The Durham probe has turned out to be one of the biggest Republican strategic blunders of all time
Here’s the thing about former Attorney General Bill Barr. He was skilled at corruptly protecting a number of Donald Trump’s allies by sabotaging or burying the criminal cases against them. But Barr was never going to be able to magically get false charges to stick to any of Trump’s enemies, because nothing works that way. Instead Barr made superficial moves to fool Trump into believing that his enemies would be taken down – and none of those moves had any chance of succeeding.
Take, for instance, Bill Barr’s appointment of Special Counsel John Durham to investigate the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation. In other words, Durham’s job was to make up false charges against various people in and around the DOJ who first connected Trump to Russia, so that Trump could claim the entire Trump-Russia scandal was a “hoax.”
In the nearly two years since Trump was booted from office, Durham has remained on the job. Trump supporters seemed convinced that Durham would somehow put the entire DOJ, and the entire Democratic Party, in prison. And even liberal pundits couldn’t stop talking about all the “damage” that Durham was supposedly going to cause, and how Durham’s antics were somehow going to hand the Republicans some huge midterm advantage. Then came yesterday.
Durham has only managed to bring two criminal cases to trial. The first one resulted in an acquittal. And yesterday, so did the second one. By all accounts Durham’s probe is now at the end of the line. Having found nothing substantive, he tried to falsely nail two people on process crimes, in the hope of saving face – and he couldn’t even pull that off.
Meanwhile, even as the likes of Donald Trump and Jim Jordan run their mouths about all the supposed corruption that Durham uncovered, no one outside of the Fox News base is listening. The first rule of Republicans making up phony scandals is that in order for them to have any impact at all, they have to reach outside the Republican base and penetrate the mainstream media. But that didn’t happen, because the Durham probe was a nothing burger from start to finish.
It’s important to keep in mind that there was never any real chance of a different outcome here. The Durham probe was never going to magically put Trump’s adversaries in prison, because there was never any evidence that any of Trump’s adversaries did anything wrong. Nor was the Durham probe ever going to change the mind of a single voter anywhere, because even Durham couldn’t come up with a narrative for why his probe supposedly mattered.
With the Durham debacle over, the Republicans have absolutely nothing to show for it – beyond two wasted years that they could have instead spent hyping other more effective narratives. The Republicans used to understand that if they tried hyping a phony scandal for awhile and it couldn’t get the mainstream media to bite, it needed to move on and try hyping some other phony scandal. But because the Republican Party now answers to Trump, and the Durham debacle was personal for him, the Republicans wasted their bandwidth by spending two years beating a dead horse.
We’ll never know for certain why Attorney General Merrick Garland didn’t just fire Durham. But if Garland’s strategy was to simply let the Durham probe crash and burn on its own, so that the Republicans couldn’t get any political mileage out of claiming that Garland covered it up, then it certainly was an effective strategy on Garland’s part. The Durham probe is the rare attempt at manufacturing a political scandal that lasted years and produced literally no results – in terms of substance or perception – for the side that came up with it.
Bill Palmer is the publisher of the political news outlet Palmer Report