Justice watchdog faults Comey on Clinton email probe, but says not politically motivated
The Justice Department’s internal watchdog found that former FBI Director James Comey’s actions in the Hillary Clinton email investigation were “extraordinary and insubordinate” and flouted the department’s norms but that Comey was not motivated by political bias.
The inspector general released a sweeping report Thursday detailing a series of failures by the top federal officials in charge of the investigation ahead of the election, concluding that the FBI’s actions ultimately “cast a cloud” over the bureau and senior leaders did lasting damage to the FBI’s reputation.
“The damage caused by these employees’ actions extends far beyond the scope of the Midyear (Clinton) investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral factfinding and political independence,” the report by Inspector General Michael Horowitz states.
A key finding: Comey erred in his decision not to coordinate with his superiors at the Justice Department at critical moments. Horowitz said that Comey was “extraordinary and insubordinate,” and did not agree with any of his reasons for deviating from “well-established Department policies.”
But Horowitz concluded that the prosecutorial decisions in the Clinton case were “consistent” with precedent and not affected by bias or other improper actions.
The report is likely to reopen wounds left festering since the 2016 election and breathe new life into the debate over the extent to which Comey’s actions secured Trump’s victory.
The President’s continuing confrontation with the former FBI director remains front and center as he defends against a narrative — much of his own making — that he fired Comey not because of missteps on the Clinton email probe, but rather to thwart the FBI’s Russia investigation.
“When will people start saying, ‘thank you, Mr. President, for firing James Comey?'” Trump tweeted last week.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that the report “reaffirmed” President Donald Trump’s “suspicions” about Comey’s conduct and what Sanders described as “political bias” among some FBI members.
“The President was briefed on the (inspector general’s) report earlier today and it reaffirmed the President’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the political bias among some of the members of the FBI,” Sanders said during Thursday’s press briefing.
The report was also harshly critical of FBI agent Peter Strzok, who exchanged anti-Trump text messages with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
The report found that the Strzok and Page texts “cast a cloud” over the credibility of the investigation, although they found no evidence “that these political views directly affected the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.”
But the inspector general zeroed in on the FBI’s slow reaction time to the new emails discovered on the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. “We searched for evidence that the Weiner laptop was deliberately placed on the back-burner by others in the FBI to protect Clinton, but found no evidence in emails, text messages, instant messages, or documents that suggested an improper purpose,” the report said.
However, Horowitz did not have confidence that Strzok was free from bias when he decided to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the emails found on the Weiner laptop.
The report also included newly found text messages between Strzok and Page.
In a message on August 8, 2016, Page says, Trump’s “not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
Strzok replies: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
In a statement, Strzok attorney Aitan Goelman said there was “no evidence” Strzok’s political views impacted the handling of the Clinton email investigation. Strzok himself told investigators that he didn’t want to prevent a potential Trump victory, arguing that the proof of this rested in the fact that the investigation into potential Russian collusion remained confidential.
In addition to Strzok and Page, the report found text and instant messages from three other FBI employees “included statements of hostility toward then candidate Trump and statements of support for candidate Clinton.” The inspector general criticized the agents’ decisions to discuss their personal opinions on work devices, and interspersed with work conversations as examples of “extremely poor judgment and a gross lack of professionalism.”
One of the FBI employees cited, who is not named, is an FBI attorney who later served on Mueller investigation. The inspector general said the attorney wrote messages “that discussed political issues,” and that “most of these exchanges appeared to be jokes or attempts at humor, often involving Trump.”
The attorney left Mueller investigation and returned to the FBI in late February 2018, shortly after the inspector general provided Mueller with some of the messages that were found, the report says.
The report provides a detailed accounting of the series of events leading up to Comey’s decision in July 2016 to announce publicly — without Justice Department approval — that while he found Clinton’s actions “extremely careless,” he would not recommend charges against her.
