Legal experts: John Durham made false statements to Congress about Trump-Russia probe

"In a just world, Durham would be investigated," says Harvard Law Prof. Laurence Tribe

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published June 22, 2023 10:58AM (EDT)

Special Counsel John Durham takes a break from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on June 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Special Counsel John Durham takes a break from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on June 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Special counsel John Durham, who was appointed by former Attorney General Bill Barr to investigate the FBI's probe into the Trump campaign's alleged collusion with Russia during the 2016 election, made false statements while testifying before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday, legal experts say.

Durham, who House Republicans have heralded over his widely criticized report, misrepresented key parts of the Russia election scandal, "suggesting he was either unfamiliar with basic facts or was purposefully trying to mislead the committee and the American public," according to Mother Jones.

Durham's report on the FBI's inquiry was released last month after four years of investigation and notably did not produce any evidence backing former President Donald Trump and his allies' claims that the bureau's investigation was an elaborate hoax concocted by opponents in the Deep State. During his inquiry, Durham lost two jury trials unconnected to the bureau's reasons for launching their investigation and did not prosecute any FBI or Obama administration officials for orchestrating the alleged plot against Trump.

His only success in the probe was a plea deal with an FBI agent who admitted to modifying an email to back a surveillance warrant for a former campaign advisor to Trump. In the final report, however, Durham concluded there was justification for the bureau to conduct a preliminary investigation, just not a complete one, of Russia's election interference and contacts between the campaign and Russia.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., asked Durham Wednesday about the June 9, 2018, Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort and a Russian emissary, who was said to have dirt on Hillary Clinton. Trump, Jr. received an email from a business colleague that scheduled the meeting and informed him that the session was part of a secret Russian plot to support his father's campaign.

"People get phone calls all the time from individuals who claim to have information like that," Durham said, dismissing the situation. 

"Are you really trying to diminish the importance of what happened here?" Schiff asked in response, surprised that Durham found the meeting, which indicated to Moscow that Trump's camp was receptive to Russian election intervention, unimportant.

"The more complete story is that they met, and it was a ruse, and they didn't talk about Mrs. Clinton," Durham answered, repeating a claim from the Trump camp when the meeting was revealed in 2017.

But the report from special counsel Robert Mueller indicates that the Russian Counsel, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, did discuss Clinton. According to the report, Veselnitskaya had stated the Ziff brothers, owners of an American family investment broke Russian laws and donated profits to the Clinton Campaign or the DNC even though no evidence of wrongdoing was found. She also claimed the firm had participated in tax evasion and money laundering in both the U.S. and Russia.

The report also notes that Trump, Jr. "asked follow-up questions about how the alleged payments could be tied specifically to the Clinton Campaign, but Veselnitskaya indicated that she could not trace the money once it entered the United States" and quotes a meeting participant who recounted "that Trump Jr. asked what they [the Russians] have on Clinton."

In a subsequent interaction, Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif, noted that the "central charge in the Russia collusion hoax was that Trump campaign operatives were in contact with Russian intelligence sources."

Durham's response that "there was no such evidence" was also false.

While chairing Trump's campaign in 2016, Manafort was regularly in contact with a former employee of his in Ukraine who several U.S. government officials — including Mueller — had identified as a Russian agent: Konstantin Kilimnik. Mueller had even indicted him in 2018 on obstruction of justice charges.

The Senate Intelligence Committee and media reports chronicled the interactions between Manafort and Kilimnik, including a secret meeting in a Manhattan bar, Manafort giving him internal campaign polling data to pass to a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Manafort also agreeing to continue passing information through Kilimnik.

The committee revealed that it discovered publicly withheld information "suggesting Kilimnik may have been connected to the [Russian] hack and leak operation targeting the 2016 U.S. election" and cited "two pieces of information" that "raise the possibility" of Manafort's involvement in the scheme.

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Some legal experts argued that Durham may have violated Title 18 U.S. Code section 1001, which penalizes knowingly and willfully falsifying information known to be a material fact before any branch of the federal government, could come into play.

"In a just world, Durham would be investigated for the crime of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1001," tweeted Laurence Tribe, a legal scholar and University Professor Emeritus at Harvard

Former federal prosecutor Andrew Weissmann, who served on Mueller's team, agreed that Durham made "flat-out wrong statements" about Russia's ties to the campaign and the Trump Tower meeting.

But national security attorney Bradley Moss said he does not envision Durham facing any charges.

"I get the argument that Durham was, at best, providing misleading assessments here," he wrote, "but I don't see 1001 charges in his future."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Adam Schiff Aggregate Donald Trump John Durham Politics