John Durham is the legendary lawman digging into how the intelligence probe of Donald Trump started.
John Durham may be the most consequential and least known figure in Washington right now.
In May, U.S. attorney general William Barr selected Durham, a longtime prosecutor with a résumé so sterling it nearly glows, to investigate the origins of the special counsel’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, and whether it was properly predicated. Some Trump fans believe there was a vast effort by a “deep state” of high-ranking intelligence and law-enforcement officials to smear Trump or hinder his campaign by creating a perception of corrupt ties to Russia. In late October, the New York Times quoted unnamed sources who said that Durham’s probe had officially become a criminal investigation, meaning he now has the power to subpoena for witness testimony and documents, to convene a grand jury, and to file criminal charges.
Since he is an attorney general appointed by President Trump, almost every decision from William Barr is criticized by Democrats as a partisan abuse of law-enforcement powers. But the appointment of Durham received no backlash, and in fact received praise far and wide.
Who is Durham, this rare-as-a-unicorn figure who can reassure lawmakers, talking heads, and court-watchers on both sides of the aisle, in an era when everything seems destined to turn into a loud partisan food fight?
To say Durham is tight-lipped is an understatement; he lets his courtroom arguments speak for him and rarely talks to reporters at all. Those who have covered him for years — or, more accurately, tried to cover him — say that when he does run into reporters, he is cordial but uninformative, and almost never on the record. In Durham’s questionnaire for the Senate while awaiting confirmation to be a U.S. Attorney, he was asked to list his written work. He answered that he had never written or published any books, articles, reports, or letters to the editor. (The Senate confirmed him unanimously, with home-state senator Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) calling him “a fierce, fair prosecutor” who “dedicated his life to public service and the pursuit of justice.”) Durham is nicknamed, inevitably, “the Bull,” and his reputation makes clear he doesn’t take any of it from anyone.
‘A Passion for Anonymity’
Former attorney general Michael Mukasey, who appointed Durham to investigate the destruction of videotapes of CIA waterboarding, says he was recently contacted by a reporter in Connecticut who wanted to write a profile on Durham, whom the reporter said he knew. “I called John to check the accuracy of that claim, and he confirmed that he knew the reporter but made it clear and specific that he had no use for personal profiles,” Mukasey said. “He thinks about the work, period — not about how it will be received in this or that quarter, or what caricatures people with a motive or a bias may draw of his work or of him. It is for that reason that I think he will be unaffected by the pressure of how his work will be received and how he will be portrayed — indeed, how some in the media have already started to portray him.” Mukasey said Durham reminded him of the title of Franklin Roosevelt adviser Louis Brownlow’s autobiography, A Passion for Anonymity.
The only time Durham has offered public remarks on his work was in a March 2018 lecture at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford, Conn. Durham was introduced by his friend of three decades and frequent prosecutorial partner, Leonard C. Boyle, the deputy chief state’s attorney in Connecticut, and Boyle observed, “At least three members of the press are here tonight, because they probably realize that this may be their only chance to hear John speak about his work, other than in a courtroom. He’s notoriously shy about speaking about himself.”
But in his subsequent remarks, Durham made it sound like his reticence to speak publicly wasn’t mere shyness so much as deliberate strategy to serve justice: “One thing that I try to bear in mind, and try to encourage in new young prosecutors, particularly those who are making their bones or cutting their teeth, is an awareness of the incredible power that is wielded by law enforcement, and perhaps federal law enforcement in particular. Issuing a subpoena can destroy somebody’s reputation. It can damage their business, hurt their families. It is an awesome power that we have, that should only be used in appropriate instances. . . . It is as important for the system as for prosecutors to protect the secrecy of proceedings, not because we want them to be secret, but because we’re not always right. Maybe accusations that are lodged against somebody are untrue, and again we can destroy a person if that information gets out.”
Fat Frannie, Buster, the Wild Guy, and Cadillac Frank
John Durham’s story in law enforcement starts all the way back in spring 1972, when he spent four months as a patrol officer in Groton, Conn. He was in between his graduation from Colgate University and starting law school at the University of Connecticut. After law school, he spent two years as a legal intern at the Connecticut Planning Commission on Criminal Justice, and then spent two years as Volunteer in Service to America, the precursor to AmeriCorps. In his questionnaire for the Senate while awaiting confirmation to be U.S. Attorney, Durham wrote, “my clients included principally the Crow Indian Tribe and individual members of the tribe. The focus was the protection of the natural resources belonging to the tribe as a whole and those possessed by individual tribal members.”
