The thing that you've got to remember about Trump, bless his black heart, is that his obsessions invariably take him to places he would rather not have gone. In fact, the entire reason John Durham was ever appointed by Attorney General William Barr as a Special Counsel to look into the origins of Robert Mueller's Russia investigation in the first place had to do with Trump's obsessions. He was obsessed that the entire thing, which he famously and repeatedly called the Russia! Russia! Russia! witch hunt, was a plot by the FBI to get him. So, Trump had Barr appoint Durham to investigate the investigators. Put another way, Trump weaponized the Justice Department to pursue his perceived enemies in the FBI, beginning with his nemesis James Comey, the former head who first opened the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties to Russia way back in July of 2016.
The Durham investigation, as it became known over the last four years, has been in the news a lot recently. Durham was appointed in May 2019 to investigate the so-called Crossfire Hurricane FBI counterintelligence investigation, as well as the Mueller investigation, which ran from May 2017 to March 2019. A year into Durham's investigation, at a Department of Justice press conference, then-attorney general Barr said what he was trying to do was "get to the bottom of what happened in 2016," which is interesting in and of itself, because the only investigation taking place in 2016 was the FBI's.
Durham wasted four years — twice as long as Mueller's probe — and God-only-knows how many taxpayer dollars without convicting anyone of wrongdoing (he lost both cases he brought to court) or establishing the conspiracy Trump and Barr had long said lay behind the Russia investigation. Our first clue is the date in Barr's statement above: 2016. Trump was convinced that the FBI, and in particular James Comey, was out to get him. Trump put Comey through what amounted to a loyalty test soon after he took office, inviting him to dinner, and while Comey was there, under the influence of the splendor of the White House and the power of being in Trump's presence, asking him if he could go easy on Michael Flynn, who had resigned as Trump's national security adviser the previous day when it became known that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December of 2016. Comey demurred, and Flynn went on to be indicted and convicted of lying to the FBI about the same matter. Trump apparently never forgave Comey, especially after Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee the following month that the Trump campaign had secretly been under investigation since July 2016. Trump fired him just two months later, on May 9, and was infuriated when he found out that Comey had flown on a government jet back to Washington after his termination.
One of the curious things that came out in the New York Times story about how the Durham investigation eventually "unraveled" was the tale of Barr joining Durham in 2019 on a trip to London and Rome as part of Durham's probe into the roots of the Russia investigation. That the two men had made the trip overseas had been previously known. The new detail that emerged in the recent Times report was that while in Rome, Italian authorities had given the two men a "tip" that Trump was involved in some sort of financial improprieties. What the possible improprieties may have been was not explained by the Times, and there the mystery sat until Barr, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, confirmed that he had assigned Durham to criminally investigate the matter without informing anyone that a potential financial crimes investigation into Trump had been added to Durham's responsibilities. What the tip consisted of remains unknown. Barr claimed to the Los Angeles Times that it didn't amount to anything and wasn't pursued further.
And there the entire matter of Barr's and Durham's big European adventure stood until I cast an eye through my files at what was going on in London and Rome in 2016 that would have precipitated their overseas trip, where they met with intelligence and law enforcement officials in both countries. The British and Italian officials were said to have been perplexed by the requests from such high-level American law enforcement officials for help with the Durham investigation and denied that their governments had anything to do with what the Times called "setting off the Russia investigation."
And they didn't.
What set off the Russia investigation was actions taken by one of the Trump campaign's foreign policy advisers in both Rome and London. Why the Trump campaign had one of its advisers in Rome and London, and why that official was in contact with a person with close ties to Russia would turn out to be the question that got the FBI involved.
Recall Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. His contact in both Rome and London was Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese national who was involved with something called Link Campus University which had a presence in both cities. Mifsud also claimed to be a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland and the London Academy of Diplomacy. As part of his involvement with these academic institutions, Mifsud apparently found it necessary to travel frequently to Russia where he became friendly with a man called Ivan Timofeev, a director of the Valdai Discussion Club in Moscow, as well as the Russian International Affairs Council. According to what Mifsud told Papadopoulos, Timofeev had the ear of Vladimir Putin, and might be able to set up a meeting between Putin and Donald Trump. Papadopoulos reported this back to campaign headquarters in New York and was told by Steve Bannon to keep pursuing the possibility.
Trump's attempt to bring disrepute to the Mueller report by getting Barr to appoint a special counsel to investigate the investigators has backfired spectacularly.
It was quite a pursuit. Papadopoulos continued to meet here and there with the mysterious Mifsud. I say mysterious because Mifsud's connections to these purported academic institutions and think tanks, like the ones run by Timofeev, have never been fully explained. But I've got a potential explanation: Russian intelligence frequently uses academic institutions, conferences, and think tanks as fronts for gathering intelligence around the world. Colleges and universities are innocuous. People go there to learn about diplomacy and international relations. Same with conferences, like the one Papadopoulos attended in Rome that was held by Link Campus University, where he said he met this "Professor" Mifsud.
Papadopoulos met with Mifsud when he returned to London, and this is where the FBI comes in. At a breakfast, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had just returned from a conference in Moscow where he had learned that the Russians had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton they might be willing to share with the Trump campaign. And what do you know, but the man Mifsud was breakfasting with was an official of that very campaign! Mifsud also introduced Papadopoulos to a woman he claimed was Putin's niece. Mifsud had established his bona fides with his trips to Moscow and his connections to think tank directors like Timofeev. Papadopoulos was impressed enough that at a bar one night, he bragged to an Australian diplomat that he had learned the Russians had dirt on Clinton. The diplomat turned right around and reported his conversation with Papadopoulos to his embassy. The Australian embassy then contacted the American embassy. The American embassy then contacted the FBI in Washington.
