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4 key takeaways from the inspector general’s report on the FBI, Comey, and Clinton emails

The IG found little evidence that political bias impacted the Clinton email probe — but sharply criticized James Comey and Peter Strzok.

James Comey
James Comey.
Brendan SmialowskiAFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

A new report by the Justice Department’s inspector general has found little affirmative evidence that political bias affected the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

But the report (which you can read at this link) criticizes several FBI employees involved in the probe for expressing anti-Trump political views in private messages — and it criticizes then-FBI Director James Comey’s unusual decisions to circumvent Justice Department leadership and speak publicly about the case.

Regarding the overall handling of the email probe itself, Inspector General Michael Horowitz extensively reviewed decisions about whom the FBI and DOJ interviewed, how they sought evidence, how they decided to grant immunity to certain people, and so on. Without endorsing all these choices, he concluded that overall, they were “not unreasonable” and seemed based on investigative judgment calls — not political bias, as President Trump and many on the right have often asserted.

While FBI director Christopher Wray said Thursday afternoon that he was “disappointed” by the report’s findings overall, he did point out that “this report did not find any evidence of political bias or improper considerations actually impacting the investigation under review.”

And on two more specific fronts, Horowitz is far more critical.

First, he writes, FBI officials involved in the case sent each other messages on their FBI devices “that created the appearance” of political bias. Here, he particularly criticizes FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok for texting his co-worker and lover Lisa Page that “we’ll stop” Trump from winning the election.

Horowitz says he found no affirmative evidence that Strzok skewed his decision-making for political reasons. But he says he “did not have confidence” that Strzok’s decision in the campaign’s final month to prioritize the Trump campaign/Russia probe over new Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop “was free from bias.” He writes that Strzok and other FBI employees “brought discredit to themselves” and hurt the bureau’s reputation.

Second, Horowitz sharply criticizes then-FBI Director Comey for his public statements about the Clinton email case — specifically, his July 2016 decision to publicly announce that he wouldn’t recommend any charges, and then his October 2016 decision to tell Congress that new emails had been found.

Horowitz concluded that while Comey didn’t act out of political bias, he “usurped the authority of the Attorney General,” “chose to deviate” from established procedures, and engaged “in his own subjective, ad hoc decisionmaking.” He writes that the Clinton email case was indeed extremely unusual — but that established procedures “are most important to follow when the stakes are the highest.”

So the IG’s two major criticisms cut in different political directions. Those particular FBI agents’ private leanings were anti-Trump, while Comey’s public statements ended up hurting Clinton. The report is more than 500 pages long and there’s much more to it than that, but these are the key takeaways.

1) The investigative decisions in the Clinton email case seemed to be made on the merits, the IG finds

When it comes to the overall handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, Horowitz retraced its progress from its opening in July 2015 to its seeming conclusion in the summer of 2016, to try to assess whether the investigative team’s decisions were skewed by political bias — and on the whole, he found little evidence that they were.

The context is that there’s been much criticism from the right because investigators often used voluntary processes to get evidence, that they granted certain witnesses immunity, that their interview of Clinton herself was only for show, and that Clinton wasn’t charged for political reasons.

Yet in all these cases, Horowitz concludes that investigators’ choices were “not unreasonable.” He says these choices on evidence “were supported by Department and FBI policy and practice,” and that the immunity agreements were given after considering department policy. He also writes that FBI agents “asked Clinton what appeared to be appropriate questions and made use of documents to challenge Clinton’s testimony and assess her credibility during her interview.”

And when it comes to the decision not to prosecute Clinton or anyone else in the case, Horowitz writes that he found this was based on prosecutors’ “assessment of the facts, the law, and past Department practice in cases involving these statutes.” He adds, “We did not identify evidence of bias or improper considerations.”

Horowitz does have certain criticisms — for instance, he says that two Clinton lawyers who were also fact witnesses in the case probably shouldn’t have been allowed to sit in on the FBI’s interview with Clinton. And he says he’s not necessarily endorsing any of these decisions as the best ones possible.

But, he writes, his goal is to assess whether they were “based on considerations other than the merits of the investigation.” And for the most part, he didn’t find evidence otherwise.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed,” Horowitz writes.

2) Some FBI officials expressed anti-Trump opinions in private messages — and Horowitz finds Peter Strzok’s particularly concerning

Yet Horowitz writes that he was “concerned” in finding private messages exchanged by several FBI employees, on FBI devices, in which they either disparaged Trump or expressed their support for Clinton.

In addition to the well-publicized texts between affair-having FBI co-workers Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, Horowitz writes that three other bureau employees involved in the case — two agents who were dating and ended up getting married, and an FBI attorney — sometimes mixed discussions of the Clinton email investigations with their own political opinions.

It is Strzok, though, whom he singles out for the most scrutiny. He is particularly concerned about an August 8, 2016, message in which, in response to a text from Page expressing fear that Trump would win the election, Strzok wrote back: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”

This, Horowitz wrote, is “not only indicative of a biased state of mind” but implies “a willingness to take official action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects” — something he calls “antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice.”

3) The IG asks whether Strzok pursued the Trump-Russia probe more vigorously than new Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop due to political bias

Now, Horowitz also writes that Strzok had at times pushed for more aggressive measures in the Clinton email probe than other investigators preferred. And he has little objection to Strzok‘s conduct in the Clinton probe through most of 2016.

However, Horowitz does express concern about a choice Strzok made late in the campaign to prioritize the Trump campaign/Russia investigation over investigating new Hillary Clinton emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop.

The Weiner emails were found by the FBI in late September, yet agents took no action on them for several weeks, stretching into late October. This is the background for the very late letter by Comey, just a week and a half before the election, announcing that the new emails were found.

“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,” Horowitz writes. However, he adds, “we also did not identify a consistent or persuasive explanation for the FBI’s failure to act for almost a month.”

“Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias,” he writes.

4) Horowitz sharply criticizes Comey for deviating from policy and procedure in his statements about the Clinton case

Finally, Horowitz singles out Comey for some tough criticism as well.

“In key moments, then Director Comey chose to deviate from the FBI’s and the Department’s established procedures and norms and instead engaged in his own subjective, ad hoc decisionmaking,” he writes.

There are two main examples here. First is Comey’s July 2016 public announcement that he wouldn’t recommend charges against anyone in the Clinton email case (which he coupled with criticism of Clinton for being “extremely careless”). Second is his October 2016 letter to Congress announcing that new Clinton emails had been discovered (on Weiner’s laptop). He made both of these decisions without any consultation with Justice Department officials, including his boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“We found that Comey largely based his decisions on what he believed was in the FBI’s institutional interests and would enable him to continue to effectively lead the FBI as its Director,” Horowitz writes. That is, he wasn’t driven by political bias but by self-preservation and institutional concerns.

Yet, the IG writes, “These decisions usurped the authority of the Attorney General and upset the well-established separation between investigative and prosecutorial functions and the accountability principles that guide law enforcement decisions in the United States.” Horowitz continues:

To protect the institutions from allegations of abuse, political interference, and biased enforcement of the law, the Department and the FBI have developed policies and practices to guide their decisions. In the vast majority of cases, they are followed as a matter of routine. But they are most important to follow when the stakes are the highest, and when the pressures to divert from them — often based on well-founded concerns and highly fraught scenarios — are the greatest.

No rule, policy, or practice is perfect, but at the same time, neither is any individual’s ability to make judgments under pressure or in what may seem like unique circumstances. It is in these moments — when the rationale for keeping to the ordinary course fades from view and the temptation to make an exception is greatest — that the bedrock principles and time-tested practices of the Department and the FBI can serve their highest purpose.

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