The 568-page report released last week by Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz condemned former FBI Director Jim Comey for insubordination and exceeding his authority in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, and harshly criticized then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her “error in judgement” by meeting with Mrs. Clinton’s husband on the tarmac of a Phoenix airport while the investigation was ongoing. The IG’s exhaustive 18-month investigation also revealed many previously unknown details about the actions of other principal players as the email investigation unfolded.
In his conclusions, the IG failed to draw the logical conclusion from the pattern of facts his report uncovered. He left it to others to point out that many of the questionable decisions made in the Clinton email investigation were driven by a strong pro-Clinton and anti-Trump political bias which permeated the culture at the FBI and the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Nevertheless, the IG gave FBI and Justice Department officials the benefit of the doubt in deciding whether their personal bias was the key deciding factor in making the decisions which turned the Clinton email investigation into a farce.
Horowitz refused to pass judgement on the “discretionary judgments made during the course of an investigation” by the FBI investigators. The IG excused the investigators from acting out of bias because he looked at each of their decisions in total isolation while ignoring their real-life context, including other decisions and statements made by the same investigator that revealed their bias. Instead, the IG tried to imagine a situation in which a totally unbiased FBI agent might reach the same questionable conclusion, such as granting immunity to a clearly guilty witness, or declining to seek a subpoena to obtain relevant evidence. He then assigned those innocent motives to the investigator in the Clinton case.
The IG said that evaluating the integrity of each of those questionable decisions was “made significantly more difficult” by the pro-Clinton bias shared by all of the key players, observing that it “cast a cloud” over the entire “investigation’s credibility.”
Others who have looked at the evidence uncovered by Horowitz’s report have been more willing to “connect the dots,” identifying an obvious pattern of collusion and pro-Clinton bias by those running the email investigation.
Glaring examples of this bias include the messages exchanged between lead FBI investigator Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer working under assistant FBI Director Andrew McCabe. Most of that exchange of messages was discovered by the IG last year and resulted in Strzok’s removal from Special Counsel Mueller’s investigative team. Since that time, the IG found another exchange of emails between Strzok and Page from that period, in which they expressed their determination to prevent Trump from becoming president even more explicitly.
On August 8, 2016, Page texted Strzok about her concerns that Trump could win the election.
“[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” she wrote.
“No,” Strzok responded. “No, he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
The IG’s report also reveals messages denigrating Trump sent by three other unnamed FBI officials working on the Clinton email case. Yet Horowitz said he could find no evidence that their political views “directly” influenced any of their decisions in the investigation.
The IG’s report mentions in passing that while he was winding up the Clinton email investigation, Strzok was deeply involved in launching the FBI’s secret investigation of criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election. Those allegations came from the Steele dossier, which was produced as a piece of paid opposition research by the Clinton campaign. Steel and Fusion GPS then distributed the dossier to the media and to the FBI, which used its unverified allegations to deceive a FISA court into issuing a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign.
Horowitz scrupulously avoided looking into the FBI’s questionable conduct of the Trump-Russia collusion investigation, despite the fact that they directly impacted one another. Specifically, when thousands of Clinton’s emails were discovered in September 2016 on a laptop belonging to Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her husband, Anthony Weiner, Strzok ignored them for a month, because, Horowitz was told, “key members” of the team investigating the Clinton emails had been reassigned by Strzok to the Russia probe, “which was a higher priority.”
The IG challenged that claim. Because of the strong bias which was obvious in Strzok’s text messages, Horowitz wrote, “we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation” had not been influenced by political considerations. The IG wrote that he could find no “consistent or persuasive explanation” for why the FBI did nothing to investigate the emails on the Abedin-Weiner laptop for so long.
In an email quoted in the report, Strzok wrote that he was pleased to be invited to join Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation to give him a chance to address “unfinished business.” He saw it as giving him the choice of being just another FBI assistant director or participating in an “investigation leading to impeachment.”
While even those who disagreed with the IG report’s conclusions praised it as comprehensive, its failure to look into the connections between the Clinton email and Russia collusion investigations led many to view the investigation as incomplete.
They also criticized Horowitz’s refusal to recognize the logical implications of the pervasive pro-Clinton bias he found among those conducting the investigation as overly cautious. The IG’s report did not change their conclusion that Mrs. Clinton received much more lenient treatment from the FBI than anyone else facing the same amount of clear evidence of their guilt.
An editorial by the National Review suggested that “a comparison between the handling of the Clinton emails and that of the Trump-Russia probes would almost certainly illustrate the influence of this bias.”
It is also apparent that the officials who handled the email investigation were convinced that Mrs. Clinton would win the November election and become the next president, and that they should be careful not to do anything that would antagonize their future boss. It was also widely assumed that senior officials in the Obama administration had forbidden prosecutors to follow the normal procedure in a criminal case, which would be to ask a grand jury to issue subpoenas to compel witnesses to testify against Mrs. Clinton.
