We've known, or at least we thought we knew, that John Durham was investigating Russia Hoax related matters as early as the late summer of 2018. However, a new book by NYT reporter Mike Schmidt (Donald Trump v. the United States) sheds additional light on this matter, without clearing it up entirely. Here's how this is explained at The Lawfare Blog:
Schmidt reports in his book that around March 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions tapped Durham—then an assistant U.S. attorney in Connecticut—to open a leak investigation into FBI Director James Comey following reporting by the New York Times that Comey had asked the Justice Department to refute Trump’s baseless allegations that former President Barack Obama had ordered the wiretapping of Trump Tower. The investigation reported directly to Sessions. Schmidt adds that Durham’s investigation “unnerved career officials in the deputy attorney general’s office,” [i.e., officials working for Rod Rosenstein] which is generally responsible for the department’s day-to-day operations and normally would have overseen an investigation like Durham’s.
The existence of the investigation shows that Durham has been involved with the investigation of Russia-related matters from the very start of the Trump administration, a point the New York Times’s Charlie Savage made on Twitter. It is unclear to what extent Durham’s 2017 inquiry is related to a January 2020 report that federal prosecutors were investigating whether Comey improperly disclosed information to reporters in the spring of 2017.
Contrary to Schmidt, I don't think this does show that Durham was involved in "Russia-related matters" at that point. In fact, I'd be pretty certain that he wasn't.
What this shows is simply that Durham was conducting--or attempting to conduct--a leak investigation with regard to disgraced former FBI Director Comey. Well, Comey wasn't former at that point, but he had already disgraced himself. A leak investigation is very specific, and Durham's role was nothing like Mueller's became. A leak investigation can be conducted with very little if any attention to the actual substance of the leak. Further, since Sessions had already recused himself from all things Russia-related, I have to assume that Durham would have steered clear of anything to do with Russia-related investigations.
In the circumstances, you can imagine that Durham got very little cooperation, since all choke points would have been controlled by Comey and McCabe at the FBI and by Rod Rosenstein at DoJ.
The puzzling point to me is this: One would expect that once Comey was fired, Durham would have folded up his leak investigation tent and gone back to Connecticut. That's how it usually works with high government officials--dismissal is regarded as punishment enough. It's hard to imagine Jeff Sessions conducting some sort of jihad against the disgraced and fired Comey at that point. Moreover, with Team Mueller up and running and McCabe and Rosenstein in full control of all informational choke points, what would be the point of Durham's leak investigation?
So we're left to wonder whether Durham had some other non-Russia-related function or whether he actually did go back to Connecticut--to return to DC sometime in mid-2018. It's an interesting puzzle. Did Rod Rosenstein--as has been speculated--at some point get a clue as to the likely outcome of what he had put in motion with Team Mueller, and call in Durham? Reporting to Rosenstein would have allowed Durham to look into Russia-related matters, but as long as Durham was reporting directly to the recused Jeff Sessions that should have been impossible.
So many questions, as Comey would say!
Now, there's another interesting point in the Lawfare Blog review of Schmidt's book. It's fairly brief, so I'll quote it all:
Dutch Flash Drives Containing Stolen U.S. Documents
In February 2020, the Times reported that Durham was looking at a “fight” that was “centered on a certain data set.” Schmidt’s book now offers a number of previously undisclosed details about that matter. In early 2016, Dutch intelligence authorities were able to ascertain precisely which documents the Russian hackers had stolen from U.S. governmental and nongovernmental institutions, including the DNC. Once the Dutch understood how valuable this information would be in helping U.S. officials understand Russia’s motive, the Dutch officials handed over multiple flash drives to the FBI containing tens of thousands of stolen documents.
However, the documents presented serious legal issues for the FBI because they contained privileged communications from members of Congress and the executive branch. (Schmidt reports that “[p]eople familiar with their contents said that among them were emails that had been sent and received by President Obama.”) The FBI argued strongly that it should be able to access the documents. “Why shouldn’t we know what the Russians know?,” one senior American official said, according to Schmidt. But ultimately, in an Oct. 20, 2016, meeting with top FBI, CIA, and Justice Department officials, White House counsel Neil Eggleston refused to grant the FBI the authority to examine the contents of the documents. In Schmidt’s account, there is no suggestion that Eggleston’s judgment was based on inappropriate considerations.
There is no indication in the NYT article that Durham has sought access to those emails--rather, he has been looking at circumstances surrounding the bureaucratic fights over disclosures of various "data sets". As for the emails themselves, they are said to have been "unclassified." On the other hand, knowing what we know now about the Obama administration's handling of sensitive documents one can't be too sure about the contents. of the emails.