning against and supporting Durham, accusing the U.S. judicial system of being biased toward Democrats, and digging their heels into fringe conspiracy theories, even suggesting the case would go to “military tribunal.”
The charges were part of a Trump-era effort to prove any wrongdoing on the part of Democrats who alleged that former President Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government during his 2016 campaign. It became a central part of the right-wing contention that special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was based on a “hoax” fabricated by the Clinton campaign to target Donald Trump. These hoax claims became a bountiful source of content for Fox News, and were frequently referenced at Trump’s rallies. As Media Matters’ Matt Gertz said of Durham’s inquiry:
The network [Fox News] has aired more than 2,000 weekday segments that discussed his investigation or the origins of the Mueller probe since his May 2019 appointment, more than 500 of which came after he was named special counsel in October 2020, according to Media Matters' internal database. And Trump eagerly watched the coverage — during a September 2020 presidential press conference, he reeled off half a dozen shows that had covered the investigation that day, calling it “the biggest political scandal in the history of our country” as he tried to use the cloud of the phony scandal to bolster his reelection campaign.
Some on the right seemed to turn against Durham
Some on the right seemed to turn against Durham, who has previously been hailed for his efforts to expose the Russian collusion “hoax” and the Clinton campaign for their efforts against Trump in the 2016 election:
- Fox News host Harris Faulkner suggested during The Faulkner Focus on May 31 that an acquittal could “bring into question Durham's entire legality in this.” Although Faulkner went on to say that too much has been “unearthed” from Durham’s investigations that “I'm not sure legally that you can just wipe it away at this point.”
- Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton tweeted that the acquittal was a “major fail by Durham.” The tweet also claimed the “corrupt FBI and Clinton operation” have been “allowed to skate,” implying they are guilty of some crime.
- Conservative political blog Hot Air published a story calling the May 31 verdict “Durham’s flop.” The article claimed the outcome of the trial “probably puts a spike through any further efforts by John Durham.” Author of the article Ed Morrissey also tweeted the quote to his Twitter following.
- Conservative magazine National Review called the trial verdict an “indictment of Durham,” and concluded that it was Durham and his team’s ineptitude, rather than the evidence, that led to the acquittal.
Right-wing media lashed out at the judicial system in the nation's capital
Another prominent narrative spreading on the right holds that the D.C. judicial system, and in particular this jury, was biased toward Sussmann and the Democrats. This narrative claims that Obama-appointed Judge Christopher Cooper selected a jury that supposedly donated to Democratic political campaigns, including one jury member who supposedly has a child who plays sports with Sussmann’s son.
The idea that Sussmann was improperly protected by a liberal D.C. jury was particularly visible on Fox News prime time:
- Fox host Tucker Carlson started a segment on the ruling by claiming the jury was “comprised of several Hillary Clinton donors.”
- Fox host Sean Hannity, one of John Durham’s most vociferous promoters, also took this line on the May 31 edition of his show Hannity. He claimed, “There were major red flags with the jury pool from the very start. … The jury pool reportedly included Hillary Clinton and AOC donors, along with a parent whose daughter is on the same crew team as Sussmann’s daughter. … The DC swamp is leftist, liberal, and [Durham was] likely not counting on a conviction.”
- Earlier in the day, Hannity.com published an article titled “The swamp protects its own,” quoting a House Judiciary GOP tweet, and implying the D.C. “swamp” Democrats protected Sussmann from conviction.
- Laura Ingraham said, “Only in Washington does a sleazy Clinton lawyer admit he lied to the feds, get off scot-free, then gloat about it to a cheering press corp,” calling the acquittal a “predictable travesty.”
Other Fox News hosts and right-wing media figures repeated this same sentiment:
- Fox News’ Jesse Watters claimed on his May 31 show that “Sussmann knew he had this in the bag since the jury was selected,” and cited similar evidence as Carlson, saying, “Three of the jurors were Clinton donors, another was an AOC donor, and one of the jurors' daughters is on the same high school crew team as Sussmann's daughter. … What do you expect though when you’re picking your jurors out of the D.C. swamp.”