His long career as a prosecutor began at the office of the chief state’s attorney of Connecticut in 1977 and switched from state to federal government in 1982, when he joined the U.S. Department of Justice’s Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, working for the Boston Strike Force’s field office in New Haven. It was here that Durham started amassing an impressive collection of scalps in the courtroom, with enough colorful and notorious characters to fill seasons of a cable drama series about mobsters.
In 1984, a federal grand jury indicted brothers Gus and Francis “Fat Frannie” Curcio on seven counts of extortion charges, contending that the two men were members of the Genovese crime family. At the time of the trial, Francis weighed more than 470 pounds. Durham was co-prosecutor, and the brothers attempted every trick in the book to get a mistrial declared. During the trial, Gus Curcio had an in-court medical “episode” that was purported to be a heart attack. The judge excused the jury and cleared the courtroom, and Curcio was taken by ambulance to Hartford Hospital, where doctors determined that there was nothing wrong with him. This led to another lengthy courtroom fight about whether he had been properly diagnosed.
The morning the trial had been scheduled to resume, prosecutors were told Francis Curcio had been injured in a motor-vehicle accident the night before. The circumstances were suspicious, to say the least. According to court records, “while driving a 1975 Cadillac convertible, one of his older vehicles, Francis Curcio was struck broadside by a hit and run truck. The identity of the truck was never obtained and it was represented to the police that it had left the scene of the accident without its driver revealing his identity. However, shortly after the alleged accident, by coincidence, an acquaintance of Francis Curcio from Bridgeport happened upon the scene and Curcio was ultimately removed to the Bridgeport Hospital. The defendant complained of back pains rendering him unable to be present for the continuation of his trial.”
Unbeknownst to the brothers, a federal wiretap had recorded other mob-connected figures John Gregory “Buster” Ardito, a capo in the Genovese crime family, and Vincent Pollina. The two men had discussed the Curcio case and expressed a desire for a mistrial, then discussed what drugs could simulate a heart attack, and according to a subsequent indictment, “one or both of the Curcios taking a medication which he was advising them to take which when they went to court and took water, after having taken this medication, would immediately cause them to vomit.”
Durham and his co-counsel won convictions of both Curcios on all counts, and then went after John Ardito and Pollina for obstruction of justice. Both were convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
Year by year, Durham continued to rack up convictions in high-profile organized-crime cases. By 1986, Durham was flying solo, prosecuting John Palazzolo, Joseph Gazzara, John Truncalli, and others as part of the Bonanno family of La Cosa Nostra, on accusations of stealing a cashier’s check worth $8.35 million from a New York financial institution. They were all convicted, and the case led to subsequent convictions of Palazzolo, a Bonanno capo. (His father, James Palazzolo, boasted of becoming friends with Al Capone when Capone was sentenced to the federal prison in Atlanta in 1930 after being convicted of counterfeiting.) The following year, Durham nailed several officials of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters for embezzling union health-plan funds.
David X. Sullivan, a longtime federal prosecutor who’s now running for Congress, joined the U.S. attorney’s office in New Haven in 1989 and worked alongside Durham for years.
“John is a consummate professional — he never discusses the particulars of a case with anyone who doesn’t need to know about it,” Sullivan said. “John doesn’t need to raise his voice. He commands a lot of respect. When he spoke, people listened. When John did raise his voice, I’ll just say you felt his words. But he is just one of those people who, if you ran into him in elevator and had a conversation in passing, you would never know the authority he had or the weight on his shoulders. He’s strong but quiet.”
By 1991, Durham was leading the prosecution of the New England Family of La Cosa Nostra. One of the most notorious gangsters of the era, William “The Wild Guy” Grasso, had been murdered, shot in the back of the neck and his body dumped in a patch of poison ivy by the side of the Connecticut River in Wethersfield. Around the same time, Grasso’s right-hand man, “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, had been shot outside an International House of Pancakes but survived. The FBI and Durham rolled in, convicting seven high-profile mobsters, including boss Nicholas Bianco for 11 years and 5 months in prison for racketeering. The Hartford Courant called Durham “an avenging angel” who had put one third of Connecticut’s mafia in jail and never lost a case. In a six-year period, Durham racked up 119 organized-crime convictions.
