President Trump predicted three years ago that John Durham’s inquiry into the origins of the Russia collusion investigation would reveal “really bad things” and result in major indictments.
Last month, Mr. Trump announced lower expectations for Mr. Durham. He said Americans are eagerly awaiting a report on his conclusions.
As Mr. Durham begins what is expected to be his final act with the trial starting Tuesday of Russian analyst Igor Danchenko, the burning question is why the much-heralded investigation produced such meager results. Mainly, was Mr. Durham on a wild goose chase or did he blow it?
Mr. Danchenko was a prime source for a discredited dossier of salacious and unverified claims tying Mr. Trump to Russia, which also helped spur the FBI investigation of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Durham charged Mr. Danchenko with five counts of lying to the FBI.
Mr. Trump and his allies hoped it would be the FBI on trial.
They said Mr. Durham would expose a far-left conspiracy within the FBI and other U.S. intelligence communities to sabotage his 2016 presidential campaign and undermine his presidency. They expected an investigation akin to the one overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, which racked up 34 indictments, including charges against five Trump associates. That probe scored eight convictions or guilty pleas.
Mr. Durham has spent at least $5.6 million and nevertheless fallen well short of expectations. He hasn’t charged anyone with conspiracy, proved that political bias swayed FBI decision-making while investigating Mr. Trump, or put high-level officials on trial.
Mr. Durham has prosecuted three people, including Mr. Danchenko. He brought charges against former Hillary Clinton campaign attorney Michael Sussmann, who was acquitted of lying to the FBI, and low-level former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email and struck a deal that resulted in no jail time.
Conservatives have described those outcomes as “a stunning failure.”
“Three years and three prosecutions. Just to describe it is to condemn it as a failure,” said Tom Fitton, founder of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch. “The failure speaks for itself.”
Mr. Fitton noted that the Clinesmith prosecution was based on evidence already gathered by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
Others say Mr. Durham wasn’t asked to put people in jail but rather investigate wrongdoing. They say Mr. Durham may have uncovered all there is to investigate.
University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold, who was a member of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s team that investigated President Clinton, said the point of an investigation should be “to figure out if something bad happened or not.”
“If you trust him or trust the process, then you should be pleased there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of criminal activity. That’s a good thing,” he said.
The grand jury that Mr. Durham used to hear evidence was dismissed last month, and there doesn’t appear to be any plan to convene another one. Mr. Durham hasn’t brought a public indictment in nearly a year, and one of his top prosecutors left the team to take a job with a prominent law firm.
With signs that Mr. Durham is wrapping up, any hope for bombshell revelations rests with the Danchenko trial.
“I’ve always said this is about getting the history right rather than sending people to jail,” said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, which advocates for conservative judges. “How happy I am with this will depend on what we know at the end. Let’s see what the Danchenko trial reveals.”
Mr. Durham is expected to deliver a report on his findings to the Justice Department by the end of the year. It is up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide whether to make the report public. Mr. Garland told a Senate committee last year that he would like “as much as possible” to make it public.
Those who have followed the Durham inquiry have mixed expectations about the report.
“What are the consequences of a report?” asked Mr. Fitton. “Does [former FBI Director] James Comey care about another report criticizing him? Reports are inconsequential to those who are excoriated in them.”
Mr. Leipold said criminal trials are difficult venues to expose widespread corruption, if it occurred, because of the rules of evidence and limiting facts to the alleged crime. He said a report would be more comprehensive and could contain revelations that would be out of bounds in a criminal case.
In the meantime, all eyes will turn to a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, for the Danchenko trial.
Mr. Danchenko faces up to five years in prison for each of the five counts of lying to the FBI. The charges arise from his work on the anti-Trump dossier.
The dossier was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and funded by Fusion GPS, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee to conduct opposition research on Mr. Trump. The FBI later used the dossier to apply for a warrant to surveil Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
Mr. Durham’s indictment accuses Mr. Danchenko of lying about how he obtained information for the dossier, including about his reliance on information from Democratic operative Charles J. Dolan, a public relations executive with close ties to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign.
Defense attorneys have said in court documents that the charges against Mr. Danchenko should be dropped because his answers to narrow questions from FBI agents were “literally true.” For example, Mr. Danchenko denied speaking with Mr. Dolan because he communicated through email exchanges with the Clinton operative.
The indictment also accuses Mr. Danchenko of lying about his contacts with Sergei Millian, a former president of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Danchenko told the FBI that he had spoken with Mr. Milian in July 2016 and the businessman told him that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia to win the election, according to the indictment. That information was included in the Steele dossier.
As Mr. Durham tells it, those conversations never happened and the information turned over to Mr. Steele was made up.
Defense attorneys say the information was relayed to Mr. Danchenko in an anonymous phone call from someone believed to be Mr. Millian. They say the government can’t prove that the defendant made a false statement if he believed it was true.
Ultimately, a jury will decide whether Mr. Danchenko believed the call came from Mr. Millian. U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga has denied defense counsel’s request to dismiss the case but said the decision was an “extremely close call.” That suggests he will give Mr. Durham narrow latitude to prove his case.
The case has already produced one surprising revelation. Mr. Durham disclosed in a court filing last month that Mr. Danchenko served as a paid confidential FBI informant despite their concerns that he had ties to Russian intelligence.