Is the Durham October Surprise Fizzling?

Conflicting reports indicate that there might be dissension in the ranks of those conducting the investigation.

As we head into the last month of the election season, we approach the time when political analysts expect a so-called “October surprise.” One possibility that has been bandied about stems from Attorney General William Barr’s assertion that he won’t wait until after the election to release the findings of U.S. Attorney John Durham’s investigation into the origins of the Trump-Russia probe. But recent events are sending mixed messages about the status of the investigation that began in May 2019. 

Durham interviewed former CIA Director John Brennan – August 22, 2020

According to multiple news reports, the Durham investigation has focused on a claim that Brennan politicized the intelligence that eventually led the FBI to launch a probe into possible coordination between Moscow and the Trump campaign during the 2016 election. That puts the former head of the CIA at the heart of Durham’s investigation.

According to Brennan’s spokesperson, Nick Shapiro, the former CIA director was interviewed by Durham for eight hours last month. Shapiro also stated that, while “Brennan expressed appreciation for the professional manner in which Mr. Durham and his team conducted the interview,” he “also told Mr. Durham that the repeated efforts of Donald Trump and William Barr to politicize Mr. Durham’s work have been appalling and have tarnished the independence and integrity of the Department of Justice.”

This interview with the person who has been the focus of the investigation signals that the probe is in its final stages and that a report should be imminent. Mr. Shapiro’s account indicates that the interview was conducted in a spirit of mutual respect, but that Durham got an earful from Brennan about the way his investigation is being politicized.

Durham’s top aid resigned from the investigation – September 11, 2020

Federal prosecutor Nora Dannehy, who had worked with Durham for decades, was recruited to join the investigation soon after it was launched. In reporting on her resignation, the Hartford Courant noted that her colleagues said that it was “at least partly out of concern that the investigative team is being pressed for political reasons to produce a report before its work is done.” So one of Durham’s most trusted associates confirmed what he heard from Brennan: the investigation is being politicized.

Two senior U.S. intelligence officials leaked information about the investigation to a right-wing reporter – September 24, 2020

Paul Sperry is the reporter at RealClearPolitics who was the first journalist to out the whistleblower in the Ukraine matter that ultimately led to Trump’s impeachment. According to his most recent report at RCP, Sperry was the recipient of leaks from “senior U.S. intelligence officials” claiming that Brennan “overruled dissenting analysts who concluded Russia favored Clinton.”

The so-called “evidence” Sperry points to includes that a Brennan protege, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, was involved in writing the intelligence community assessment that was released in January 2016 exposing Putin’s motives for interfering in the 2020 election. Taylor’s other supposedly spurious ties are that she donated to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and had worked with the person Sperry outed as a whistleblower. 

The intelligence officials who leaked this information to Sperry also claim that Putin favored Clinton in the 2016 election because, while serving as Secretary of State, she was involved in the “reset” of relations with Russia. What they fail to mention is that the reset was launched while Dmitry Medvedev was still president of Russia and the endeavor soured when Putin was elected yet again in 2012. Competent intelligence officials would be aware of this rather dramatic turnaround, which was captured in detail by Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia at the time, Michael McFaul.

Especially coming within days of Dannehy’s resignation, this leak to Sperry indicates that there are those involved in this probe who were disturbed by the implications of her announcement and responded by doing what they could to continue spreading disinformation about the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation.

The New York Times reported that Durham is looking into the Clinton Foundation – September 24, 2020

Based on information from “people familiar with the matter,” the New York Times reported that Durham “has sought documents and interviews about how federal law enforcement officials handled an investigation around the same time into allegations of political corruption at the Clinton Foundation.” 

U.S. Attorney John Huber was tasked by former Attorney General Sessions with investigating the claims made by Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon and “Clinton Cash” author Peter Schweizer about corruption related to the Clinton Foundation. Given that he “found nothing worth pursuing,” this appears to be a move to find something—or anything—with which to tarnish Trump’s opponents. 

Maria Bartiromo announced that the Durham report isn’t likely to be released prior to the election – September 27, 2020.

Fox News host Bartiromo claims that a report isn’t likely to become public prior to the election, but the investigation is significant and is expanding to include the Clinton Foundation. 

It is difficult to determine what to make of these seemingly contradictory events. One possible explanation is that there is dissension in the ranks of the Durham investigation that goes beyond Dannehy’s recent resignation. 

Based on everything from the Mueller report to investigations conducted by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz and the Senate Intelligence Committee, we know that the FBI would have been derelict in their duty had they not launched an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Professional civil servants who are involved in the current investigation are likely to have found the same thing, which could extend to Durham himself. That will pose a problem for those like Attorney General Barr who are intent on finding ways to punish Trump’s opponents.

Barr’s calculation might be that it is better to keep Trump supporters speculating on the nefarious deeds of members of the Obama-Biden administration than to release a report exonerating a Trump critic like Brennan of wrongdoing. If that is the case, it would be somewhat reassuring to know that there are still civil servants in the Department of Justice who refuse to abide corruption.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.