Durham’s foes in the courtroom weren’t just the mafia. He won a conviction of William Dodge, leader of the Ku Klux Klan in southern New England, on charges of illegal possession of firearms, silencers, and explosives. During the trial of one of Dodge’s fellow Klansmen, Scott E. Palmer, Durham had a dramatic confrontation with a Roman Catholic priest, the Reverend Mark R. Jette, who had testified that Palmer had reformed his hateful ways. “He is confident Scott Palmer has seen the error of his ways?” Durham asked, according to press accounts. He then presented two drawings Palmer had made in prison. The first was a skull and crossbones with the words, “White Power,” and a note saying, “Kill all the n*****s for Santa Claus.” The other “appeared to be an oval-shaped insignia. At the top was ‘LYNCH MOB’ and at the bottom was ‘WALLINGFORD CT.’ In the middle was a noose and a fiery cross.” The judge found Durham’s presentation of the sketches more compelling than the reverend and sentenced Palmer to the maximum 63 months on federal weapons charges.
Durham and law enforcement rounded up 42 members of the Puerto Rican street gang Los Solidos and put them all away for long sentences with convictions and guilty pleas. The Solidos’ crimes were the kind that could make hard men lay awake at night: In a case of mistaken identity, a group of Solidos mistook a gray Toyota driven a Hartford mechanic for the similar car of a rival gang member in Charter Oak Terrace housing project and opened fire. They shot the mechanic’s seven-year-old daughter, Marcelina Delgado, in the head. Every gang member charged in the murder was sentenced to life in prison.
‘Some Things Are More Evil Than Necessary’
By 2000, Durham had built a reputation as one of the country’s best prosecutors, and he got the call from FBI director Louis Freeh and Attorney General Janet Reno to handle one of the Department of Justice’s most infamous cases: the claim that FBI agents had protected notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, even as Bulger continued to commit violent crimes. This was a jaw-dropping tale of corruption that later inspired the film The Departed and was also dramatized in Black Mass.
U.S. Attorney Donald Stern had recommended Durham for the job, and he told the Associated Press in an interview years later, “We didn’t go to Washington with a list. We went to Washington and said, ‘We want John Durham to do it.’”
“John Le Carré wrote in The Russia House, ‘Some things are necessary evils, some things are more evil than necessary.’ That is the fundamental question of what was going on in Boston,” Durham said in his lecture at the University of St. Joseph.
The Boston scandal represented the Bureau’s nightmare scenario. FBI special agent John Connolly Jr. had grown up in South Boston with mobsters James “Whitey” Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman” Flemmi, as well as Whitey Bulger’s younger brother William Bulger, who was elected to the state house in 1960 and state senate in 1970.
Connolly had applied to the FBI and been turned down, but on August 1, 1968, John McCormack, then the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and part of the Boston political machine, wrote a letter to his friend the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, touting Connolly’s attributes. Another letter followed in October. The day after the second letter, Hoover replied that Connolly would become a special agent, and Connolly was transferred to Boston in 1973. It is unusual for an agent to work in his old home city so early in his career, but Connolly had made a name for himself by tracking down and arresting Patriarca crime-family hitman “Cadillac” Frank Salemme in Manhattan the previous year — the same infamous gangster who would end up getting shot outside the International House of Pancakes decades later, whose assailants would be prosecuted by Durham.
“Connolly’s forte was not investigating cases, he wasn’t doing bank robberies or white-collar crime or the like,” Durham said in his speech at University of St. Joseph. “He had some interest in organized crime and recruiting informants. He makes his way back to Boston, and Connolly approaches [then state senator] Billy Bulger, who he appreciated for his political help, and asks what he can do for him to thank him for all the help he had provided. ‘Keep my brother out of trouble,’ he said, meaning Whitey Bulger.”
