Five takeaways from Justice IG report on Comey

The Justice Department watchdog unveiled a report Thursday rebuking former FBI director James ComeyJames Brien ComeyNadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime We've lost sight of the real scandal Former Obama officials willing to testify on McCabe's behalf: report MORE over his handling of memos detailing his conversations with President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' MORE, saying he violated FBI policies.

The report from DOJ Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz rebutted Comey’s claims that the memos were merely personal recollections, not official FBI records, and sharply criticized the former FBI chief for mishandling sensitive information.

While highly critical of Comey’s actions, the inspector general did not make recommendations on whether the former top government official should face any charges, and Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrTrump walks tightrope on gun control Feinstein calls on Justice to push for release of Trump whistleblower report Clarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump MORE has declined to prosecute him.

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The watchdog report has reverberated throughout Washington, thrusting Comey — a figure who has long drawn ire from members of both parties over his work at the FBI during the 2016 election — back into the political fray.

Here are five takeaways surrounding the release of the 83-page IG report:

Report gives Trump ammunition

The scathing inspector general report supplied fresh fodder for President Trump and his GOP allies, who have long alleged malfeasance by top members of the Justice Department and FBI during the 2016 election.

These fervent critics now have an independent government watchdog publicly confirming that Comey violated FBI policies and his employment agreement with the bureau when he decided to give memos to a friend in the hopes they would be shared with the media.

“Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General’s Report. He should be ashamed of himself!” Trump tweeted Thursday, hours after the release of the report.

Other Republicans who have led calls to “investigate the investigators” also seized on the findings.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanDC statehood push faces long odds despite record support Democrat accuses GOP of opposing DC statehood because of 'race and partisanship' The Hill Interview: Sanford says Trump GOP doing 'serious brand destruction' MORE (Ohio), the top Republican on the House Oversight and Reform Committee, claimed Comey’s actions were “part of a wider effort within the Obama Justice Department to undermine President Trump.”

Republicans argue that the Comey report is the tip of the iceberg and predict that other government officials will be caught up in a broader review of the origins of the Russia probe.

“This is the first of what I expect will be several more ugly and damning rebukes of senior DOJ and FBI officials regarding their actions and biases toward the Trump campaign of 2016,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamPost peace talks, Afghan elections are the best way forward Trump walks tightrope on gun control Pompeo doubles down on blaming Iran for oil attacks: 'This was a state-on-state act of war' MORE (R-S.C.), a close ally of the president, said in a statement.

Horowitz, however, did not make any recommendations as to whether Comey should be prosecuted, undercutting Republicans who want him to face punishment for his actions. The Justice Department has also declined to prosecute him.

And while the report rebuked Comey, it did not cast aspersions on the integrity of the Russia investigation, which former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Fox's Cavuto roasts Trump over criticism of network Mueller report fades from political conversation MORE wrapped up in March. The special counsel did not find evidence to charge members of the Trump campaign with conspiring with Russia, and did not reach a conclusion on whether the president obstructed justice.

Comey is unapologetic

Rather than acknowledging any personal fault following the release of the report Thursday, Comey immediately went after his GOP critics, who he claimed defamed him.

The former FBI chief and prominent Trump critic attacked the president and other Republicans who asserted that he leaked classified information to the media.

While the Horowitz report found he had mishandled classified information, it did not find evidence that Comey or his associates shared memos with the media that contained classified information — a key conclusion Comey seized on.

“I don’t need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a ‘sorry we lied about you’ would be nice,” Comey tweeted.

“And to all those who’ve spent two years talking about me ‘going to jail’ or being a ‘liar and a leaker’—ask yourselves why you still trust people who gave you bad info for so long, including the president.”

The response sparked a wave of backlash, with critics pointing out that his failure to follow FBI policies resulted in the rebuke from Horowitz.

Media leaks back in spotlight

The sudden spotlight on Comey has also renewed a focus on media leaks.

