Justice IG says report doesn’t assess ‘credibility’ of Russian probe

Justice IG says report doesn’t assess ‘credibility’ of Russian probe
© Greg Nash

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on Monday emphasized that the detailed, heavily critical report that his office issued last week does not levy judgment on special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.

Although Horowitz carefully declined to directly contradict President TrumpDonald John TrumpBooker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Booker hits Biden's defense of remarks about segregationist senators: 'He's better than this' Trump says Democrats are handing out subpoenas 'like they're cookies' MORE’s claim that the report “exonerates” him, he noted that it “does not touch on the Russia investigation.”

“We did not address the credibility of the special counsel’s investigation here,” he said, during a three-hour Senate hearing on Monday that quickly became a referendum on whether the report indicates the Mueller probe has already been tainted by bias.

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The report, which was made public on Thursday, evaluates decisionmaking within the Department of Justice during the investigation into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Democrats bristle as Hicks appears for daylong Capitol Hill testimony Trump: 'So sad' Democrats are putting Hope Hicks 'through hell' MORE’s use of a private email server.

In the days since its release, Trump has claimed that the document “went a long way to show that … the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited,” and key Republicans have begun to call for the investigation to wrap up.  

From the beginning, Republicans on Thursday argued that the report shows FBI investigators gave Democratic candidate Clinton a “kid glove” treatment during the 2016 election, compared to the “bare-knuckle” tactics employed in the Mueller probe.

“The Justice Department faces a serious credibility problem because millions of Americans suspect there is a double standard,” Judiciary Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Overnight Health Care: Trump officials defend changes to family planning program | Senators unveil bipartisan package on health costs | Democrats pass T spending bill with HHS funds Grassley announces opposition to key Trump proposal to lower drug prices MORE (R-Iowa) said in his opening statement.

Democrats, meanwhile, repeatedly pressed Horowitz on unorthodox disclosures made by former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyIntel chairman says FBI starting to answer questions on Russia probe Intel chairman says FBI starting to answer questions on Russia probe Want the truth? Put your money on Bill Barr, not Jerry Nadler MORE that they say helped elect Donald Trump, as well as alleged leaks to Trump campaign surrogate Rudy Giuliani.

Horowitz in his responses strayed little from the official findings in his report: that while texts from a lead agent in both the Clinton and Russia investigations demonstrated a “biased state of mind,” investigators found no evidence that bias or improper influence impacted the outcome of the Clinton probe.

He defended the report against the suggestion from Trump and a small group of House GOP members that it had been watered down during the drafting process, telling lawmakers that it “was not made weaker or softer in any regard.”

But while he declined to substantiate the president’s claims about his report, he also pushed back on Democratic claims that Comey’s decision to speak openly about the Clinton probe but not the Russia probe exonerated the bureau from allegations of anti-Trump bias.

“I don’t think that necessarily closes off the bias question simply because he didn’t violate a rule,” Horowitz said of Comey’s silence in the Russia probe.

Horowitz and FBI Director Christopher Wray provided a handful of new nuggets of information on Thursday.

The FBI director revealed that he has set up a dedicated internal unit at the bureau to ferret out unauthorized disclosures of information, vowing to “throw the book at people” and noting that he had rolled out a new media contacts policy for the bureau in November.

And the inspector general confirmed that he is investigating Comey’s decision to provide a personal friend with memos documenting his interactions with Trump that government officials now view as containing classified information.

The friend, Columbia law professor Daniel Richman, later verbally shared the contents of the memos to The New York Times.

“We received a referral on that from the FBI. We are handling that referral and we will issue a report when the matter is complete, consistent with the law and rules,” Horowitz said Thursday.

He declined to confirm or deny whether the alleged leaks to Giuliani were a part of the investigation.

Much of Monday’s hearing was a public rehashing of talking points from both sides of the debate over the inspector general’s report — a 500-page doorstop that has been a partisan Rorschach test in the days since its release.

The thrust of Horowitz’s report addressed controversial disclosures Comey made during the course of the Clinton investigation that the inspector general labeled “insubordinate” and “extraordinary.”

“Among the most important” lessons in the report, Horowitz said Thursday, “is the need to respect the institution’s hierarchy and structure, and to follow established policies, procedures and norms even in the highest-profile and most challenging investigations.”

Wray also criticized his predecessor on Monday, albeit more delicately than Horowitz. He told lawmakers that “there are a number of things I probably would have done differently.”

But, he said, repeating statements he has previously made, “I do not believe special counsel Mueller is on a witch hunt.”

The report also heavily criticized five FBI employees assigned to the Clinton case who exchanged text messages on bureau devices that were critical of Trump — texts that Republican lawmakers zeroed in on Monday afternoon.

“Bottom line ... I’m not buying that the Clinton email investigation was on the up-and-up,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSecond ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators Meghan McCain clashes with Joy Behar as the 'sacrificial Republican' on 'The View' MORE (R-S.C.) said.

Graham specifically seized on an Election Day text from the agent who conducted the FBI’s interview of Clinton that he was “with her.”

Horowitz, asked how he “felt” about the text, said: “Very concerned.”

“Habitually, ‘very concerned’ gets to be enough already,” Graham fired back.

Graham also pushed the inspector general on the decision to describe Clinton’s handling of classified information as “extremely careless” and not “grossly negligent,” a potentially criminal designation.

The report, Graham asserted, suggests that officials wanted to shield Clinton from the damage the criminal language would have done to her campaign.

“What is the difference between ‘reckless disregard’ and ‘gross negligence'?" Graham asked.

“Not much,” Horowitz replied.

“It is a lot politically,” Graham replied.

Horowitz will return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning for a similar appearance before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, a hearing that is likely to produce far more fireworks than Senate panel.