Former President Donald Trump gushed “I am so proud” when then-Attorney General William Barr tapped John Durham to look for widespread wrongdoing by FBI officials in the early stages of its Russia-collusion probe.
That was in May 2019.
Two years later, Mr. Trump and other conservatives mock the investigation that has practically disappeared without an utterance from Mr. Durham or any sign that he has uncovered anything.
“Where’s Durham?” Mr. Trump said in March. “Is he a living, breathing human being? Will there ever be a Durham report?”
Mr. Trump’s about-face is emblematic of the extent to which conservatives have soured on the Durham investigation. Those who once breathlessly predicted the probe would uncover a deep state conspiracy against Mr. Trump have now reduced it to a punchline.
When a poll last month revealed that 67% of Americans are unaware of the Durham probe, some internet jokesters wondered if Mr. Durham himself was among those oblivious to its existence.
As the investigation sputtered to its second anniversary on Thursday with few signs of life, conservatives questioned what Mr. Durham has been up to for the past 24 months and if the public ever finds out, will anyone care?
“To say there has been a federal investigation into these FBI abuses and there has been one plea deal is to condemn it,” said Tom Fitton, president of the conservative activist group Judicial Watch. “You are describing failure.”
Once-hopeful conservatives believed Mr. Durham would ride into town and aggressively expose malfeasance by Obama-era FBI and Justice Department officials. They expected his probe would shed light on whether FBI officials knowingly misled a court when it obtained permission to wiretap former Trump adviser Carter Page.
Now they are puzzled as to why he has yet to interview FBI officials who held senior roles in 2016. Former FBI Director James B. Comey, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and anti-Trump investigator Peter Strzok haven’t spoken with Mr. Durham, according to people familiar with the probe.
Mr. Durham did interview former CIA Director John O. Brennan in 2020 but told him that he was not the target of any criminal inquiry. The reason for the Brennan interview remains opaque.
Robert Ray, who succeeded Kenneth Starr as independent counsel during investigations into then-President Clinton, said these types of probes have a shelf life. The longer an investigation runs, the more obstacles emerge because witnesses’s memories fade and cooperation becomes more difficult to obtain.
“If your investigation hasn’t yielded results around the time you hit 18 months, it’s a question of diminishing returns,” Mr. Ray said. “The longer it goes on, the less you achieve. You either have it, or you don’t.”
Yet the goalposts keep moving in the Durham probe. In the spring of 2020, Mr. Barr said he expected the investigation’s conclusions by summer. When summer came and went, it was expected that Mr. Durham would deliver results ahead of the presidential election.
In October, when it became clear the probe was dragging on, Mr. Barr appointed Mr. Durham as special counsel so he could continue his work into the Biden administration.
Mr. Durham now works for Attorney General Merrick Garland, though the Justice Department declined to say if the pair have discussed the probe. At his confirmation hearing, Mr. Garland pledged to provide Mr. Durham with the resources he needed to complete his investigation.
The Justice Department is expected to release the cost of the Durham probe later this month, according to sources familiar with the investigation.
Critics of the probe say if Mr. Durham wasn’t dragging his feet, there would be plenty of action. They point to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged ties between members of Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and Russians who interfered in that year’s election.
Over a similar length of time as the Durham probe, Mr. Mueller filed criminal charges against 34 individuals, including seven Trump associates. His work resulted in 12 others referred for criminal prosecution.
Even when Mr. Mueller wasn’t filing charges, witnesses flocked to cable news shows to discuss their interviews, subpoenas were filed and the probe buzzed with life.
“There are some things that are unavoidably public, such as having lower-level people agree to cooperate,” Mr. Ray said. “In investigations where that kind of momentum exists, there is a public face to it. I haven’t seen that here. If they were really making progress you would expect public proceedings that show progress being made.”
Mr. Fitton says the lack of action is evidence of a sham investigation, adding that the Justice Department can’t be trusted to police itself.
It is possible, however, that there is just no wrongdoing to be uncovered, Mr. Ray said.
“Sometimes cases can’t be made,” he said. “I know that is enormously frustrating for conservatives, but the question is always ‘can you prove it?’”
The Durham probe so far has produced a single criminal charge against former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith who admitted to altering an email related to the surveillance of Mr. Page, the former Trump campaign aide.
The prosecution did not stray beyond the actions of Clinesmith, whose wrongdoing had been uncovered a year earlier by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. Mr. Durham did not allege Clinesmith’s actions were linked to a deeper conspiracy against Mr. Trump.
In the end, Clinesmith was sentenced to 12 months probation and 400 hours of jail time.
“The Clinesmith prosecution was handed to them on a silver platter by the inspector general, and it still fizzled out in the end,” Mr. Fitton said.
Mr. Fitton says Republican lawmakers who rarely bring up the Durham probe anymore need to push him and the Justice Department for more action.
“This failure is a Republican failure,” he said. “There has been zero pressure on the Justice Department by individual members.”