Around 1975, Connolly recruited Whitey Bulger and Stephen Flemmi to work as “top echelon informants” for the FBI, with the approval of Connolly’s supervisor, John Morris. They formed a devil’s alliance, with Bulger mostly providing information that led to arrests against the Italian mob, La Cosa Nostra, but left the Irish mob mostly intact. Meanwhile, Connolly leaked information that kept Bulger one step ahead of the Massachusetts State Police, the DEA, and any other law-enforcement effort against him. “The FBI had plenty of regulations and policies in place,” Durham said in his speech. “While the LCN was playing checkers, the Irish were playing chess. The number-one priority of the FBI at the time was taking down the LCN in the United States. [Bulger and his associates] had the keys to the kingdom, all the organized-crime information in Boston.”
The result was a pair of gangsters terrorizing Boston with an effective get-out-of-jail free card. “Steve Flemmi claimed that he had been told by the FBI supervisor, John Morris, that ‘you can commit any crime you want as long as you don’t clip anyone,’ meaning as long as you don’t kill anyone,” Durham said. “The indictment had extortion, illegal gambling, loansharking, use of violence and so forth, and his claim was that he and Bulger were authorized to do that.” The pair committed multiple murders anyway.
As the relationship continued, Connolly accepted cash and expensive cases of wine, and leaked information that led to the killing of three witnesses. He also warned Bulger about a federal indictment in 1994, prompting Bulger to go on the run. He was put on the FBI’s Most Wanted List, listed with the second-highest amount of reward money next to Osama bin Laden, and he remained at large for 16 years.
“As part of the law-enforcement tools that we have, [the use of informants is] a very powerful one, particularly when investigating organizations of violent individuals, like the Irish mafia up in Boston, or La Cosa Nostra,” Durham said. “It is true that oftentimes the only way you can attack those organizations is through the use of informants. But the damage that can be done when law enforcement or prosecutors misuse these tools is difficult to overstate.”
At the trial, Durham argued that Connolly “functioned as a member of a criminal enterprise . . . John Connolly knew what his obligations were, but he was on somebody else’s team.” Connolly was convicted of obstruction of justice and racketeering and sentenced to ten years, the maximum under federal guidelines, and later was charged with providing information to Flemmi and Bulger that led to the 1982 murder of a Miami businessman. Connolly received a separate 40-year prison sentence in Florida. Flemmi pleaded guilty to racketeering and ten murders and is serving a life sentence.
William Bulger went on to become the president of the Massachusetts state senate and president of the University of Massachusetts, and in the early 2000s he faced public criticism that he had not disclosed conversations with his fugitive brother to law enforcement. Asked whether he believed William Bulger really didn’t know where his brother was hiding, Durham said, “How much did he know? Probably a lot more than we can prove, but that’s speculation.”
The Boston FBI investigation and the Connolly prosecution proved Durham could step into a legal and political hurricane and follow the evidence, no matter how embarrassing it turned out to be to the people who had appointed him.
‘Not a Man Who Is Motivated or Influenced by a Political Agenda’
At some point, some particularly ill-informed critic of the administration may try to paint Durham as a right-wing hack or Republican loyalist. If so, Durham would be the rare kind of right-wing hack who helped send Connecticut’s three-term GOP governor, John Rowland, to prison. At the beginning of his third term, Rowland faced accusations that he sold a Washington, D.C., condominium at an inflated price and that state contractors had given him a sweetheart deal on improvements to his weekend home. By the end of the year, Rowland admitted that he had paid nothing for the work but pledged to pay the full price. Kevin O’Connor, the U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, had been a political ally of Rowland, and his wife had briefly worked for the governor. O’Connor recused himself, leaving the case in Durham’s hands.
The governor’s deputy chief of staff, Lawrence Alibozek, had developed a notorious reputation for bribery. The 22-page indictment against him listed bribes ranging from envelopes of cash, limousine rides, stays at posh hotels, and, in a detail right out of a novel, $10,000 in gold coins. Alibozek provided authorities with a roadmap of all the illicit deals in the Rowland administration and was spared prison, sentenced to a year of home confinement and five years of probation. His case was prosecuted by then–assistant U.S. Attorney Nora Dannehy, who has joined Durham in his current probe into the start of the Trump investigation. Durham supervised the negotiations of the resolution of the governor’s case, which led to Rowland’s guilty plea and subsequent term of imprisonment of one year and one day.
