Watchdog rips Comey but says bias didn’t taint Clinton probe

Watchdog rips Comey but says bias didn’t taint Clinton probe

A long-awaited report by the Justice Department’s watchdog Thursday found no indication that political bias affected decisions in the FBI’s 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, but the review criticized agents and ex-FBI Director James Comey for violating bureau norms during the probe.

The department’s inspector general turned up fresh evidence of FBI officials exchanging messages critical of President Donald Trump and of leaking to the media, and the report faulted the FBI for several weeks of inaction following the September 2016 discovery of emails relevant to its investigation on a laptop belonging to former Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was married to a top Clinton aide.

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Comey was singled out for withering criticism by Inspector General Michael Horowitz, including accusations of insubordination against top Justice Department officials and of making “a serious error of judgment” in notifying Congress shortly before the 2016 election that the FBI was re-opening its Clinton email probe. Comey later reiterated his recommendation that she not face charges, but Clinton has said the letter nonetheless helped cause her loss.

The report undercuts Trump’s argument that the FBI, acting for political reasons, let Clinton off the hook over her use of a private email server as secretary of state. But it likely will fuel his claims that FBI agents were biased against him, and Trump could point to Horowitz’s criticism of Comey as belated justification for the decision to fire him last year amid an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. He has long called the probe a "witch hunt."

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump was briefed on the report Thursday.

"It reaffirms the president’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the bias among some of the members at the FBI," she said.

In a response appended to the report, the FBI — led by Trump appointee Christopher Wray — said it accepted the conclusion that political bias played no role in the decision-making by the FBI in the Clinton investigation, despite the finding of multiple missteps. And Comey said he welcomed the report, regardless of the pounding he took in it.

“I respect the DOJ IG office, which is why I urged them to do this review,” he said on Twitter. “The conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some.”

“The report also resoundingly demonstrates that there was no prosecutable case against Mrs. Clinton, as we had concluded,” the ex-FBI director continued in a New York Times op-ed. “Although that probably will not stop some from continuing to claim the opposite is true, this independent assessment will be useful to thoughtful people and an important contribution to the historical record.”

The report said the decision not to recommend charges against Clinton was “consistent with the Department’s historical approach in prior cases under different leadership,” but Horowitz expressed no explicit view on whether Clinton should have been charged or whether such a case could be won in court.

Republicans on Thursday sharply criticized the FBI’s actions in 2016.

"The law enforcement community has no greater ally in Congress than me. But continued revelations of questionable decision making by FBI and DOJ leadership destroys confidence in the impartiality of the institutions I have long served, respected, and believed in," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) said in a statement. "This is not the FBI I know. This is not the FBI our country needs. This is not the FBI citizens and suspects alike deserve."

Horowitz found that five FBI employees assigned to the email case exchanged texts or instant messages that were hostile to Trump or supported Clinton. In one previously unreleased exchange, FBI agent Peter Strzok — who was deeply involved in both the Clinton probe and the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia — seemed to vow to block Trump from winning.

Trump’s "not ever going to become president, right? Right?!" FBI attorney Lisa Page asked via text on August 8, 2016.

"No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it," Strzok replied.

Horowitz said the FBI personnel had a right to political views but should not have been exchanging such blatantly political messages on FBI equipment and while involved in investigations of those candidates.

"The conduct of these five FBI employees brought discredit to themselves, sowed doubt about the FBI’s handling of the [Clinton email] investigation, and impacted the reputation of the FBI," Horowitz wrote.

The inspector general expressed concern that one aspect of the handling of the Clinton probe may have reflected some political motivation on Strzok’s part: his decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over the discovery of new emails several weeks before the election.

Horowitz said that in light of Strzok’s August message about stopping Trump, the IG’s investigators "did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision…was free from bias."

An attorney for Strzok, Aitan Goelman, called that conclusion "critically flawed" and "bizarre."

"In fact, all facts contained in the report lead to the conclusion that the delay was caused by a variety of factors and miscommunications that had nothing to do with Special Agent Strzok’s political views," Goelman said in a statement.

The inspector general also found that multiple senior FBI officials — including Comey and Strzok — used personal email accounts to conduct FBI business, a finding that flabbergasted Clinton allies who have long complained that she was unfairly maligned for her own use of private email. Comey said his use of personal email was "incidental" and that he always forwarded the work to a government account so a copy would exist in the FBI system, according to the report.

Horowitz described the “most troubling” example as a decision by Strzok on Oct. 29, 2016, to forward to his personal account an email about a proposed search warrant that FBI officials were seeking for Weiner’s laptop. Horowitz said Strzok told him he rarely used personal email at work, doing it for example when "there were problems with the FBI systems."

In reacting to the report, Wray tried to strike a balance between accepting the pointed criticism of the agency and defending its personnel.

“I take this report very seriously,” he said. “There’s some sobering lessons in there. It’s also important, though, to note what the inspector general did not find. His report did not find any evidence of political bias or improper considerations actually impacting the investigation.”

Convening his first news conference since becoming director last August, Wray dodged when asked whether the inspector general’s report validated Trump’s repeated public criticism of the FBI.

“I’m not going to comment on any other person’s opinions, no matter where they’re communicated,” the director said. “What I am going to do is talk about the opinions that I think matter. The opinions that matter to me are the opinions that are relevant to our work.”

Wray insisted that “nothing in this report impugns the integrity of our workforce as a whole or the FBI as an institution.” However, the review did level a broad critique of the bureau over leaks, finding “a culture of unauthorized media contacts.”

Asked by POLITICO about that conclusion, Wray said: “We accept the findings of the report and the recommendations. … We’re going to make painfully clear to everybody that we won’t tolerate noncompliance.” Wray also said he had ordered ethics officials at the FBI to take a “hard look” at whether the penalties for leaking needed to be more severe.

Horowitz also dinged former Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “ambiguous” partial recusal from the probe of Clinton’s private email server, which she used as secretary of state, and for failing to insist that Comey clear his public announcement of the end of the Clinton probe with Justice Department officials.

In recent days, Trump and his allies in Congress have raised questions about Horowitz himself, seemingly girding themselves for findings that fall short of their claims of widespread anti-Trump bias. In February, the president questioned whether Horowitz — initially appointed by President George W. Bush — was an “Obama guy.” And last week he complained about delays in releasing the report, insinuating that it could be “made weaker.

But outside of Trump’s inner circle, support for Horowitz runs high, even among Republicans. Gowdy, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has called him a man of integrity who can be trusted, and has been echoed by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). One of Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), calls Horowitz “an honorable, decent man that does a good job.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.

Published at Thu, 14 Jun 2018 09:03:37 +0000

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