Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) challenged special counsel John Durham during a Wednesday congressional hearing, as Durham defended a recent report he issued that criticized the FBI’s handling of a 2016 investigation into then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
During a congressional hearing on Wednesday, Durham detailed his findings from the special counsel report he released last month and defended the report’s conclusion that the FBI should not have launched its 2016 investigation into Trump. As Durham addresses his conclusions, Schiff opened up a line of questioning about a June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower involving Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr.; his son-in-law Jared Kushner; his campaign manager Paul Manafort; and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
On June 3, 2016, publicist Rob Goldstone emailed Trump Jr., claiming he had incriminating information against then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 rival. Trump Jr. and Goldstone continued to communicate at several points between June 3 and the June 9, 2016, meeting.
“Don Jr. was informed that a Russian official was offering the Trump campaign ‘very high-level and sensitive information’ that would be incriminating of Hillary Clinton and was part of ‘Russia and its government support of Mr. Trump.’ Are you aware of that?” Schiff asked Durham.
“People get phone calls all the time from individuals who claim to have information like that,” Durham replied.
“Really? The son of a presidential candidate gets calls all the time from a foreign government offering dirt on their opponent? Is that what you’re saying?” Schiff replied.
“I don’t think this is unique in your experience,” Durham responded.
Durham’s comment may have been in reference to an incident in which Schiff spoke with Russian prank callers who posed as Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy and claimed to have compromising photos of Trump in a state of undress. A spokesperson for Schiff’s office confirmed the prank call did occur and said they notified law enforcement personnel before and after the call.
“Obviously, it was bogus—which became even more evident during the call—but as with any investigation that is global in scale, we have to chase any number of leads, many of which turn out to be duds,” Schiff’s spokesperson told the Daily Mail in 2018.
The 2018 prank call incident was referenced in a 2019 Republican resolution seeking to censure Schiff. The censure resolution was shelved by the then-Democratic majority House.
Trump Tower Meeting
As Durham and Schiff continued to discuss the controversial 2016 Trump Tower meeting, Durham noted that while incriminating information was offered to the Trump team ahead of the meeting, that information never materialized during the actual meeting.
“I’m not trying to diminish it at all, but I think the more complete story is that [Trump Jr. met with Veselnitskaya] and it was a ruse and they didn’t talk about Mrs. Clinton,” Durham said Wednesday.
Trump Jr. released his email exchange with Goldstone in 2017 and said Veselnitskaya had denied having connections to the Russian government. Trump Jr. said Veselnitskaya provided no information about Clinton during their 2016 Trump Tower meeting and instead chose to talk about adoption laws and a sanctions law known as the Magnitsky Act.
“It became clear to me that this was the true agenda all along and that the claims of potentially helpful information were a pretext for the meeting,” Trump Jr. said in a 2017 statement.
While Veselnitskaya has denied having connections to the Russian government, she did meet with Glen Simpson before and after the Trump Tower meeting. Simpson is the founder of Fusion GPS, an opposition research firm that hired former British spy Christopher Steele to compile a dossier of negative allegations against the Trump campaign.
According to the Durham report (pdf), the Steele Dossier was used to justify aspects of the FBI’s 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign, such as a surveillance warrant application against Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Durham: Meeting ‘Not Illegal’
Schiff pushed back after Durham described the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Veselnitskaya as a “ruse.”
“You think it’s insignificant that he had a secret meeting with a Russian delegation for the purpose of getting dirt on Hillary Clinton? And the only disappointment expressed in the meeting was that the dirt they got wasn’t better. You don’t think that’s significant?” Schiff asked.
Durham replied to Schiff saying Trump Jr.’s decision to take the meeting was “ill-advised” but “it was not illegal.”
“Well, it is illegal to conspire to get incriminating opposition research from a hostile government that is of financial value to a campaign. Wouldn’t that violate campaign laws?” Schiff asked.
“I don’t know all those facts to be true,” Durham replied.
Whether or not a political campaign can receive opposition research from a foreign entity is a subject of legal debate.
Campaign finance law prohibits foreign nationals from making “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election; or a contribution or donation to a committee of a political party.” Campaigns, similarly, cannot solicit, accept, or receive such contributions or donations.
An October 2019 report by the Congressional Research Service, by contrast, states “the rules governing uncompensated services related to opposition research and the sharing of negative information about domestic candidates remain murky.”