WASHINGTON – The special counsel who investigated the FBI’s probe of ties between Russia and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign found himself at the center of a heated political fight as he appeared before a congressional committee Wednesday, with Democrats denouncing his inquiry and Republicans arguing that its findings helped prove an anti-Trump bias within law enforcement.
John Durham, the Justice Department special counsel who recently completed his report, testified before the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing that unfolded against the backdrop of a 37-count indictment of Trump on charges he illegally retained classified documents.
Despite roughly six hours of testimony, the hearing broke little new ground. Under questioning from Republicans, he repeated many of the strongest findings of condemnation in his 306-page report and also faced criticism from Democrats over a four-year investigation that produced just one conviction and fell short of Trump's claims that it would expose “the crime of the century.”
The hearing spotlighted well-established law enforcement errors during the years-old Trump-Russia investigation, but Durham’s appearance took on more contemporary political resonance in light of the criminal case against Trump and efforts by the former president and some Republican allies to undermine public confidence in the FBI.
“They're never going to stop. Seven years of attacking Trump is scary enough, but what's more frightening, any one of us could be next,” said the committee chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.
Rep. Wesley Hunt, R-Texas, said Americans believe there's a “two-tiered system of justice” that, he said, was “terrifying."
“Here we are seven years later, still talking about President Trump and this Democrat-invented scandal,” Hunt said.
Democrats, for their part, went after Durham and his investigation in personal terms — Rep. Ted Lieu of California derided him for behaving like a “partisan hack.” They accused Republicans of using Durham's appearance as a pretext to criticize the FBI for its continued scrutiny of Trump and to distract from the former president's current legal troubles.
“That’s why you’re here today, not because of anything that happened in 2016,” New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the committee, told Durham.
Durham, who was appointed by then-Attorney General William Barr to review the origins of Trump-Russia investigation, tried to keep the focus of the hearing on his findings.
He noted that his review found that FBI investigators examining potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia ignored exculpatory evidence, used a largely discredited dossier of opposition research to obtain a surveillance warrant on a former Trump campaign aide, withheld key information from judges and lacked an adequate basis to open a full investigation in the first place.
He said the errors in the investigation were notable because the inquiry was not a “run-of-the-mill investigation” but instead concerned a “presidential campaign."
He said current and former FBI agents had personally apologized to him for the way the Russia investigation was conducted.
“It’s so highly sensitive, it could affect the outcome of a presidential election and the future of the nation,” Durham said. "You would expect that the discipline that would have been followed would have been higher than ever. And that didn’t happen here. There's a sort of analytical rigor, the discipline in how we investigate criminal matters, that was just absent here in large measure.”
Democrats repeatedly steered the hearing back to Durham's track record, the abrupt and publicly unexplained departure of his top deputy, and the fact that many of his more damning findings were already revealed years earlier in a Justice Department inspector general report. His investigation yielded just one guilty plea from a little-known FBI lawyer, a case referred to his office by the inspector general. And the two cases that Durham's team took to trial ended in swift jury acquittals.
In a tense exchange, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., tried to portray Durham as a prosecutor lacking legal standing and integrity who was attempting to protect Trump and his campaign for president.
“You had a good reputation, that’s why the two Democrats supported you,” Cohen said, referring to the Democratic senators from Connecticut who had backed Durham's nomination for U.S. attorney. “But the longer you hold on to Mr. Barr and this report that Mr. Barr gave you as special counsel, your reputation will be damaged as everybody's reputation who gets involved with Donald Trump will get damaged.”
Durham responded: “My concern about my reputation is with the people who I respect and my family and my Lord and I’m perfectly comfortable with my reputation with them, sir.”
GOP animosity toward the Justice Department was further fueled by Tuesday’s announcement that President Joe Biden’s son Hunter will likely avoid jail time in a plea deal on tax and gun allegations. Jordan tweeted that it was a “DOUBLE STANDARD OF JUSTICE."
The bureau also is facing bipartisan criticism of how it handles intelligence collected electronically under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows spy agencies to collect foreign phone calls and e-mails for their investigations.
A newly declassified surveillance court opinion found that the FBI had run thousands of unsupported searches of Americans, including queries tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and the 2020 protests following the killing of George Floyd.
Previewing Durham's private meeting Tuesday with the Intelligence Committee, Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the panel's chairman, alleged last week that the FBI “went off the rails” and hurt the justice system's credibility.
“Rules and laws need to be changed so that these mechanisms cannot be used again in this way to really harm the American public,” he said.
Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the panel's top Democrat, said after the committee's meeting that Durham didn't recommend any changes to existing law but broadly discussed the issues in the report and the handling of politically sensitive investigations.
“Our hearing was not political. Nobody was looking to score points,” Himes said. “People asked questions that indicated their political affiliation, but that’s because they were doing due diligence around things that concern them.”
FBI Director Chris Wray has acknowledged errors in the Trump-Russia probe. In a statement Tuesday, the bureau said it had “ already implemented dozens of corrective actions, which have now been in place for some time."
The Durham report "reinforces the importance of ensuring the FBI continues to do its work with the rigor, objectivity, and professionalism the American people deserve and rightly expect,” the statement said.