WASHINGTON - Former FBI Director James Comey was “insubordinate” in handling the probe into Hillary Clinton, damaging the bureau and the Justice Department’s image of impartiality even though he wasn’t motivated by politics, the department’s watchdog found.
Although the report issued Thursday by Inspector General Michael Horowitz doesn’t deal directly with special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 U.S. election and possible collusion with those around Donald Trump, the president and his Republican allies in Congress were primed to seize on it as evidence of poor judgment and anti-Trump bias within the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department.
Horowitz said that five FBI officials expressed hostility toward Trump before his election as president and disclosed in his report to Congress that their actions have been referred to the bureau for possible disciplinary action.
“The president was briefed on the IG report earlier today, and it reaffirmed the president’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the political bias among some of the members of the FBI,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said of the 500-page report.
One example cited in the new document is an exchange of texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page on Aug. 8, 2016. Page questioned whether Trump would become president. Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
Under those circumstances, Horowitz said “we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up” on potential new evidence in the Clinton case “was free from bias.”
Zeroing in on the evidence of anti-Trump sentiment, Rep. Darrell Issa of California said “it appears as though all or most of the 39 people who were tangentially involved had a bias toward believing they were going to work for Hillary Clinton — and as a result didn’t have the guts to take on wrongdoing.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement that “any effort to use this report as an excuse for shutting down Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation is both disingenuous and dangerous. Nothing in this report detracts from the credibility and critical importance of the Special Counsel’s investigation.”
Horowitz, whose office said it reviewed more than 1.2 million documents and interviewed more than 100 witnesses, didn’t challenge Comey’s fundamental decision against recommending prosecution of Clinton for mishandling classified information.
But the inspector general called it “extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to conceal his intentions from his superiors, the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General, for the admitted purpose of preventing them from telling him not to make the statement, and to instruct his subordinates in the FBI to do the same.”
He said that “we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part,” but “by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.”
The report also noted that Comey used personal email at times to conduct official business.
Comey said the report “found no evidence that bias or improper motivation affected the investigation, which I know was done competently, honestly and independently.” In an op-ed article for the New York Times, he said the report “also resoundingly demonstrates that there was no prosecutable case against Mrs. Clinton, as we had concluded.”
Horowitz examined actions taken by top officials before the 2016 election, including the handling of the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. The inquiry expanded to touch on an array of politically sensitive decisions by officials including Comey and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that John Huber, a U.S. attorney based in Utah who’s reviewing allegations of FBI bias and wrongdoing, “will provide recommendations as to whether any matter not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of Special Counsel.”
The FBI said in a statement included in the inspector general’s report that Comey’s handling of the Clinton findings may have violated regulations on releasing information and that his letter disclosing reopening of the inquiry shortly before the election “was a serious error in judgment.”
The bureau also said it accepts findings “that certain text messages, instant messages and statements, along with a failure to consistently apply DoJ and FBI interview policies, were inappropriate and created an appearance that political bias might have improperly influenced investigative actions or decisions.”
Some of what Horowitz discovered has already been made public, and Trump and Republican lawmakers have pounced on those findings in an effort to discredit Comey and, by extension, the investigation now being run by Mueller.
In tweets, Trump has called Comey’s investigation into Clinton “phony and dishonest” and said that Comey, who he fired on May 9, 2017, left the FBI’s reputation in tatters.
Trump has expressed great interest in the inspector general’s report, as well as some skepticism it might not be as damning as he hoped.
“What is taking so long with the Inspector General’s Report on Crooked Hillary and Slippery James Comey,” Trump tweeted on June 5. “Numerous delays. Hope Report is not being changed and made weaker! There are so many horrible things to tell, the public has the right to know. Transparency!”
The inspector general reviewed Comey’s announcement in July 2016 that no prosecutor would find grounds to pursue criminal charges against Clinton for improperly handling classified information on her private email server. He also looked at Comey’s decision to inform Congress only days before the election that the Clinton investigation was being re-opened. Comey’s public announcement of findings angered Republicans, while his reopening of the inquiry outraged Democrats.
“This finding could have been reached the day of Comey’s press conference,” Brian Fallon, who was spokesman for Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Thursday. “It was obvious at the time that Comey was completely deviating from department protocols and it had a fateful impact on the 2016 campaign and the long-term reputation of the FBI.”
Republican critics seized on previous revelations from the inspector general that Strzok and Page, two of the FBI officials who worked on Mueller’s Russia investigation, exchanged text messages sharply critical of Trump. Mueller removed Strzok from the inquiry after the texts were discovered, and Page has since left the FBI.
But Horowitz said in the report to be issued Thursday that “we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions we reviewed.” Still, he wrote that “the conduct by these employees cast a cloud over the entire FBI investigation.”
Horowitz found a “troubling lack of any direct, substantive communication” between Comey and Attorney General Lynch ahead of Comey’s July 5 press conference on Clinton and his Oct. 28 letter to Congress.
“We found it extraordinary that, in advance of two such consequential decisions, the FBI director decided that the best course of conduct was to not speak directly and substantively with the attorney general about how best to navigate those decisions.”
Lynch had announced that she would go along with whatever Comey recommended with regard to the Clinton case, although she didn’t formally recuse herself. Lynch had come under heated criticism for agreeing to meet with former President Bill Clinton in June 2016 on her plane while it was sitting on a tarmac in Phoenix. The two sides have said they didn’t discuss anything related to the investigation.
The inspector general released a report in April finding that Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe lacked candor on four different occasions regarding interactions with the media, including providing information to a news reporter about the FBI’s investigation into the foundation created by Hillary and Bill Clinton. The inspector general has referred the matter to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia for further investigation.
Attorney General Sessions relied on the report to fire McCabe only hours before he was set to retire and qualify for his full government pension. McCabe and his lawyer have adamantly contested the allegations.
The inspector general also has opened a separate review into whether the Justice Department and FBI followed appropriate procedures in obtaining a secret warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign aide Carter Page in late 2016 and early 2017.