- Fox’s Mark Levin said on his radio show that the Sussmann verdict is evidence that “America continues to limp toward tyranny” and that he was acquitted “not because the case wasn’t overwhelming. It was. It’s because the jurors are all, if not mostly, Democrats, and so was the judge,” calling it a case of “jury nullification.”
- Fox contributor Joe Concha claimed, “This jury was predispositioned to have a ‘not guilty’ verdict.”
- One America News’ John Hines suggested on June 1 that the Sussmann trial was rigged because "the trial process [was] managed by the Obama-appointed Judge Chris Cooper, whose wife reportedly contributed to Hillary for America,” and made similar claims about the jury pool including people who donated to Clinton’s campaign.
- Conspiracy theory website The Gateway Pundit published a story on May 31 breaking the news of the trial’s verdict,claiming, “The DC courts are beyond repair after 8 years of the Obama Administration.” The article named Cooper as the reason the trial was rigged, declaring, “The fix was in!”
- Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “no one is shocked” a “DC Clinton donor jury” acquitted Sussmann, adding that “only people not tied to the establishment DC swamp ever face accountability.”
- Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec claimed the decision was made “despite direct evidence” against Sussmann, implying that the “DC jury” would have come to this decision no matter what.
- Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk cited both Cooper and the “DC jury pool” as reasons to not be “surprised” Sussmann was acquitted.
- Right-wing radio host Buck Sexton blamed the “NPR listening, WaPo believing jury pool” for being the “ultimate fail safe for the Democrat Deep state and Russia Collusionists.”
- Alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich accused the U.S. judicial system of having a bias against Republicans in a tweet that claimed: “Democrats can be caught on text committing crimes and the judge and jury will fix the case. If you’re a Republican, same judge will lynch you.”
- Right-wing radio host Glenn Beck tweeted, “As former AG Bill Barr told me in my latest podcast, ‘I do think there is a degree to which the system still has a double standard and is rigged against Republicans.’”
- Far-right influencer Ali Alexander shared to his Telegram channel that even though “anons” in the QAnon community were wrong about the outcome, “it’s okay to be wrong,” and blamed the outcome on “criminals” who “control the system.”
Far-right figures claim the loss as a harbinger of future wins
Even further down the rabbit hole, Fox News, far-right blogs, and fringe spaces online have been spreading narratives supporting Durham and implying that this loss means bigger wins for investigations in the future. One person claimed that Durham expected to lose Sussmann’s trial and was using it as a “test case” to see if the U.S. judicial system would let Democrats get away with crimes. The Federalist said it was a win for the Durham investigation regardless of the outcome because he has already proved that the Clinton campaign made up any Russian collusion.
- On the May 31 edition of Fox News’ Outnumbered, Emily Compagno claimed that even with this outcome, there will be “future indictments” and she sees “future developments of actual charges.”
- The Federalist also published a story claiming that “corporate media” has always been biased toward Democrats and that Durham’s prosecutors “shined a spotlight on the self-immolation of the profession.” The Federalist said that “emails exposed the supposed journalists collaborating closely with the opposition researchers working at Fusion GPS for the Clinton campaign during the 2016 election” as evidence of the media’s biases.
- Popular Gab influencer QAnon John claimed on Gab that despite the loss, Durham still succeeded in providing “MORE than enough evidence” that “ABSOLUTELY implicates Clinton and the DNC on some of the WORST crimes in our nations history.” The account also claimed the evidence will lead to “military tribunals.”
- QAnon Telegram influencer Woke Societies claimed on his channel that this outcome “is just one step” and that “there are bigger wins coming down the pipe.” The post also included a call to action to followers, saying, “Buckle up and be ready we are in this for the long haul, however long it takes.”
- QAnon influencer Praying Medic promoted a conspiracy theory that Durham used this trial as a “test case to verify the existence of jury bias” in Washington, D.C. In a post to his Telegram account, Praying Medic stated, “I would expect that Durham anticipated the likelihood of a biased jury and the return of a not guilty verdict.”