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Imagine a Justice Department, but Staffed Entirely by John Durhams

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In light of John Durham’s continuing efforts to nuke his reputation from orbit, it’s worth remembering that his report reeks of bad faith.

Durham admits, the first time he cites the “Clinton Plan intelligence,” that it may be total bullshit. The report quotes former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe. who, when he declassified some of the same information in October 2020, said the Russian claims were unconfirmed and might “reflect exaggeration or fabrication.” Durham also quotes three Clinton aides separately calling the allegation “ridiculous” and notes that Clinton said that the claim struck her as “Russian disinformation.” But Durham does not otherwise address the possibility that the Russian analysis was a deliberate lie. 

Instead he leans heavily on the supposed intelligence. And like the FBI officials who used Steele’s memos to justify surveilling Page, Durham cited the Russian memos in court to advance his cause. The same Russian memos that included the “Clinton Plan” allegation also claimed that the Russians had snooped on communications between an official at the Open Society Foundations—the pro-democracy organization founded by George Soros—and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, then head of the Democratic National Committee. The Russians claimed the duo had discussed a promise by then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch to limit the Justice Department’s probe into Clinton’s handling of State Department emails. But, as the Washington Post first reported in 2017, no other evidence supported this claim, and US officials suspected it was deliberate disinformation.

Still Durham cited the memos as evidence in a bid to obtain a secret federal court order to seize the Open Society official’s emails, according to the Times. After a judge found his evidence was too weak for a warrant, Durham used grand-jury power to demand documents and testimony directly from Open Society and forced the group to cooperate. He seems to have found nothing.

Durham used possible Russian disinformation while attacking the FBI for using possible Russian disinformation. That may seem confusing, but it helps clarify what the special counsel has been up to for the last four years.Working to arm Donald Trump and his allies with talking points to fault what they call the “weaponization of government,” Durham made himself their weapon.

Barring some unexpected shift in the party, the next GOP president is very likely to follow the example of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Prawo I Sprawiedliwość, and other de-democratizing neo-patrimonial regimes by turning the federal bureaucracy into an arm of the incumbent party. The real question is whether the model will be more personalist (Hungary, Turkey) or party-centric (Poland).

The GOP was already headed in this direction before 2016, but since then its deactivated the breaks, slammed on the accelerator, thrown away the steering wheel. At this point, it seems overdetermined. The destruction of an independent civil service brings with it many opportunities to extract rents and secure spoils. Reactionary ideologues, channeled by DeSantis, want to use the unchecked power of the state to restore “traditional” culture. The myth of the corrupt “deep state”—which, in turn, means that the next Republican president must purge it—exonerates Trump; it also suggests that he is a “victim” of the same forces that are supposedly persecuting his supporters.

It might seem ironic, if not downright Orwellian, that the “Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government” is, for all intents and purposes, the “Select Subcommittee for the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” But that’s how this process always works: authoritarians attack the rule of law in the name of restoring it, and dismantle democracy in the name of defending it.

So whatever schadenfreude one feels at Durham’s fumbling, one should keep in mind two things. First, Republican viewers watched, both figuratively and literally, a different hearing. Second, there is a very good chance that Durham’s Report is a preview of many future investigations… and prosecutions.

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