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IG report settles few questions for lawmakers in ongoing fight over Clinton, Russia probes

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee on the Judiciary and House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz spent a second day on Capitol Hill Tuesday fielding aggressive questions from lawmakers that made clear his team’s nearly 600-page report on the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state did little to resolve the political debate surrounding the probe.

“With regard to the decision to close the investigation without prosecution, we found no evidence that the conclusions by the prosecutors were the result of improper considerations, including political bias, but rather were based on the prosecutors’ assessment of the facts, the law, and past Department practice,” Horowitz said in his opening statement at a House hearing Tuesday.

However, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found many troubling examples of officials, some of whom worked on both that case and the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election, expressing extremely hostile views of President Donald Trump.

Most of the controversial text messages came from exchanges between FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, special counsel to Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. The two, who were having an affair, sent tens of thousands of messages during the period the OIG reviewed.

Most concerning, according to Horowitz, was an August 2016 conversation in which Page expressed concern about Trump possibly winning the election and Strzok replied, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” Strzok and Page denied taking any action to prevent Trump from being elected, but the inspector general concluded the text implies Strzok would be willing to do so.

“I can’t imagine FBI agents even suggesting that they would use their powers to investigate any candidate for office,” Horowitz said Tuesday. “I thought this was completely antithetical to the core values of the department and extremely serious.”

The OIG report also revealed anti-Trump messages sent by three other employees, including one of the FBI agents who interviewed Clinton. Some messages implied that political considerations were driving the Clinton probe and the outcome was predetermined, which the agents involved denied.

Horowitz appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday alongside FBI Director Christopher Wray. On Tuesday, he faced a joint hearing of the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees.

“This inspector general report should conjure anger, disappointment and sadness in everyone who reads it,” Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-SC., said at the start of Tuesday’s hearing. “This IG report lays bare the bias, the animus, the prejudging of facts by senior FBI agents and senior attorneys.”

Though the OIG found the charging decision and most investigative choices made during the course of the Clinton probe were not tainted by bias, Horowitz acknowledged investigators could not say with confidence that Strzok’s prioritization of the Russia case over looking into newly-uncovered emails related to Clinton in October 2016 was free of bias.

“Don’t you think this looks like to regular Americans a little bit more than just casting a cloud on the investigations?” asked Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

Republicans have been unpersuaded by Horowitz’s assertion that no evidence was found to prove the personal biases of people like Strzok and Page infected decisions made during the Clinton investigation.

“I'll tell you what, when you read the IG report with these really dishonest people -- and I was never a deep-state guy, but let me tell you, we got some bad people that are doing bad things,” President Trump said in an address to business owners Tuesday. “But when you read that IG report about how [Clinton] got away with what she got away with, it's a disgrace. It's a total disgrace.”

The OIG looked at several choices regarding how to obtain evidence and approach witnesses that lawmakers and outside observers have questioned, including a preference for voluntary interviews and record production over subpoenas and court orders. Horowitz said those moves were legitimate prosecutorial decisions based on proper considerations, but his office did not judge whether they were the best courses of action to take.

Republicans also questioned how the biases expressed by Strzok, Page, and others could not have influenced their actions during the Russia investigation. However, the Russia probe is the subject of a separate OIG review, and Horowitz was unable to provide a timetable for its completion.

For Alan Dershowitz, attorney and author of “The Case Against Impeaching Trump,” the OIG report raised questions about FBI conduct that need to be resolved before the next election, but he does not see anything criminal so far.

“I’m glad it doesn’t suggest criminal conduct, because I’ve been arguing against the criminalization of political differences and the weaponization of the criminal justice system,” he said. “I don’t think James Comey committed a crime. I don’t think Hillary Clinton committed a crime. I don’t think Donald Trump committed a crime.”

The OIG report is highly critical of then-FBI Director James Comey for violating standard procedures and acting insubordinately in deciding whether Clinton should be prosecuted, speaking publicly about details of the investigation in July 2016, and notifying Congress about the reopening of the case in October 2016 without approval from his superiors at the DOJ.

The OIG may not be finished with Comey. In addition to the eventual report on the Russia investigation, Horowitz confirmed Monday that his office is looking into Comey’s leaking of memos about his conversations with President Trump to the media.

Comey was fired by President Trump last spring, ostensibly because his handling of the Clinton probe was unfair to her and deviated from bureau policies. Trump has offered other reasons since, including suggesting to NBC News that it was because of “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia.”

Dershowitz called the OIG report “a good first step,” but he worried the special counsel’s office and Congress are not well-equipped to find the truth.

“The special counsel is not designed to bring out the truth because they hear only one side of the story,” he said. “They have a grand jury and the grand jury only hears the prosecution’s side. Partisan committees in Congress aren’t interested in the truth. They’re interested in partisan advantage.”

He expects Strzok, who CNN reported was escorted out of FBI offices Friday but remained an employee Tuesday, will be called in front of those committees to answer for his text messages, particularly his claim that he would stop Trump from being elected. The agent’s attorney has said he is willing to do so.

