By Darren Samuelsohn
To hear President Donald Trump and his allies tell it, the federal investigators who spent the past two years investigating the president are about to go down.
On Twitter, on conservative cable TV and in countless interviews, they’ve claimed the FBI and U.S. intelligence agencies are on the verge of being exposed for planting spies, falsifying evidence and forging testimony. They’ve relished in the possibility that a federal prosecutor on the case could file criminal charges. And they’ve predicted jail time for top Obama-era leaders who they say were behind a “deep state” plot to take down Trump.
They’re expecting all of this to come from a spate of Justice Department probes reviewing the full scope of the Trump-Russia investigation, which culminated earlier this year with special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.
“This was treason. This was high crimes,” Trump said during a recent Fox News interview with Sean Hannity. “This was everything as bad a definition as you want to come up with. This should never be allowed to happen to our country again.”
These hyperbolic expectations have legal experts, even some who are often sympathetic to the president, skeptical that the final product can equal the Trump-fueled rhetoric.
“What I think is going to happen is nobody is going to be charged with any criminal activity,” said Jon Sale, a former assistant U.S. attorney from Miami and longtime friend of Rudy Giuliani, a personal attorney to the president.
Sale expects the probes will instead offer much less dramatic procedural reforms, likely focused on potential future investigations of presidential candidates.
“I think that’s where this is all leading,” he said.
Such outsize expectation setting has become de rigueur in the Trump era, with the long-running Trump-Russia probe particularly prone to embellished predictions. And each overheated messaging campaign has served a political purpose. For Democrats, it has helped highlight Trump’s norm-busting behavior. For Republicans, it has helped counteract negative narratives about the president as he faces the possibility of impeachment.
During Mueller’s investigation, some Democrats and outside activists predictedgrand criminal takedowns of Trump’s family members. That didn’t happen. Then, attention turned to the special counsel’s report, with expectations that it would include damning details to spark Trump’s impeachment. Not yet. After that, Mueller’s congressional hearings were hyped as a potential game-changer. No dice.
Republicans are at least equally guilty of making sensationalized promises, too. Remember Devin Nunes’ hotly anticipated memo on supposed illicit Obama-era spying? In early 2018, the California congressman, who chaired the House Intelligence Committee at the time, claimed he had proof that senior FBI officials secretly surveilled the Trump campaign. His allies trumpeted the upcoming findings.
“I think that this will not end just with firings. I believe there are people who will go to jail,” Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz said during a "Hannity" appearance that January.
Yet the final product failed to produce much of a ripple.
Now, with the Mueller investigation wrapped and fading into the rearview mirror, conservatives have placed their hopes in a pair of intertwining DOJ probes examining the Russia investigation itself.
One is led by Inspector General Michael Horowitz. He’s already examined a number of issues tied to the 2016 presidential election, including a report released last summer that found no indication that political bias influenced the FBI’s probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. A second probe is helmed by U.S. Attorney John Durham of Connecticut. Attorney General William Barr tapped Durham earlier this year to pursue any criminal prosecutions that spill out out of the IG’s efforts.
Neither investigation has a deadline, though Horowitz told lawmakers in June that his investigative work was “nearing completion.” He was referring to a look at the FBI’s use of some information provided by former British spy Christopher Steele to help procure surveillance warrants during the presidential campaign on Carter Page, a onetime Trump policy adviser. Horowitz explained that his team had examined more than 1 million records, interviewed more than 100 witnesses and had been writing its report on the warrants “for some time.”
It’s unclear how much of that work the public will see — Horowitz told lawmakers that “virtually all of the information we have obtained” has a classified stamp on it.
Conversely, Durham has been silent about his work. In a CBS interview in May, Barr said the longtime federal prosecutor was well-positioned to take up any criminal referrals from Horowitz, while also fulfilling a wider mandate to examine the underlying origins of the FBI’s Russia probe.
But Barr declined to offer specifics about what he hoped Durham would uncover. “Things are just not jiving,” the attorney general said.
Trump and his allies have filled the information void by repeatedly suggesting serious wrongdoing is just on the verge of being uncovered.
Speaking to reporters after the Mueller report became public, senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway insisted that a probe of former DOJ leaders involved in the Russia investigation would show they’d been leaking information to the media.
“Let’s put them under oath. Let’s investigate the investigators. Why not? Anybody who objects to that is just being partisan and having amnesia about how much we all love transparency,” she said.
