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Durham report criticized elements of FBI's investigation into Donald Trump's 2016 campaign

The final report by special prosecutor John Durham, photographed May 15, 2023. Durham ended his four-year investigation into possible FBI misconduct in its probe of ties between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. (AP) The final report by special prosecutor John Durham, photographed May 15, 2023. Durham ended his four-year investigation into possible FBI misconduct in its probe of ties between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. (AP)

The final report by special prosecutor John Durham, photographed May 15, 2023. Durham ended his four-year investigation into possible FBI misconduct in its probe of ties between Russia and Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign. (AP)

Madison Czopek
By Madison Czopek May 17, 2023

If Your Time is short

  • Special Counsel John Durham released a 300-plus page report about his probe into the FBI’s and Justice Department’s investigations of allegations that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign had illegally coordinated with Russia to influence the election. 

  • Durham’s report suggested that the FBI acted on unanalyzed, unconfirmed intelligence reports to move too quickly to open a full investigation — rather than a preliminary one — into the collusion allegations. Durham didn’t conclude that the FBI shouldn’t have investigated the allegations at all.

  • The report didn’t clear Trump and his campaign of wrongdoing because that wasn’t its purpose. Durham was investigating the FBI’s and Justice Department’s conduct, not Trump’s. 

The long-awaited findings of Special Counsel John Durham’s May 15 report provide some support to long-standing claims from many conservatives — including former President Donald Trump — that the investigation into Trump’s 2016 campaign was overblown and lacked strong evidence. 

Durham’s report, based on his investigation that began in 2019, suggested that the FBI acted on unanalyzed, unconfirmed intelligence to move too quickly to open a full investigation, rather than a preliminary one, into the Trump-Russia collusion allegations. 

Durham didn’t conclude that the FBI shouldn’t have investigated the allegations at all. But his report fell short of bringing a flurry of criminal convictions, which had been predicted to follow the probe of what Trump called "the crime of the century" within U.S. law enforcement. 

The investigation led to one conviction and two trials, both of which resulted in acquitals. A former FBI lawyer pleaded guilty to altering an email from the CIA that was used as evidence when investigators sought court permission to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser.

What did the more-than-300-page Durham report conclude after investigators conducted more than 480 interviews, served more than 190 subpoenas and reviewed more than 1 million documents? Here’s what we know.

Who is Durham and what was he investigating? 

Durham was a special counsel appointed to investigate the FBI’s and Justice Department’s probes into the Trump campaign.

In 2019, Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, assigned Durham to investigate whether the FBI or other government agencies violated the law when looking into possible links between then-presidential candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia. In October 2020, Barr appointed Durham as a special counsel on the investigation, but Barr kept that appointment secret until December 2020 to avoid interfering with the 2020 presidential election. 

A special counsel is a semi-independent attorney tapped to investigate and potentially prosecute a case when it presents a possible conflict of interest for the Justice Department, or "where it’s deemed to be in the public interest to have someone outside the government come in and take responsibility for a matter," The Associated Press reported.

Durham was set to investigate the origins of the FBI’s Trump campaign investigation, which began in summer 2016, and the investigation by special counsel Robert. S. Mueller that began in 2017.

Special counsel John Durham, the prosecutor appointed to investigate potential government wrongdoing in the early days of the Trump-Russia probe, leaves federal court in Washington, May 16, 2022. (AP)

Did the Durham report determine that the FBI should have never opened an investigation at all? 

Durham’s report suggested that the FBI moved too quickly to open a full investigation, but stopped short of denouncing the FBI’s and Justice Department’s decisions to investigate. 

Durham wrote, "There is no question that the FBI had an affirmative obligation to closely examine" intelligence provided by the Australian government, which said its diplomats had heard George Papadopoulos, a Trump adviser, make alarming statements related to Russia. Papadopoulos served 12 days in prison for lying about his attempts to allegedly connect other Trump campaign staff with officials representing Russia. He was pardoned by Trump near the end of Trump’s presidency.

Durham wrote that it would have been a "sensible step" for the FBI to have opened a more narrowly focused preliminary investigation based on that intelligence — which Durham wrote was "essentially the sole basis cited by the FBI for opening a full investigation." 

Preliminary investigations, he wrote, are constrained by time limits and fewer approved investigation techniques. 

Durham’s report also recommended the FBI take additional steps to reform its investigation process. He proposed making an FBI official responsible for challenging the steps taken in politically sensitive investigations.

Responding to the report, the FBI said the conduct Durham examined was the reason agency leadership implemented corrective actions some time ago, although that time period isn’t specifically defined. If such reforms had been in place in 2016, the agency said, the missteps Durham identified could have been prevented.

Did the Durham report vindicate Trump’s claims that the investigation into his campaign was a baseless "witch hunt"?

Durham's report found that the investigation into Trump's campaign was triggered by uncorroborated intelligence that should have been scrutinized more intensely before a full investigation was launched.

But the report did not conclude that the investigation was entirely baseless and illegitimate. 

Trump has long referred to the investigation into potential collusion between his 2016 campaign and Russia as a "witch hunt" conducted without evidence. The former president has also often claimed that the collusion allegations were a "hoax." 

Durham’s report supports the underlying elements of Trump’s sometimes-exaggerated claims. Durham concluded that the FBI moved too quickly to open an investigation based on "raw, unanalyzed, uncorroborated intelligence." Durham also wrote that the agency had relied significantly on investigative leads provided or funded by Trump’s political opponents — without adequately questioning the motivations of the people providing the information.

Durham emphasized the need for heightened scrutiny and analysis. 