Durham is a registered Republican, but there’s no indication that he even blinked at the prospect of taking down the most prominent GOP official in the state. His longtime colleague Sullivan said, “I’m a little disheartened now when I start to see people attacking John in the press about his present assignment, because I truly know, in my heart, dealing with him for 30 years, that John Durham is not a man who is motivated or influenced by a political agenda.”
‘You’re the Only Things Standing between the CIA and an FBI Raid’
In 2008, then–attorney general Mukasey found himself with the challenge of investigating reports that the Central Intelligence Agency had destroyed videotapes of waterboarding sessions on captured detainees. Durham was one of a small handful of prosecutors Mukasey interviewed.
“The one story I heard about him at the time was that there had been a Hartford Courant article about him that mentioned him going to Mass three or four times a week, and that he had gotten a call from his mother wanting to know what about the other days,” Mukasey said. The former attorney general recalls that unlike the other prosecutors interviewed, Durham said he had no plans to keep the public informed about the progress of his work. Once again, his work in the courtroom would speak for itself.
Robert L. Deitz was senior counsel to then–CIA director Michael Hayden from 2006 until February 2009 and handled many negotiations with Durham during the investigation into the tapes. Deitz remembers Durham being “thoroughly professional and honest.” He jokes that despite being nicknamed “The Bull,” Durham was rarely disagreeable or difficult. “Oh, he’s a pussycat — very nice, very funny. Good sense of humor. If you were sarcastic, he understood you were being sarcastic. He’s such a straight shooter and a fair person.”
But whether Durham is more accurately compared to a bull or a pussycat, he could bare his teeth. “One day he came storming into my office at the agency, almost yelling — which was very uncharacteristic for him — and he said something like, ‘Bob, you’re the only thing standing between the CIA and an FBI raid!’ I was taken aback and surprised. He believed he was being jerked around by certain people at the agency, and it wasn’t an entirely wrong belief. I ended up talking to him at length and then taking care of the problem.”
Once he was investigating the destruction of the tapes, Durham didn’t discuss his work with Mukasey. Durham worked on his probe for three years in methodical and exhausting fashion. Unnamed sources told the Washington Post that Durham brought CIA lawyers, operatives, and others before a federal grand jury and probed for inconsistencies in their accounts; some witnesses testified four or five times. As the attorney general recalls it, there was no issue with cooperation from the CIA; then-director Michael Hayden “was well aware of the need to cooperate and that Durham would act with scrupulous fairness. His conclusion — that no prosecution was warranted in the circumstances — was never disputed by anyone.”
In August 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder expanded Durham’s mandate to see if any CIA officials who used “enhanced interrogation techniques” should be charged with crimes. By June 2011, Durham recommended opening full criminal investigations regarding the death of two individuals while in United States custody at overseas locations, and closing the remaining matters. A year later, the Department of Justice decided not to press charges in those cases, either. Holder declared that Durham had investigated every angle as thoroughly as humanly possible. “Mr. Durham and his team of agents and prosecutors have worked tirelessly to conduct extraordinarily thorough and complete preliminary reviews and investigations. I am grateful to his team and to him for their commitment to ensuring that the preliminary review and the subsequent investigations fully examined a broad universe of allegations from multiple sources. I continue to believe that our nation will be better for it.”
The lack of criticism for Durham’s decision in the CIA cases is a bit surprising, considering how routinely the agency was denounced by lawmakers, commentators, and activists, particularly at that time. The Department of Justice never elaborated on why Durham didn’t recommend charges in the destruction of the tapes, but one complication was that the burning of the 92 tapes on November 9, 2005, was authorized in a cable sent by Jose Rodriguez Jr., head of the agency’s directorate of operations. Another clue came in a Washington Post article, again quoting unidentified sources saying, “authorities found it difficult to pinpoint the motivation for destroying the tapes, and that it was difficult to prove criminal intent.”
