WASHINGTON (Circa) - Despite offering direct and harsh criticism of several top law enforcement officials, a report released by the Justice Department’s internal watchdog Thursday disputed allegations that the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges in the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server prior to the 2016 election was influenced by political biases.
The 500-page report details missteps, irregularities, and bad decisions in the course of the probe, by Inspector General Michael Horowitz said his team did not find evidence that those actions were motivated by personal politics.
“We found no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations,” the report stated. “Rather, we concluded that they were based on the prosecutor’s assessment of facts, the law, and past department practice.”
Here are 9 highlights from the inspector general’s report on the Clinton probe-
Former FBI Director James Comey was insubordinate in his handling of the case, according the report, and he made “a serious error of judgment” in his public pronouncements about the FBI’s findings.
Several decisions made by Comey in July and October of 2016 are questioned in the report, including his extensive public statement explaining why he was not recommending charges and his letters to members of Congress about reopening and closing the investigation in the final two weeks of the campaign.
The inspector general’s office found Comey did not consult Dept. of Justice leadership or disregarded their guidance in each of these situations, believing he alone could protect the FBI’s integrity and credibly explain what happened.
“We concluded that Comey’s unilateral announcement was inconsistent with Department policy and violated long-standing Department practice and protocol by, among other things, criticizing Clinton’s uncharged conduct,” the report stated. “We also found that Comey usurped the authority of the Attorney General, and inadequately and incompletely described the legal position of Department prosecutors.”
Comey welcomed the OIG’s assessment in a New York Times op-ed posted minutes after the report was released, saying it found no evidence of bias and demonstrated there was no prosecutable case against Clinton.
“I do not agree with all of the inspector general’s conclusions, but I respect the work of his office and salute its professionalism,” he wrote. “All of our leaders need to understand that accountability and transparency are essential to the functioning of our democracy, even when it involves criticism. This is how the process is supposed to work.”
Comey asserted that nothing in the report made him doubt his decision to deliver his July statement about the case without clearing it with the attorney general’s office, but he acknowledged he was not sure he was doing the right thing when he sent the letter to Congress in October.
“My team believed the damage of concealing the reopening of our investigation would have been catastrophic to the institution,” he wrote. “The inspector general weighs it differently, and that’s O.K., even though I respectfully disagree.”
2. “We’ll stop him”
The report recounts many politically-charged text messages exchanged by counterintelligence official Peter Strzok and DOJ attorney Lisa Page during the course of the investigation and afterward. Some were reported months ago, but investigators found one previously-undisclosed message particularly troubling.
“[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Page wrote on August 8, 2016. Strzok responded, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
According to the report, Strzok said he did not recall sending that text, but he believed he was just trying to reassure her that Trump would lose the election, not suggesting they would take action to prevent it.
Strzok was also an integral figure in the opening of the investigation of possible ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government that summer, and he and Page both worked on special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in 2017. Page completed her work on the case before their relationship and texts were uncovered, and Strzok was reassigned after they were revealed.
Though the report states no evidence was found proving that these biases influenced the investigation, the OIG “did not have confidence” that Strzok was free from bias in his decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on newly-discovered emails potentially relevant to the Clinton case in October 2016.
The report also reveals three other unnamed agents exchanged messages that revealed an anti-Trump bias. All five employees were referred to the FBI for possible violations of the official code of conduct.
One significant caveat to the conclusions regarding Strzok and Page is that the report only assesses their decisions regarding the Clinton investigation. Questions about the Russia investigation will be the subject of a separate probe.
3. “A corrosive doubt”
The report revealed that Comey and the team handling the Midyear Review investigation, as the Clinton case was referred to internally, concluded in spring 2016 that charges against Clinton were unlikely, barring unexpected developments.
“Midyear team members told us that they based this assessment on a lack of evidence showing intent to place classified information on the server, or knowledge that the information was classified,” the report stated.
Comey began discussing “endgame” options for announcing a declination to file charges with Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in April 2016. However, Comey became concerned by early May that Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s involvement would result in “a corrosive doubt” about whether the decision was impartial.
Comey did not discuss his reservations with Lynch or Yates, but he decided the situation amounted to a “500-year flood” and began considering an FBI-only announcement. After Lynch met with former President Bill Clinton on the tarmac at a Phoenix airport in late June, Comey decided not to inform DOJ leadership of his plan to make a statement out of fear they would instruct him not to do it.
“We found that it was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to do so,” the report stated, “and we found none of his reasons to be a persuasive basis for deviating from well-established Department policies in a way intentionally designed to avoid supervision by Department leadership over his actions.”
The report also criticizes Lynch for creating “considerable public confusion” with her statement that she would accept the recommendation of investigators and prosecutors and for failing to instruct Comey to tell her what he was going to say in his July 5 statement beforehand.
4. Anthony Weiner
The inspector general’s office was puzzled by a month-long delay after federal investigators in New York City uncovered hundreds of thousands of emails on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the husband of one of Clinton’s top aides, that they believed might be relevant to the then-closed investigation. Officials promptly determined a search warrant would be needed to review the emails, but no action was taken for several weeks.
