DOJ watchdog faults Comey over handling of Clinton probe
In a highly critical report released Thursday afternoon, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz hammered former FBI Director James Comey for poor judgment during the 2016 election, but found no evidence to show his key decisions in the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails were improperly influenced by political bias.
The report nonetheless raised swirling questions about the role of FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok, whose texts with FBI lawyer Lisa Page suggested he “might be willing” to take official action to impact Trump’s electoral prospects, the inspector general found.
In perhaps the most explosive new revelation from the report, Strzok told Page “We’ll stop it,” after being asked, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
That text, the report said, was “indicative of a biased state of mind” — and suggested that Strzok may have intentionally slow-rolled the review of emails connected to the Clinton investigation discovered after the probe was closed, which were on a laptop belonging to former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.(D).
Strzok, as the No. 2 official in the Clinton investigation, was one of several people who was made aware of the existence of the emails when they were initially uncovered.
But the so-called Midyear team — the investigative unit that had handled the Clinton investigation — did not move to review them until just days before the election, almost a month after FBI officials in New York found them.
Strzok told investigators that at the time he was prioritizing the investigation into then-candidate Donald Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia.
“Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias,” the inspector general said.
Horowitz’s team found no evidence that anyone else on the Midyear team “deliberately placed [the Weiner laptop] on the back burner” — but he nevertheless faulted the delay, arguing that all explanations he was was given for not acting sooner were “unpersuasive.”
Comey eventually ordered a review of the emails and informed Congress of their discovery, lighting a media firestorm just days before the election that Clinton and her allies believe cost her the presidency.
Investigators did not find any evidence that political bias or improper influence impacted any decisions made in the Clinton case prior to Comey’s announcement that he was closing the case — including the decision not to recommend charges against Clinton.
Prosecutors’ decision not to charge Clinton with “gross negligence” in her handling of classified materials — something conservatives say should have been done — 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,” investigators found.
Horowitz’s report also carefully cabins Strzok’s influence on decisionmaking in the course of the investigation.
Despite the “cloud” that the text exchanges between Strzok and Page cast on the investigation, Strzok was not the sole decisionmaker in any of the investigations the inspector general examined. And in some instances prior to the July announcement, the report notes, Strzok and Page “advocated for more aggressive investigative measures in the Midyear investigation, such as the use of grand jury subpoenas and search warrants to obtain evidence.”
But the report was deeply critical of Comey’s conduct in the investigation, characterizing his decision not to tell Department of Justice leadership about his plan to make a separate statement exonerating Clinton in July of 2016 as “extraordinary and insubordinate.”
Comey told investigators that he did not inform main Justice officials because he was concerned they would instruct him not to do it — something he felt would have harmed the public’s perception of the fairness and trustworthiness of the investigation.
Those reasons, Horowitz said, were not “a persuasive basis for deviating from well-established Department policies in a way intentionally designed to avoid supervision by Department leadership over his actions.”
Horowitz also lays some of the responsibility for the delay in reviewing the emails found on Weiner’s laptop on Comey. The former FBI director told investigators that when he was initially alerted that there were additional emails, the information “didn’t index” with him, in part because of how the information was presented to him and the fact that “I don’t know that I knew that [Weiner] was married to Huma Abedin at the time.”
The report also faulted Comey, Strzok and Page for using their personal email accounts for official FBI matters. It did not find that they transmitted any classified information using those accounts.
Horowitz did not hold back against former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who he said committed “an error in judgment” when she failed to cut short a now-infamous personal meeting on an airport tarmac with former President Clinton.
Her subsequent comments — saying that she would accept the recommendations of the FBI in the Midyear investigation — “created public confusion about the status of her continuing involvement … and did not adequately address the situation.”
In a statement, Lynch said the report “upholds my fidelity to the rule of law throughout” the probe into Hillary Clinton’s server.
“The report outlines how I, along with the career prosecutors I oversaw at DOJ, did everything we could to handle a sensitive probe in a highly politicized environment in a way that was non-partisan, impartial, and fair,” Lynch said.
Horowitz’s doorstop report, which comes in at almost 500 pages, does not delve into conservative allegations related to the Department of Justice’s handling of the investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia.
It provides a slate of recommendations, including that the bureau should develop policy for public announcements related to uncharged individuals.
The inspector general referred Strzok and Page as well as three other FBI employees assigned to the Midyear investigation to the FBI’s internal disciplinary unit over text messages on FBI devices that showed “hostility toward then candidate Trump and statement of support for candidate Clinton.”
Horowitz does not name the other three employees.
The inspector general’s office declined to comment on whether it has made any criminal referrals stemming from the report.
Updated at 5:10 p.m.