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The John Durham filing that set off conservative media, explained


A filing in federal court this past week has set off a firestorm on the right. It's led to allegations that back in 2016, former President Trump and his campaign were spied upon. But what Trump and conservative media are claiming doesn't exactly line up with the facts.

To help us sort through this is NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Hey, Ryan.


NADWORNY: So, Ryan, let's start with the basics here. How did all this get started?

LUCAS: So this all stems from, as you said, a court filing that was made Friday by special counsel John Durham. And Durham was appointed, as you may remember, back during the Trump administration by then-Attorney General William Barr to investigate the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe.

Three people have faced charges so far in Durham's investigation. One of them is a Washington lawyer named Michael Sussmann. And he's accused of lying to the FBI in a conversation ahead of the 2016 vote about potential ties between Trump and Russia. Durham says Sussmann told the FBI he wasn't acting on behalf of a client, when in fact, according to Durham, Sussmann was acting on behalf of Hillary Clinton's campaign. This is something Sussmann denies.

Now, Durham's latest filing was about potential conflicts of interest in Sussmann's case. But Durham included other information, and that's what's generated this huge reaction from Trump and his allies.

NADWORNY: Other information like what?

LUCAS: So Durham says that in February of 2017, Sussmann gave the CIA information about suspicious internet data related to Trump and Russia. That included indications about Russian-made phones being used near the White House. Durham says Sussmann got this material from a client of his - a technology executive named Rodney Joffe.

Now, Durham says Joffe's company mined internet data from Trump Tower, the Executive Office of the President and other locations to dig up derogatory material about Trump. Trump jumped on that, and he put out a statement claiming that Durham said that Hillary Clinton's campaign paid operatives to spy on Trump's campaign and his presidency.

NADWORNY: OK, and so conservative media ran with that. Fox News even said Clinton had, quote, "infiltrated Trump Tower and the White House." But is that what Durham actually said?

LUCAS: No. Durham never said in his filing that Clinton paid operatives to spy on Trump or his campaign. He never used the word infiltrate. And it's also important to say that Joffe hasn't been charged with a crime, and Durham doesn't accuse Joffe of a crime. Joffe's spokesman says Joffe never worked for a political party and that he had legal access to all the internet data in question.

As for the data related to the Executive Office of the President, that was from during the Obama administration, so before Trump took office. Sussmann's attorneys, meanwhile, they put out their own court papers this week, and they say that Sussmann's meeting with the CIA happened after Trump took office, so after the Clinton campaign had effectively ceased to exist.

NADWORNY: So all of this is tied up in events that happened five or six years ago. Why does it matter now?

LUCAS: Right. A lot has certainly happened in the interim - Joe Biden's 2020 election win, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. But the fight over the 2016 election is still going on, and this is very much part of that. Throughout his presidency, Trump tried to present himself as a victim of a nefarious deep state out to get him. The Russia investigation itself, he claimed, of course, many times, was a witch hunt.

Durham was appointed, again, during the Trump administration to look into allegations of FBI wrongdoing. Trump had hoped that Durham would deliver a report before the 2020 election that could help Trump's campaign. That, of course, didn't happen. But the battle over shaping perceptions is still very much raging. Now, as for the Durham probe, Sussmann and another defendant who has been charged separately by Durham, they are both scheduled to go to trial later this year.

NADWORNY: That's NPR's Ryan Lucas helping us keep the facts straight. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.