Officials involved in the case provided several explanations for this, including:
· The FBI team was waiting for additional information on the contents of the laptop
· The Midyear team and senior officials did not believe the emails on the laptop were likely to be significant
· Key members of the investigative team had been reassigned to the investigation of Russian interference in the election, which was considered a higher priority.
“We found these explanations to be unpersuasive justifications for not acting sooner, given the FBI leadership’s conclusion about the importance of the information and that the FBI Midyear team had sufficient information to take action in early October and knew at that time that it would need a new search warrant to review any Clinton-Abedin emails,” the report stated.
The OIG found no evidence the case was placed on the back-burner to protect Clinton or to influence the election. However, they also found no “consistent or persuasive explanation” for the delay.
The report also notes that Comey said he might have handled the notification of Congress differently if he was fully informed about the laptop sooner and believed the review of the emails could be completed before the election.
“I don’t know [if] it would have put us in a different place, but I would have wanted to have the opportunity,” Comey told investigators.
5. False dichotomy
The inspector general’s office questioned Comey’s justification for notifying Congress the Clinton case had been reopened in late October 2016. Comey has maintained his options were either to speak out or remain silent, and he feared silence would delegitimize Clinton’s presidency or the FBI if she won the election.
According to the report, senior officials had numerous discussions about whether to disclose the reopening of the case. Factors considered included “an implicit assumption that Clinton would be elected president,” concern the FBI would be accused of covering up the probe to help Clinton, and fear that the information would leak if it was not revealed.
I respect the DOJ IG office, which is why I urged them to do this review. The conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some. People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently. I pray no Director faces it again. Thanks to IG’s people for hard work.— James Comey (@Comey) June 14, 2018
The inspector general’s office found none of those arguments persuasive.
“Comey’s description of his choice as being between ‘two doors,’ one labeled ‘speak’ and one labeled ‘conceal,’ was a false dichotomy,” the report stated. “The two doors were actually labeled ‘follow policy/practice’ and ‘depart from policy/practice.’ Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment.”
6. Investigative decisions
One of the primary issues addressed by the report is the tactics used by investigators to obtain information and conduct interviews in the course of the Clinton probe. They often favored voluntary interviews and requests over subpoenas and court orders, they granted limited use immunity and act of production immunity to obtain certain information, and they allowed two of Clinton’s lawyers who were also witnesses in the case to sit in on her FBI interview.
The inspector general found most of these decisions were valid choices made on their merits rather than other considerations. However, the report does not attempt to assess whether they were the best or most effective paths of investigation.
“If a choice made by the investigative team was among two or more reasonable alternatives, we did not find that it was improper even if we believed that an alternative decision would have been more effective,” the report stated.
Though they found no evidence the presence of lawyers/witnesses influenced Clinton’s interview, OIG investigators determined allowing them to attend was “inconsistent with typical investigative strategy.”
7. Gross negligence
Another decision that has come under heavy scrutiny since summer 2016 was the belief by investigators that they could only prosecute Clinton or her aides if they had intent to mishandle classified information.
The Midyear Review team considered five statutes that might have applied to the conduct of Clinton or her senior aides, but they determined evidence did not support prosecution under any of them. According to the report, there was no evidence this conclusion was based on anything other than an assessment of the facts and the law.
Critics of the decision have argued Clinton could have been charged with exhibiting gross negligence in her handling of classified information under 18 U.S.C. § 793(f). However, the inspector general’s office concurred with prosecutors that case law and prior interpretation of the statute likely required “a state of mind that was ‘so gross as to almost suggest deliberate intention,’ criminally reckless, or ‘something that falls just short of being willful.’”
“We found that this interpretation of Section 793(f)(1) was consistent with the Department’s historical approach in prior cases under different leadership, including in the 2008 decision not to prosecute former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for mishandling classified documents,” the report stated.
8. Mr. & Mrs. McCabe
FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was one of the officials faulted for not acting sooner on the emails found on Weiner’s laptop, but other aspects of his conduct were scrutinized as well.
McCabe was fired in April of this year and referred to the DOJ for possible prosecution for lying to the OIG investigators regarding his involvement in the leaking of information about an investigation of the Clinton Foundation to the media. He has denied intentionally misleading investigators.
The report also looked at whether McCabe should have recused himself from the investigation due to his wife’s ties to Clinton ally and Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
Dr. Jill McCabe received $675,000 in donations from McAuliffe’s political action committee when she was running for state Senate in Virginia in 2015. At the time, Andrew McCabe sought guidance from FBI ethics officials and was told he did not need to take action.
The OIG found ethics officials did not fully consider the implications of the campaign donations. McCabe complied with the ethics office’s recommendations until he voluntarily recused himself from the Clinton probe days before the election, but there were a few instances where he violated that recusal with regarding to the Clinton Foundation investigation.
Beyond the leak McCabe orchestrated, the OIG found a pervasive culture of leaking within the FBI and DOJ.
“We identified numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization and with no official reason to be in contact with the media, who were nevertheless in frequent contact with reporters,” the report stated.
FBI employees also improperly received benefits from reporters, including meals, event tickets, and golf outings.
“We have profound concerns about the volume and extent of unauthorized media contacts by FBI personnel that we have uncovered during our review,” the report said.