He was also advised by the Justice Department that his intent to tell Congress in October 2016 that FBI agents had recovered additional emails possibly relevant to the Clinton probe would run counter to department policy, and yet he did it anyway.
The practical effect of the the report’s conclusions on Comey’s legacy and credibility could prove especially potent in the coming weeks and months ahead.
Comey wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, in which he said “nothing in the inspector general’s report makes me think we did the wrong thing” in how he announced results of the Clinton probe.
Comey defended his decision to make a public statement in July 2016 and inform Congress about reopening the investigation in October 2016. Comey told the inspector general he felt he had an obligation to inform Congress that the FBI was seeking a search warrant for Weiner’s laptop, because it made his previous testimony to Congress untrue. FBI officials also said they were concerned that the decision would leak if they did not announce it. But the inspector general said it found his arguments unpersuasive.
Comey used personal email, too
One of the new findings in the report was that Comey used a personal Gmail account for official government business when he was the FBI director. The report cited five examples, including times Comey sent himself drafts of testimony he planned to deliver to Congress and drafts of bureau-wide updates he planned to send to mark milestones during the year.
Asked by investigators if he had any concerns about conducting bureau business on his personal device and account, “Comey stated that he did not,” the report says.
“Because it was incidental and I was always making sure that the work got forwarded to the government account to either my own account or (FBI chief of staff James Rybick), so I wasn’t worried from a record-keeping perspective and it was, because there will always be a copy of it in the FBI system and I wasn’t doing classified work there, so I wasn’t concerned about that,” Comey told investigators, according to the report.
Congressional staff and lawmakers were briefed on the report behind closed doors on Thursday ahead of its release, and Trump was briefed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Republicans charged that the report was an indictment of Comey and the showed how the Clinton investigation was mishandled.
“This report confirms investigative decisions made by the FBI during the pendency of this investigation were unprecedented and deviated from traditional investigative procedures in favor of a much more permissive and voluntary approach,” House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy said. “This is not the way normal investigations are run.”
Following the congressional briefing, Gowdy was huddling with conservative House Freedom Caucus leaders Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows, who have been two of the most vocal critics of Mueller.
Senate Homeland Security Chairman Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, disputed the report’s finding that the investigation was not motivated by political bias.
“Absent an outright confession, they’re not going to be able to draw that conclusion,” Johnson said. “That will be up to the American public to draw their own conclusion: I don’t see how the inspector general can draw the conclusion.”
But Democrats pushed back, arguing that the report shows that Comey actually helped elect Trump.
“The stark conclusion we draw after reviewing this report is that the FBI’s actions helped Donald Trump become President,” said Reps. Jerry Nadler of New York and Elijah Cummings of Maryland. “As we warned before the election, Director Comey had a double-standard: he spoke publicly about the Clinton investigation while keeping secret from the American people the investigation of Donald Trump and Russia.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the report “reveals a number of significant errors by the senior leadership of the Department of Justice and the FBI during the previous administration.”
“Accordingly, this report must be seen as an opportunity for the FBI — long considered the world’s premier investigative agency — and all of us at the Department to learn from past mistakes,” Sessions said.
The report assesses the actions of a number of key players and events, including then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton, the text messages from Page and Strzok and then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s response to the discovery of new emails found on Weiner’s laptop.
The report faults Lynch for her meeting with Clinton on a Phoenix airport tarmac. But it says there was no evidence that Lynch and Clinton discussed the investigation into Hillary Clinton or any other inappropriate discussions.
The 20-minute meeting on a hot tarmac in Phoenix was days before Hillary Clinton’s interview with the FBI regarding the email investigation, which Lynch was overseeing at the Justice Department.
“Although we found no evidence that Lynch and former President Clinton discussed the (Hillary Clinton email) investigation or engaged in other inappropriate discussion during their tarmac meeting … we also found that Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance problem created by former President Clinton’s visit and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment,” the report said.
This story is breaking and will be updated.