When the FBI’s initial investigation was opened, "neither U.S. law enforcement nor the Intelligence Community appears to have possessed any actual evidence of collusion in their holdings," Durham wrote

The report concluded that senior FBI officials "displayed a serious lack of analytical rigor" toward the information received. Additionally, Durham wrote that "apparent confirmation bias" and "an over-willingness to rely on information from individuals connected to political opponents" resulted in investigators acting "without appropriate objectivity or restraint" when investigating the Trump-Russia collusion allegations.

Durham’s report emphasized the role of confirmation bias in the investigation, rather than political bias. This meant that as the FBI investigated the Trump campaign, the agency "discounted or willfully ignored material information that did not support" the collusion narrative, Durham wrote.

The report did, however, outline how the FBI’s response to allegations about the Trump campaign differed from the agency’s response to similar allegations about the Clinton campaign, including: 

  • The FBI’s decision not to open an inquiry or have analytical personnel investigate "intelligence it received from a trusted foreign source pointing to a Clinton campaign plan to vilify Trump by tying him to Vladimir Putin" to divert attention from her own use of a private email server.

  • Providing defensive briefings for Clinton and her staff when, during her 2016 presidential campaign, it had gathered evidence that foreign operatives were working to gain influence with her campaign. No defensive briefings were provided to the Trump campaign based on the Australian diplomat’s intelligence.

Durham’s report is not the first criticism of the FBI’s investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. A 2019 report by the Justice Department’s inspector general criticized the FBI for "serious performance failures" during the investigation. Still, that report concluded that the agency acted without political bias and was justified in opening its investigation.

Did the report clear Trump of ‘all wrongdoing’?

Durham wasn’t tasked with clearing Trump of wrongdoing. 

Durham was asked to determine whether the FBI or others violated the law while investigating the Trump campaign.

After the report was released, Trump’s allies and supporters claimed on social media that it exonerated Trump and cleared him of "ALL wrongdoing." But that wasn’t the purpose of Durham’s investigation. He was investigating the investigators, not Trump’s conduct. 

Mueller’s investigation, not Durham’s, culminated in a 2019 report that cleared the Trump campaign of allegations that it conspired with Russia ahead of the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Mueller’s report reaffirmed the U.S. intelligence community’s findings that Russia favored Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but it did not find that the Kremlin’s acts on Trump’s behalf or the numerous contacts between the campaign and Russia amounted to criminal conspiracy or illegal coordination. 

Mueller’s report detailed numerous occasions on which Trump tried to impede that investigation, but Mueller ultimately declined to say whether Trump’s actions obstructed justice. Barr concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Trump for obstruction.

House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, announced May 15 that he invited Durham to testify at a hearing May 25.

PolitiFact Staff Writer Loreben Tuquero contributed to this report. 

RELATED: The Mueller report: What you need to know

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Our Sources

CNN, ​​Barr appoints John Durham as special counsel investigating 2016 presidential campaign investigators, Dec. 1, 2020

Time Magazine, Meet John Durham, The Man Tasked With 'Investigating the Investigators,' Oct. 4, 2019

Office of the Attorney General, Appointment Of Special Counsel To Investigate Matters Related To Intelligence Activities And Investigations Arising Out Of The 2016 Presidential Campaigns, Oct. 19, 2020

The Associated Press, EXPLAINER: What are special counsels and what do they do? Jan. 12, 2023

The New York Times, What Is a Special Counsel and What Can They Do? Jan. 12, 2023

The Washington Post, Steele dossier source heads to trial, in possible last stand for Durham, Oct. 10, 2022

The Washington Post, Steele dossier source acquitted, in loss for special counsel Durham, Oct. 18, 2022

Office of Special Counsel John H. Durham, Report On Matters Related To Intelligence Activities And Investigations Arising Out Of The 2016 Presidential Campaigns, accessed May 16, 2023

The Associated Press, Durham report on Trump-Russia investigation: What led to it and what happens next, May 16, 2023

The Associated Press, FBI was justified in probing Trump-Russia, fed watchdog says, Dec. 10, 2019

The Washington Post, Durham report sharply criticizes FBI’s 2016 Trump campaign probe, May 15, 2023

The Washington Post, Durham’s probe of Russia investigation has cost taxpayers at least $6.5 million, Dec. 23, 2022

CNN, Special counsel John Durham concludes FBI never should have launched full Trump-Russia probe, May 16, 2023

The Washington Post, The Durham report examined the FBI’s Trump-Russia probes. A basic guide, May 16, 2023

ABC News, After 4-year probe, Durham report slams FBI for actions in 2016 Russia investigation, May 15, 2023

Reuters, After Stone arrest, Trump says Russia probe 'greatest witch hunt in history,' Jan. 25, 2019

PBS NewsHour, President Donald Trump blasts arrest of confidant Roger Stone on Twitter, Jan. 25, 2019

Tweet from Donald Trump, Jan. 25, 2019

The New York Times, Code Name Crossfire Hurricane: The Secret Origins of the Trump Investigation, May 16, 2018

The New York Times, Here’s Your Unclassified Briefing on Secret Government Code Names, May 16, 2018 

The Independent, Trump claimed the Durham report would uncover the ‘crime of the century.’ Here’s what it really found, May 17, 2023

Politico, Former FBI attorney pleads guilty in Durham probe, Aug. 19, 2020

The New York Times, Ex-F.B.I. Lawyer Expected to Plead Guilty in Review of Russia Inquiry, Aug. 14, 2020

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Durham report criticized elements of FBI's investigation into Donald Trump's 2016 campaign