In his speech at University of St. Joseph, Durham did not discuss his investigation of the tapes, but he did discuss the prosecutor’s calculus of when charges are warranted, which likely applied in this decision. “You are only authorized to bring a prosecution if you believe, based upon the evidence that you have, that you are likely to be able to prove a case not to the probable cause standard, which is all that is required to arrest somebody, but if you believe you can prosecute the case and prove that case beyond a reasonable doubt, and beyond that, that you would be able to sustain that conviction on appeal,” Durham said. “And if you can’t say, in all honesty, that you would be able to do that, then prosecution is not warranted. When on the nightly news, you’re watching what Bob Mueller is doing, and so forth, however that investigation turns out, whatever Mr. Mueller and his colleague conclude, if it’s not satisfactory to the public, it may very well be because Bob Mueller is an honorable man who applies those principles of law as he’s been taught and as he’s taught to others.”
“Durham was not just saying, ‘Do I have enough here that I could actually get a prosecution?’,” Deitz said. “But ‘Do I have enough here to justify — legally, morally, societally — this person’s conviction?’ That’s another reason why I admire him.”
‘They Ruined My Life’
As if all of this weren’t enough, Durham had a hand in coming close to cracking one of the biggest criminal mysteries in modern American history, the 1990 robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. In that notorious heist, paintings worth $500 million were stolen, including works by Vermeer and Manet, three Rembrandt paintings, and five sketches by Degas — the most expensive loot haul of any crime in American history.
In 2010, Elene Guarente, the widow of Boston mob associate Bobby Guarente, told the FBI that six years earlier, her mob-associated husband had handed over several of the museum’s stolen masterpieces to his best friend, Robert Gentile, in a seafood-restaurant parking lot in Portland, Maine. This put the septuagenarian Gentile on the radar of the FBI, and by 2013 he was imprisoned after convictions for weapons possession and illegal sale of prescription narcotics. Investigators dug through his property and underneath a shed in his backyard, looking for clues to the theft, and found what appeared to be a price list for each of the items. In 2015, Durham revealed in U.S. District Court that Gentile had been recorded negotiating the sale of stolen Gardner paintings with an undercover operative. Gentile denied all the allegations, arguing that if he’d had any of the paintings, he would have turned them in for the reward money. Prosecutors also revealed that Gentile had failed a polygraph test when he denied having advance knowledge of the Gardner heist, ever possessing a Gardner painting, or knowing the location of any of the stolen paintings. Alas, Gentile stuck to his denials and served out his sentence. The 82-year-old felon was released in March of this year, contending to the Hartford Courant’s Edmund Mahony that the FBI and prosecutors “ruined my life.”
Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O’Callaghan (left) and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report, in Washington, D.C., April 18, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
‘I Don’t Worry about the Mafia. There Are Actual Rules Here.’
Durham established himself as the go-to guy when the country’s top law-enforcement and intelligence agencies need to investigate themselves diligently, thoroughly, and fairly. According to the New York Times, Durham spent part of 2017 investigating James A. Baker, the former top lawyer at the FBI, over a suspected leak of classified information. This leak was not related to the Russia investigation or the Steele dossier, according to Robert Litt, the former counsel to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, who was interviewed by Durham as part of the investigation. To avoid the perception that the FBI was investigating itself, Durham used U.S. Postal Service inspectors as his staff. Durham wrapped up the investigation in December of that year and concluded that no criminal charges were warranted.
Throughout all these high-profile cases, Durham remained an exceptionally private figure. Sullivan calls him “an avid Boston Red Sox fan” and a devout Catholic. While introducing Durham at the University of Saint Joseph speech, Boyle mocked Durham’s one discernible flaw, a questionable fashion sense: “John wears a suit to work every day — dark suit, light shirt, modest tie. You would think it wouldn’t be that hard,” Boyle said. “When you buy the suit, the jacket and pants come together. John seems to have an unfailing ability to mismatch the jacket and trousers. His wife puts tags on his clothes to match them, yet he still gets it wrong — he goes out the door, he doesn’t take the opportunity to look in the mirror, and then when standing in a courtroom, only then does he realize he wore the grey striped jacket and navy blue checked pants. I’ve wondered if jurors wonder, ‘Do you think that guy does that on purpose?’”
Asked whether he feels safe while prosecuting violent criminal originations, Durham replied, “I’m okay . . . personally, I don’t worry so much about like, the Mafia. I mean, there are some actual rules here. Speaking for myself, I’m not sure for a lot of other prosecutors, what you worry about is a person you don’t know about, somebody crazy. They’re not an obvious threat to you. One of my sons is a prosecutor, and he’s prosecuting these MS-13 people. That causes me some concern for him.”