It is also clear that those handling the Clinton investigation were working against a short timetable. FBI and DOJ officials told the IG that their intent was to close the investigation of Mrs. Clinton “well in advance” of Election Day to avoid influencing the political process. But in fact, it was clear the FBI was racing to complete the email investigation to remove it as a potential obstacle to her nomination at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, thereby clearing her way to the presidency.
The FBI and DOJ officials tried to use the need to end the investigation quickly as an excuse for failing to follow standard procedure by asking a grand jury for subpoenas and search warrants. They said they feared that Clinton’s lawyers would file motions in court to quash them, leading to extensive delays in completing the investigation. The IG’s report notes, “Comey pressed in early May for the prompt completion of the investigation. However, in seeking to avoid delay, prosecutors were required to balance the need for timely completion of an investigation against the need to ensure a thorough and complete investigation.”
In other words, in the name of following their well-established protocol “to avoid influencing the political process,” FBI and Justice Department officials made a conscious decision to compromise the email investigation in various ways. These included cutting sweetheart deals for the voluntary testimony of Mrs. Clinton and her senior staff members rather than having serving them with a subpoena from a grand jury, limiting the search for relevant data on their laptops and other devices, and giving immunity to prosecution to Paul Combetta, the computer tech who lied twice to the FBI when they asked him if he had destroyed emails on Mrs. Clinton’s server.
By contrast, Senator Charles Grassley said Monday in a Judiciary Committee hearing on the IG’s report, that former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was vigorously prosecuted by Special Counsel Mueller for making an apparently inadvertent misstatement to FBI investigators. Grassley added that, “millions of Americans suspect that there is a double standard. They see a story of kid-glove treatment for one side and bare-knuckle tactics for the other.”
Horowitz and FBI Director Wray attended the committee hearing to answer questions from senators. Former Attorney General Lynch, former Deputy FBI Director McCabe, and former FBI Director Comey were also invited but declined to attend.
Grassley cited the report’s finding of a culture of rampant leaking to reporters among “numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization.
“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 says, including the receiving of perks from reporters, “including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events.”
Senator Grassley commented that this means that current FBI Director Christopher Wray has “quite a mess” to clean up.
Wray responded that that the FBI plans to refer “any employee for potential misconduct” to the DOJ’s Office of Professional Responsibility and carry out disciplinary actions “without delay. We will not hesitate to hold people accountable. We won’t hesitate to throw the book at people who violate” FBI policies.
With respect to leaks, Wray said that they have a “pernicious affect” on his agency, which now has set up a “leak investigations unit.”
Horowitz defended the conclusions of his report that there was “no evidence” of political bias or “improper considerations” in the decision not to prosecute Mrs. Clinton, which the IG says was “based on the prosecutors’ assessment of the facts, the law, and past Department practice.”
However, Horowitz admitted that, “we found the implication that senior FBI employees would be willing to take official action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects to be deeply troubling and antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice.”
If the principle of the FBI avoiding having any impact on the political process was so important to him, why did Comey violate it by making his July 5 public announcement ending the investigation while excoriating Mrs. Clinton for the mishandling of her classified emails?
On this point, the IG found that it was “extraordinary and insubordinate” for Comey to conceal from then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch his plans to make the July 5 announcement that the FBI would not recommend that Mrs. Clinton be prosecuted. The report said that Lynch should have demanded that Comey tell him about his July 5 announcement in advance. “[S]he should have instructed Comey to tell her what he intended to say beforehand, and should have discussed it with Comey,” the report said.
Horowitz told the Senate committee that Comey “clearly departed from FBI and Department norms, and his decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the Department as fair administrators of justice.” He also said that Comey was apparently thinking about his political future when started drafting his prosecution recommendations so far in advance of the end of the investigation. The IG also criticized Comey’s July 5 announcement because it “included inappropriate commentary about uncharged conduct, announced his views on what a ‘reasonable prosecutor’ would do, and served to confuse rather than clarify public understanding of his recommendation.”
The report also criticizes Comey for the procedure he followed before he wrote a letter informing Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, that the Clinton email investigation had been restarted. Comey told the IG that he thought Lynch and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates suggested he not tell Congress but didn’t order him not to do so.
“Basically… it’s up to you,” Comey said his DOJ superiors told him in the end. “I honestly thought they were taking kind of a cowardly way out,” he added.
But the IG concludes that Comey’s decision to notify Congress in October that the investigation was being reopened was “a serious error in judgment.”
“Much like with his July 5 announcement, we found that in making this decision, Comey engaged in ad hoc decision making based on his personal views even if it meant rejecting longstanding Department policy or practice,” the IG report said.
It is important to recall that Comey’s actions during this period infuriated Democrats just as much, if not more, than Republicans. Mrs. Clinton and many of her supporters insist that Comey’s October 28th letter to Congress broke the positive momentum of her presidential campaign and led to her defeat on Election Day less than two weeks later.
