As Mr. Durham now begins what is expected to be his final act with the trial starting Tuesday of Russian analyst Igor Danchenko, the burning question is why the much-heralded investigation produced such meager results. Mainly, was Mr. Durham on a wild goose chase or did he blow it?
Mr. Danchenko was a prime source for a discredited dossier of salacious and unverified claims tying Mr. Trump to Russia, which also helped spur the FBI investigation of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign. Mr. Durham charged Mr. Danchenko with five counts of lying to the FBI.
They claimed Mr. Durham would expose a far-left conspiracy within the FBI and U.S. intelligence communities to sabotage his 2016 presidential campaign and undermine his presidency. They expected an investigation akin to the one overseen by special counsel Robert Mueller, which racked up 34 indictments, including bringing charges against five Trump associates. That probe also scored eight convictions or guilty pleas.
Mr. Durham has spent at least $5.6 million and nevertheless fallen well short of expectations. He hasn’t charged anyone with conspiracy, proven political bias swayed FBI decision-making while investigating Mr. Trump, or put high-level officials on trial.
Mr. Durham has prosecuted three people, including Mr. Danchenko. He brought charges against former Hillary Clinton campaign lawyer Micheal Sussmann, who was acquitted of lying to the FBI; and low-level former FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith, who pleaded guilty to doctoring an email and struck a deal that resulted in no jail time.
Conservatives have derided those outcomes, describing it as “a stunning failure.”
“Three years and three prosecutions. Just to describe it is to condemn it as a failure,” said Tom Fitton, founder of the conservative advocacy group Judicial Watch. “The failure speaks for itself.”
Mr. Fitton noted that the Clinesmith prosecution was based on evidence already gathered by Justice Department Inspector General Micheal Horowitz.
Others say Mr. Durham wasn’t asked to put people in jail but rather investigate wrongdoing. They say Mr. Durham may have uncovered all there is to investigate.
University of Illinois law professor Andrew Leipold, who was a member of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s team that investigated President Clinton, said the point of an investigation should be “to figure out if something bad happened or not.”
“If you trust him or trust the process then you should be pleased there doesn’t appear to have been a lot of criminal activity. That’s a good thing,” he said.
The grand jury that Mr. Durham used to hear evidence was dismissed last month, and there doesn’t appear to be any plans to convene another one. Mr. Durham hasn’t brought a public indictment in nearly a year, and one of his top prosecutors left the team to take a job with a prominent law firm.
With signs that Mr. Durham is wrapping up, any hope for bombshell revelations rests with the Danchenko trial.
“I’ve always said this is about getting the history right rather than sending people to jail,” said Curt Levey, president of the Committee for Justice, which advocates for conservative judges. “How happy I am with this will depend on what we know at the end. Let’s see what the Danchenko trial reveals.”
Mr. Durham is also expected to deliver a report on his findings to the Justice Department by the end of the year. It is up to Attorney General Merrick Garland to decide if he’ll make the report public. Mr. Garland told a Senate committee last year that he’d like “as much as possible” to make it public.
Those who’ve followed the Durham inquiry have mixed expectations about what the report could reveal.
“What are the consequences of a report?” asked Mr. Fitton. “Does [former FBI Director] James Comey care about another report criticizing him? Reports are inconsequential to those who are excoriated in them.”
Mr. Leipold said criminal trials are a difficult venue to expose widespread corruption, if it occurred, because of the rules of evidence and limiting facts to the alleged crime. He said a report would be more comprehensive and possibly contain revelations that would be out of bounds in a criminal case.
In the meantime, all eyes will turn to a federal courtroom in Alexandria, Virginia, for the Danchenko trial.
The dossier was compiled by British ex-spy Christopher Steele and funded by Fusion GPS, which was hired by the Democratic National Committee to conduct opposition research on Mr. Trump. It later was used by the FBI to apply for a warrant to surveil Trump campaign aid Carter Page.
Mr. Durham’s indictment accuses Mr. Danchenko of lying about how he obtained information for the dossier, including about his relying on information from Democratic operative Charles J. Dolan, a public relations executive with close ties to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Defense attorneys have said in court documents that the charges against Mr. Danchenko should be dropped because his answers were “literally true” in response to narrow questions from FBI agents. For example, Mr. Danchenko denied speaking with Mr. Dolan since he communicated through email exchanges with the Clinton operative.
Mr. Danchenko told the FBI that he had spoken with Mr. Milian in July 2016 and the businessman told him that the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia to win the election, according to the indictment. That information was included in the Steele dossier.
As Mr. Durham tells it, those conversations never happened and the information turned over to Mr. Steele was made up.
Defense attorneys say the information was relayed to Mr. Danchenko in an anonymous phone call from someone believed to be Mr. Millian. They say the government can’t prove that the defendant made a false statement if he believed it was true.
Ultimately, a jury will decide if Mr. Danchenko believed the call came from Mr. Millian. U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga last week denied defense counsel’s request to dismiss the case but said the decision was an “extremely close call,” suggesting he will give Mr. Durham narrow latitude to prove his case.
The case has already produced one surprising revelation. Mr. Durham disclosed in a court filing last month that Mr. Danchenko served as a paid confidential FBI informant, despite their concerns he had ties to Russian intelligence.