The Durham Fiasco Is a Warning of What’s to Come

Thank goodness Speaker Kevin McCarthy has created a House subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government!

Last week, The New York Times reported on an outrageous example of such weaponization, the flagrant use of federal law enforcement powers to target an administration’s political enemies. I’m talking, of course, about the John Durham special counsel investigation, which was meant to root out the ostensibly corrupt origins of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, and quickly came to embody the sins that Donald Trump and his allies projected onto the F.B.I.

Trump’s circle insisted, falsely, that the Mueller inquiry was a hit job that employed Russian disinformation — via the Steele dossier — to frame Trump, all part of a plot cooked up by the Hillary Clinton campaign. Durham seems to have bought into this Trumpist conspiracy theory, and to help prove it, he tried to employ what appears to be Russian disinformation to go after the Clinton camp. More specifically, he used dubious Russian intelligence memos, which analysts believed were seeded with falsehoods, to try to convince a court to give him access to the emails of a former aide to George Soros, which he believed would show Clinton-related wrongdoing.

Astonishingly, The Times found that while Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr and Durham were in Europe looking for evidence to discredit the Russia investigation, Italian officials gave them a “potentially explosive tip” linking Trump to “certain suspected financial crimes.” Rather than assign a new prosecutor to look into those suspected crimes, Barr folded the matter into Durham’s inquiry, giving Durham criminal prosecution powers for the first time.

Then the attorney general sat back while the media inferred that the criminal investigation must mean Durham had found evidence of malfeasance connected to Russiagate. Barr, usually shameless in his public spinning of the news, quietly let an investigation into Trump be used to cast aspersions on Trump’s perceived enemies. (The fate of that inquiry remains a mystery.)

This squalid episode is a note-perfect example of how Republican scandal-mongering operates. The right ascribes to its adversaries, whether in the Democratic Party or the putative deep state, monstrous corruption and elaborate conspiracies. Then, in the name of fighting back, it mimics the tactics it has accused its foes of using.

Look, for example, at the behavior that gave rise to Trump’s first impeachment. Trump falsely claimed that Joe Biden, as vice president, used the threat of withholding American loan guarantees to blackmail the Ukrainian government into doing his personal bidding. Hoping to get Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to substantiate his lies, Trump tried to use the threat of withholding American aid to … blackmail the Ukrainian government into doing his personal bidding. The symmetry between accusations and counter-accusations, in turn, fosters a widespread cynicism about ever finding the truth.

It’s important to keep this in mind because we’re about to see a lot more of it. Now that they control the House, Republicans have prioritized investigating their political opponents. McCarthy has stacked the Oversight Committee, central to the House’s investigative apparatus, with flame-throwing fantasists, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert. Further, as Politico reported in a “field guide” to the coming Republican inquiries, McCarthy has urged Republicans to treat every committee like the Oversight Committee, meaning all investigations, all the time.

There are going to be investigations into Hunter Biden, and investigations into the origins of the pandemic. There will likely be scrutiny of the F.B.I.’s search of Mar-a-Lago and Biden’s handling of classified documents. And, as my colleague David Firestone on the editorial board put it over the weekend, “Republicans in the House are launching a new snipe hunt” for proof that the F.B.I. and other intelligence agencies were “weaponized” against conservatives.

These all promise to be congressional equivalents of the Durham inquiry. Certainly, most if not all congressional investigations are politically motivated, but there is nevertheless a difference between inquiries predicated on something real, and those, like the many investigations in the Benghazi attack, meant to troll for dirt and reify Fox News phantasms. House Democrats examined Trump’s interference with the C.D.C. during the acute stage of the pandemic. House Republicans plan to look into what the Republican congressman Jim Banks termed the military’s “dangerous” Covid vaccine mandates. There might be an equivalence in the form of these two undertakings, but not in their empirical basis.

It remains to be seen whether our political media is up for the task of making these distinctions. The coverage of Trump and Biden’s respective retention of classified documents offers little cause for optimism. Again and again, journalists and pundits have noted that, while the two cases are very different, there are seeming similarities, and those similarities are good for Trump. This is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since by speculating about political narratives, you help create them.

“John Durham has already won,” said the headline of a Politico article from last year, noting his success in perpetuating the right’s fevered counter-history of Russiagate. Of course he didn’t win; he would go on to lose both cases arising from his investigation as well as the honorable reputation he had before he started it. What he did manage to do, however, was spread a lot of confusion and waste a lot of time. Now the Republican House picks up where he left off.

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