In September, Durham and Attorney General Barr flew to Rome with inquiries for the Italian government about the beginning of the probe into Trump. Working with Barr has prompted some commentators on the left to suddenly reevaluate Durham’s previously impeccable reputation.
Matthew A. Miller, who was the director of the Obama Justice Department’s public-affairs office from 2009 to 2011, speculated to Andrea Mitchell that Durham had been reduced to a pawn: “I don’t think John Durham is in charge of this investigation.” Earlier this year, Miller wrote, “One thing about Durham: he moves incredibly slowly. I’d be shocked if he is done before November 2020, meaning Trump will be able to attack the FBI as being under a cloud throughout the campaign. All part of the plan.” (One of Miller’s duties at the department had been announcing that Durham would not press charges in the CIA-videotape investigation.)
Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, contended that Trump has somehow tainted or corrupted Durham: “Those who have expressed their faith in John Durham’s professionalism & long years of government service would do well to remember that many expressed confidence in [Attorney General] Barr and [former Deputy Attorney General Rod] Rosenstein for the same reasons. Working for Trump does not change you — it reveals you. We shall see. But be prepared.”
On Capitol Hill, Democrats such as Representative Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.), Representative Adam Schiff (Calif.), and Senator Mark Warner (Va.) haven’t criticized Durham by name but have made statements expressing fears that the Department of Justice has “become a vehicle for President Trump’s political revenge” or “a tool of political retribution.”
George Papadopoulos is the former low-level Trump-campaign foreign-policy adviser who became a major player in the FBI’s investigation into the campaign’s ties to Russia and pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators. For what it’s worth, he thinks Durham will eventually reveal bombshells. Papadopoulos wrote on Twitter. “For anyone who thinks that AG Barr and John Durham are on a fishing expedition around the world following ‘conspiracy theories,’ I have a bridge to sell you in the Sahara. Their findings will change world history.”
Barr may well know that Durham’s reputation will make any indictment that comes down the pike credible and not easily dismissed as a partisan exercise. On October 28, Barr did a rare televised interview and said of Durham, “He’s a 35-year veteran of the department. Great reputation for non-partisanship. He’s a by-the-book kind of guy. He’s thorough and fair. And I’m confident he’s going to get to the bottom of things.”
Mukasey notes that Durham chose Nora Dannehy, who was part of the team making the cases against Governor Rowland’s administration all those years ago, as his counsel in the current investigation of the Trump probe. Back in 2008, Mukasey chose her to investigate the controversial firing of seven U.S. Attorneys two years earlier. She concluded that the firings were inappropriately political but not criminal, and that there was insufficient evidence to charge anyone with lying to Congress or investigators. “She, too, went about her work quietly, and has a reputation similar to Durham’s for skill and an intense dedication to doing the job,” Mukasey said. “I can’t think of two people I would rather have in charge of this investigation.”
From all this, we can surmise a few things about Durham’s ongoing investigation into the launch of the probe of Donald Trump and his potential connections to Russia during the 2016 campaign. Durham will not speak to the press at all until he is done, and probably not even then. He and his team are extremely unlikely to leak. He is not afraid to reach conclusions that will disappoint or frustrate Attorney General Barr or President Trump. He will not be rushed; there is no guarantee that Durham will reach any prosecutorial decisions before the 2020 elections. And he will investigate so extensively and thoroughly that no reasonable observer will be able to argue that something important was missed. As Sullivan describes Durham, “He will be in constant pursuit of the truth and the facts and the evidence. John doesn’t take days off. He is methodical, but he is always working.”
If Durham chooses to bring charges against any official who launched the Trump probe, history suggests he is extremely likely to persuade a jury to convict the accused and sustain those convictions upon appeal. And if he does not bring charges, it is extremely unlikely that any other prosecutor could have succeeded; regardless of what the official did, the evidence would not be there to convict or sustain a conviction.
John Durham’s career is full of big, high-stakes, politically charged cases, but this one is the biggest, highest-stakes, and most politically charged of all. Luckily, it seems like his whole life has prepared him for this moment.
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