While Comey did not leak classified information to the press, the details he did push into the public light had major consequences for the Trump administration and the country as a whole.

The former FBI chief told the Senate in 2017 that he gave his friend, Columbia University professor Daniel Richman, a memo with the intention he would leak it to the press and prompt the appointment of a special counsel. Comey's effort succeeded when Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinLewandowski says Mueller report was 'very clear' in proving 'there was no obstruction,' despite having 'never' read it Nadler's House committee holds a faux hearing in search of a false crime House Democrats seeking Sessions's testimony in impeachment probe MORE tapped Mueller to investigate Russian interference. 

White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamClarence Thomas, Joe Manchin, Rudy Giuliani among guests at second state visit under Trump Hillicon Valley: Zuckerberg to meet with lawmakers | Big tech defends efforts against online extremism | Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser | Omar urges Twitter to take action against Trump tweet Trump attends secretive Silicon Valley fundraiser marred by protests MORE blasted Comey on Thursday afternoon, suggesting his leaks were the root of a “baseless politically motivated, two-year witch hunt.”

Legal experts, meanwhile, say it’s a mistake to cast the report as a vindication of Trump, noting that the issue of Comey’s handling of the memos is separate from their contents.

The details of the memo leaked to The New York Times provided Comey’s account of Trump asking him to let go of the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn, which Mueller investigated as possible obstruction of justice.

“It’s a real meaningful rebuke to James Comey,” said Elie Honig, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in Manhattan. “On the other hand, it’s a complete mistake to characterize this as some kind of vindication of Trump because the bigger issue here is the substance of Comey’s memo.”

While Horowitz said Comey set a bad example for the thousands of other employees at the bureau, the former chief suggested his motivation stemmed from his love of the FBI.

“Comey said he was compelled to take these actions ‘if I love this country…and I love the Department of Justice, and I love the FBI,’” according to the report.

Comey won’t be charged; can Trump try to punish him?

The Justice Department declined to pursue charges against Comey over his handling of the memos after the inspector general passed his findings to Barr. 

While Trump and his allies took a victory lap over the report, the decision not to prosecute nonetheless undercut allegations from the president and other Republicans that Comey committed "treason" and should face further punishment.

Legal experts say that the administration has few if any ways to go after the former FBI director now that DOJ has declined to prosecute him. 

“There’s only three things they can do: One fire him, they’ve already done that; two, criminally prosecute, which they’ve already said they’re not going to do; and three, just attack him over the airwaves and publicly on Twitter,” Honig said.

National security lawyer Mark Zaid said it wasn’t surprising that the Justice Department declined to prosecute Comey, describing his actions — keeping memos or notes in a way that goes against policies — as something that’s relatively common among officials and contractors within the government.

To prosecute Comey, Zaid argued, would mean having to bring many more cases like it. He also noted that Comey’s actions would only likely affect him if he were to ever apply for a security clearance again.

“Realistically, the only thing available is if he is ever eligible for a security clearance again, that this will be a factor in that determination,” Zaid said. “It may not be sufficient to impact anything, but it would definitely and most certainly be a factor.” 

“I’m sure they could come up with a theory to kind of go after him, but nothing that would fly, and not one that they would want the precedent of even if Trump was pushing for it,” he said. 

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Focus shifts to other investigations 

With the Comey report out, focus will now shift to the remaining investigatory threads stemming from the Russia probe.

The inspector general is said to be near the end of his investigation into whether the FBI followed proper protocol when applying for the warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. A report on those findings is expected any day. 

To Trump’s satisfaction, Barr has also ordered a separate investigation into whether the original intelligence collection on the Trump campaign was adequately predicated, led by the U.S. attorney in Connecticut. 

Trump has given Barr rare powers in the investigation to declassify material related to it. Democrats have widely criticized Trump of trying to weaponize the intelligence community to go after his political opponents. 

But Republicans are eager to see whether the probes validate their claims that officials abused surveillance powers by using information from the so-called Steele dossier in their pursuit of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant against Page.