There were four key elements in the report from London: a Trump campaign official, dirt, Clinton, and Russians. That was more than enough to start an investigation right there, and the FBI did just that.
Barr appointed Durham to investigate the origins of the Mueller report after he had done his best to bury it with his phony announcement before the report even came out, claiming that Mueller had found no "collusion" between the Trump campaign and Russia. If that was true, however, why was there a need for the Durham investigation? Well, it was to discredit the Mueller report, and that needed to be done for a couple of reasons. The first was the fact that Mueller had found eight separate instances when Trump appeared to have attempted to obstruct justice by interfering with the Russia investigation. That was definitely a bad thing, but it was no danger to Trump, as Mueller did not make a recommendation that Trump be indicted because sitting presidents cannot face federal indictments, according to a standing Justice Department policy.
So what was the big worry?
Durham went after the Mueller investigation and ended up finding out that there actually was good cause for the FBI to investigate the Trump campaign's connections with Russians
Mueller had indicted and convicted several Trump people such as Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos, but only for lying to the FBI. He had also indicted and convicted in absentia 25 Russians for interfering with the 2016 election. Thirteen of them were Russian nationals working for the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in St. Petersburg. They were charged with conspiring to interfere with the U.S. elections and identity theft. Also indicted in this group was the owner of the IRA, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man known as "Putin's chef." More on him in a bit. Twelve of the indicted Russians were agents in the Russian intelligence agency, the GRU, who were charged and convicted of conspiracy to hack and distribute key Democrats' emails, including those of Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Note that all the indictments of Russians had to do with computer crimes – hacking, assuming false identities, and distribution of disinformation via social media – in a conspiracy to influence the election.
When the FBI began to investigate Papadopoulos for his claims that he knew that the Russians had dirt on Clinton, his connections to Russia were tenuous, but they were there in the person of a non-Russian, Mifsud, who had plenty of connections to Russians. So, the FBI interviewed Mifsud, too - and here is where it gets interesting.
John Solomon is a right-wing commentator who had worked for The Washington Examiner and The Hill and who would go on to play a key role in defending Trump during his impeachment for attempting to extort the president of Ukraine into helping Trump defeat Joe Biden. In the summer of 2018, Solomon was working for The Hill and wrote a column attempting to take apart Mueller's case against Papadopoulos. In the column, he made multiple references to Mifsud. Somehow he got access to the FBI interviews with Mifsud. He reported that Mifsud had described his contacts with Papadopoulos as "innocuous," and denied the bit about Hillary Clinton and the Russians having dirt on her. According to Solomon, in Mifsud's words, he was "collaborating for a number of years on a number of geo-strategic issues, mainly pertaining to publications/training for diplomats/international experts on energy security and their implications on international relations." All he was doing was putting people together, "bridging" between them he called it, and Papadopoulos was just one of those people.
But the mysterious Mifsud, whose passport and wallet were found in Portugal in August of 2017 and who has been missing since then, went on and on to the FBI about a curious subject: cybersecurity.
"The intent of that 'bridging' was specifically of a geo-political nature and not tied in any way or form to cybersecurity," he told the FBI in an interview. Afterward, Mifsud went to the trouble of writing an email to the FBI, just to make sure they got what he was telling them. According to Solomon, "at one point in his email, he bold-faced a single sentence for emphasis: 'Cybersecurity was never the direct object of any of our communications,'" in reference to Papadopoulos. What cybersecurity had to do with Papadopoulos, or Mifsud's contacts with Russians, or anything else for that matter, was never explained by Mifsud, although the Mueller report might be consulted for an answer, as the 25 Russians he indicted were all charged with offenses that might be described as dealing with cybersecurity: hacking and using social media manipulation. Thirteen of those Russians were agents for the GRU, and 11 of them worked for Yevgeny Prigozhin, and one was Prigozhin himself. If his name sounds familiar, it should. He's currently in the news as the owner of the Wagner Group, the gang of ex-cons and mercenaries that have been fighting in Eastern Ukraine as part of Putin's army. Prigozhin has been close to Putin since he was, indeed, Putin's chef years ago.
John Solomon's name should also be familiar. In his career as a right-wing commentator who spent a lot of his time trying to poke holes in the Mueller report and defending Trump from charges that he tried to extort the president of a foreign country, Ukraine, Solomon was in frequent contact with Lev Parnas, a friend of Trump who has since been indicted for several felonies after being arrested at Dulles Airport with a one-way ticket to Austria. But, hey! Not to worry! Solomon landed on his feet when he was appointed, along with Kash Patel (currently a target of Special Counsel Jack Smith) as Trump's representative to the National Archives, where both he and Patel have been involved in defending Trump from charges that he mishandled classified information stored at Mar-a-Lago.
Oh, what a web is woven when you start digging. Durham went after the Mueller investigation and ended up finding out that there actually was good cause for the FBI to investigate the Trump campaign's connections with Russians. Go figure. Trump's attempt to bring disrepute to the Mueller report by getting Barr to appoint a special counsel to investigate the investigators has backfired spectacularly. Two indictments of minor characters, two not-guilty findings by juries, several resignations from the special counsel staff in protest over Durham's methods, and no holes whatsoever blown in the Mueller investigation.
Kind of reminds you of all the lawsuits Trump has filed that have either been thrown out of court or resulted in serious judgments against him, the most recent having produced a million-dollar fine against him and his lawyer for misusing the federal courts by filing an entirely frivolous lawsuit. All that's come out of the Durham investigation is an example of what weaponizing an agency of the federal government looks like, up close and personal