“I can’t understand why he’s still working for the FBI, having expressed a desire to stop the election,” Dershowitz said. “Look, I tried to stop the election of President Trump too by voting for Hillary Clinton and contributing to her campaign. I was a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton, but I’m not an FBI agent.”

That said, Dershowitz does not expect terribly much to come from such a hearing beyond canned answers vetted by Strzok’s lawyers.

“He’ll have all the answers, but are we the American public going to be satisfied by those answers?” he said. “That remains to be seen.”

President Trump has claimed the OIG report, which does not assess decisions made by Strzok and others in the course of the Russia investigation, vindicates him and exonerates him against allegations he fired Comey in an attempt to obstruct justice.

According to Dershowitz, Trump has a point on the obstruction allegation because the report lays out in detail how Comey violated DOJ policies.

“The IG report doesn’t vindicate him,” Dershowitz said. “The IG report I think makes it impossible for him to be charged with obstruction of justice because the IG report says that what Comey did was totally wrong and implies it would have been proper to fire him.”

Horowitz stressed this investigation had no bearing on the broader focus of Mueller’s probe, telling senators Monday, “We did not look into collusion questions.”

Whether it was intended to or not, the report is already fueling efforts to undermine Mueller’s investigation. Brad Parscale, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign manager, claimed on Twitter Tuesday the inspector general’s findings justify firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions and shutting down Mueller’s investigation.

“I think it did resolve a lot of the questions but it also provided ammunition for the non-believers, so to speak,” said David Gomez, a former FBI executive who spent nearly three decades at the bureau. “The only thing that was a surprise to me was the info that the New York office was, somebody used the phrase ‘leaking like a sieve.’”

Democrats have highlighted references in the report to senior officials in the FBI New York field office who had “a deep and visceral hatred of Secretary Clinton,” according to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Since the report was released, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has confirmed “good FBI agents” told him about emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop that may be relevant to the Clinton case in September 2016.

Fear that those anti-Clinton agents would leak information about the new emails to the press in October 2016 was one factor discussed as Comey and FBI leadership were deciding whether to notify Congress of the discovery.

“We know the opposite political bias characterized much of the FBI office in New York, which was virulently anti-Clinton and anti-Democratic,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. “So if we’re going to have a witch hunt for political predispositions by individuals in an agency, where does that end?”

Horowitz and Wray were circumspect about a possible investigation of leaks from the New York office Monday, which Comey had once suggested was underway, and they told senators they could not confirm or deny such a case exists.

Aside from the Strzok-Page exchanges, Gomez described discussions between agents recounted in the report as “watercooler talk” that was not uncommon in criminal cases, but such chatter does not necessarily influence investigations.

“When it comes down to doing the actual work, you do the work and follow the information where it leads,” he said.

House Republicans have seized on the report as evidence the DOJ and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are hiding documents from them. At Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Jordan hammered Horowitz with questions about why the “we’ll stop it” text was never provided to Congress by the DOJ.

For technical reasons, the text was only recovered in a large batch of messages extracted from Strzok and Page’s devices last month and the OIG did not discover it until June 8. Horowitz said he notified Rosenstein about the message then, but he had no knowledge of what, if anything, the deputy attorney general did with it.

“This wouldn’t be the first time he didn’t give us information we think we’re entitled to,” Rep. Jordan said of Rosenstein. Gowdy has threatened Congress will act if he does not comply with subpoenas.

According to Gomez, the conduct of lawmakers with regard to documents they have been provided may give Rosenstein good reason to hesitate to share information related to what is still an ongoing investigation of Russia’s role in the election.

“I think certain committees have shown a propensity to leak those documents to the press in order to gain favorable coverage of their position,” he said. “So the problem is I’m sure a lot of those documents deal with sources and methods that can be discerned.”

On Monday, Wray reiterated his belief that the serious problems uncovered by the inspector general are limited to a handful of agents and their missteps should not taint the entire agency. He received some pushback from senators who accused him of downplaying the seriousness of the findings, but Democrats said Tuesday it is wrong to treat this as a systemic deficiency.

“I don’t think the FBI needs much reform,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. “I think it needs to scrub itself of people who did show bias, but I won’t let these two individuals define the agency.”

According to Rep. Connolly, the bad judgments revealed by the report largely damaged Clinton’s campaign and they did not suggest a broader pattern of bias. He also questioned the motives of those who claim there is such a pattern.

“There’s a Republican agenda here to discredit the FBI in order to try to discredit the Mueller investigation,” he said. “I don’t think that’s going to work.”

One thing it seemed both sides could agree on was that Strzok, who was reassigned after the text messages came to light, probably should not be working at the FBI at all.

“I think the real key issue is going to have to be some people are going to have to go home, they’re going to have to be terminated,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “The issue of Peter Strzok still being employed baffles me.”

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