Mark Penn, who served as an advisor and pollster for Bill Clinton’s administration, said that, “when Comey issued an unauthorized and unprecedented report to the country [in July] on the email investigation, along with his personal recommendation against prosecution, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch should have acted decisively to fire him. That would have put principle over politics. Comey seized a role that was not his, violating procedure and policy.” Penn argues that because Comey “went unpunished for his behavior, he kept doing it, issuing the late October letter.”
Other liberals were also upset to learn from the report that FBI and Justice Department officials were operating outside the rules to which they hold everyone else. For example, while he was FBI Director, Comey, like Mrs. Clinton, used his personal Gmail account to conduct government business.
Penn notes that Comey’s actions which, “in essence, took the law into his own hands, and quite possibly affected the outcome of the election,” were also cited in the memo issued by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein which justified Trump’s decision to fire the FBI Director. Given the added examples of Comey’s improper conduct cited by the IG’s report, Penn concludes the accusation that Trump obstructed justice by firing him “is now absurd on its face.”
Penn also points to other aspects of the IG’s report which lend support to the Clinton camp. One of them is the IG’s conclusion that Comey’s decision not to prosecute Mrs. Clinton for violating national security was reasonable, as well as evidence that former President Bill Clinton’s meeting with Lynch on the Phoenix airport tarmac really was spontaneous, even though Lynch was wrong in agreeing to it.
The IG’s report reveals other abuses committed by the government officials who conducted the Clinton email investigation. Former Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik tipped off the Clinton campaign and “failed to strictly adhere to [his] recusal” when he finally stepped aside from it. Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe also did not “fully comply with his recusal” due to his wife’s status as a Democrat candidate for office in Virginia, which he did not declare until the week before Election Day.
Another fascinating point revealed by the IG’s report is the fact that President Obama lied to the American public when he told a CBS reporter in 2015 that the first time he learned about Mrs. Clinton’s private email server was, “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”
In fact, the IG’s report states that Obama was one of 13 senior government officials who were communicating with Clinton through her unsecured private email server while it was being targeted by foreign intelligence services. The report notes that some of the edits that were made to early drafts of Comey’s July 5 statement exonerating Mrs. Clinton from prosecution removed the fact that Clinton and Obama were communicating via email while she was abroad in a hostile country which was almost certainly monitoring the emails she was receiving and transmitting to the president over her cell phone through her private email server.
But Obama did not dare to admit that he corresponded with Mrs. Clinton’s using her private email server, for fear of widening the scandal to include the White House. Instead, Obama sought to minimize the significance of her server and endorsed Mrs. Clinton’s innocence because he was relying on her to win the White House and build upon his presidential legacy.
Another fascinating question answered by the IG’s report is why Comey suddenly chose to announce the presence of new Clinton emails on the Abedin-Weiner laptop 11 days before the election, after the FBI had neglected them for a month after their discovery. Comey testified that he decided to reveal the discovery of the emails so late in the campaign because he feared that if word ever got out that the FBI had concealed potential evidence of Clinton’s guilt, the result would be “catastrophic, not just to the Bureau, but beyond the Bureau.”
What did Comey mean by “beyond the Bureau?” Former FBI general counsel James A. Baker is quoted in the IG’s report saying that the concern was for Mrs. Clinton: “If she’s been elected president of the United States, then Donald Trump would say, ‘Oh my, these people knew this beforehand and didn’t say anything. This is a rigged system. These people intentionally hid that until after the election so they could get her elected and thwart me.”
In other words, Comey decided to reopen the investigation against Mrs. Clinton so close to the election because he was confident that she would win despite that, and his actions would prevent a likely post-election challenge to her legitimacy of her presidency by Donald Trump.
In an April interview with ABC, Comey recalled that leading up to the 2016 election, “I was operating in a world where Hillary Clinton was going to beat Donald Trump. I’m sure that it was a factor. . . That she’s going to be elected president, and if I hide this [the newly discovered emails] from the American people, she’ll be illegitimate [as president] the moment this comes out.”
It would be the ultimate irony if Mrs. Clinton and her supporter are right, and Comey’s October 28 letter, which was intended to bolster her legitimacy after being elected as president, turned out to be the crucial factor in her electoral defeat.
Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, writing in the National Review, compares the “kid gloves” treatment which Mrs. Clinton and her advisors received from the FBI during the email investigation with the “scorched earth” policies which Special Counsel Mueller’s team is now using against Trump’s allies. These include the pre-dawn raid with guns drawn on the home of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, the raid on the office of Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, and the threat to prosecute the son of Michael Flynn on criminal charges.
Beyond the specifics in each case, Andrew McCarthy points out that the underlying question raised by the IGs report is whether Clinton supporters and Trump supporters got the same quality of justice from the FBI. The answer is that Clinton’s supporters got the case against her dropped, even though she appeared to be guilty, while the investigation against Trump’s supporters is still active after two years of not uncovering any evidence of collusion or obstruction of justice.