In mid-May, reacting to the news of Barr’s decision to appoint Durham, Joe diGenova, an informal Trump legal adviser, said on Fox News that several Obama-era government leaders were now facing serious legal jeopardy. He singled out former FBI Director James Comey and former CIA Director John Brennan, who he argued would get their comeuppance for leading a scheme from the highest levels of government to set up Trump.
“The bottom line is this: This is now big time. This is where Brennan needs five lawyers. Comey needs five lawyers,” said diGenova, former federal prosecutor who nearly signed on to be the president’s outside counsel in the spring of 2018.
Conservative media outlets have fueled the drumbeat about the possible outcomes from the Horowitz and Durham probes. Hannity has made the topic a central theme on his shows. Last week, he told his 3 million viewers his sources were telling him the Justice Department was at work on “explosive” findings about intelligence gathering techniques that go to the origins of the Mueller investigation.
A similar salvo played out recently when John Solomon, a conservative opinion writer for The Hill, published a column with a headline declaring Comey’s “next reckoning is imminent” because of the probe. It was a stark contrast to how The New York Times and other mainstream outlets portrayed the story — they all led with the fact that the DOJ investigators had decided not to press charges against Comey.
Among Trump supporters, hopes are still high that the Justice Department’s investigators will peel back the curtain on misdeeds across the federal government, from Mueller’s team to the intelligence agencies.
“None of the culpable parties should be sleeping well because, from my perspective, we finally have people who take their job seriously in the Justice Department,” said Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump adviser who was questioned by the special counsel’s office.
Caputo said he had confidence that the probes would reap results for several reasons, including remarks that Trump made to him during a 45-minute Oval Office meeting this spring.
“We talked about the Russia hoax, the investigation of the investigators and the dozens of families who were crushed by the hoax,” Caputo said. “The president shares my expectation for justice.”
Caputo also said his expectations went up based on Barr’s history as a “man of law and order” and by his own contacts with Durham’s investigators. He said they’d accepted about 140 pages of information he offered about Henry Greenberg, a Russian expatriate who Caputo claims was one of at least three FBI informants who approached him during the 2016 presidential campaign offering to sell the Trump campaign dirt on the Democratic nominee, Clinton. That reception stands in contrast to Horowitz, who Caputo said did not respond when he offered him the same materials.
Some former Trump aides who were pulled into the Russia probe said they want the investigations into the investigators to keep expanding.
J.D. Gordon, a Trump 2016 campaign national security adviser, recently sent his own letter to Durham urging a broader look at Mueller and his team of investigators, whom he accused of illegal leaks and violations of both privacy and defamation laws.
“I am hopeful that between the DOJ-IG report and U.S. Attorney John Durham investigation, we will get a comprehensive look into the origins of Trump-Russia as well as the conduct of the special counsel investigation,” Gordon said in an interview.
Still, some Trump allies are trying to lower the temperature over the prospect of new prosecutions. Page, the former 2016 campaign adviser at the center of the Horowitz-led probe into FBI surveillance, said structural reforms would be a welcome outcome from the reviews.
“I’m only primarily concerned about getting to the truth,” he said. “In the grand scheme of things, having a clean historical record of what actually happened in that dark period of recent history is infinitely more important.”
All of the hype can have political implications.
Texas GOP Rep. John Ratcliffe, a close Trump ally, has even signaled that the impeachment battle could be settled by the probes’ findings. Once DOJ shows Obama’s national security leaders overreached, he argued, “you can pretty much put a pin in any impeachment balloon.”
Meanwhile, Tom Fitton, head of the conservative Judicial Watch, predicted Trump supporters would be outraged if the investigations into the investigators fall short of indictments against the likes of former officials, such as Comey.
“I think people are going to have a hard time coming to terms with a scandal that’s in many ways worse than Watergate: the hijacking of several executive branch agencies, intelligence, law enforcement, State [Department], Defense [Department], to spy on and target a candidate and then abusing powers once he’s in office to try to overthrow the president.
“The notion that there’d be no prosecutions of anyone involved in that, that would be further confirmation of the strength of the deep state,” Fitton added.
Caputo said he’s bracing for such an outcome.
“I know at any moment the establishment could thwart this entire thing,” he said, adding that he has his doubts mainstream news organizations would “carry the truth of this.”
But others see cynical purposes behind Trump and his allies’ messaging campaign.
“I think most of [the probes] could be closed but the attorney general won’t let them be closed. That’s an acknowledgment that there’s no there there,” said Paul Rosenzweig, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan R Street Institute and a former senior counsel to Clinton-era independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
“The value in them,” he added, “is their existence and the president and Sean Hannity gets to tout them as evidence that where there’s smoke there must be fire.”