WASHINGTON — In a stinging rebuke, the Justice Department watchdog declared Thursday that former FBI Director James Comey was “insubordinate” in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation in the explosive final months of the 2016 presidential campaign. But it also found there was no evidence that Comey’s or the department’s final conclusions were motivated by political bias toward either candidate.
President Donald Trump had looked to the much-anticipated report to provide a fresh line of attack against Comey and the FBI as Trump claims that a politically tainted bureau tried to undermine his campaign and, through the later Russia investigation, his presidency. He is likely to use the harsh assessment of Comey as validation for his decision to fire him, an act now central to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether the president sought to obstruct justice.
Clinton and her supporters, on the other hand, have long complained that she was the one whose election chances were torpedoed by Comey’s investigation announcements about her email practices, in the summer and then shortly before the election.
Yet the report’s nuanced findings — that the FBI repeatedly erred, though not for politically improper reasons — complicated efforts by Republicans and Democrats alike to claim total vindication.
The conclusions were contained in a 500-page report that documents in painstaking detail one of the most consequential investigations in modern FBI history and reveals how the bureau, which for decades has endeavored to stand apart from politics, came to be entangled in the 2016 presidential election.
The report also underscores efforts by senior FBI and Justice Department leaders in the final stages of the presidential race to juggle developments in the Clinton investigation — she had used private email for some government business while secretary of state — with a separate probe into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. The Russia investigation, though diverting bureau resources and attention away from the late stages of the Clinton probe, was unknown at the time to the American public.
Comey, whom Trump fired shortly after taking office, bore the brunt of much criticism for a series of scrutinized decisions, though it does not second-guess the FBI’s conclusion that Clinton should not have been prosecuted — despite repeated assertions by Trump and his supporters that anyone less politically connected would have been charged.
The inspector general concluded that the FBI director, who announced in July 2016 that Clinton had been “extremely careless” with classified material but would not be charged with any crime, repeatedly departed from normal Justice Department protocol.
But it also rejected the Trump talking point that the FBI favored Clinton over him, saying, “We found no evidence that the conclusions by the prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations; rather, we determined that they were based on the prosecutors’ assessment of the facts, the law and past department practice.”
Still, Trump supporters quickly focused on the report’s recounting of anti-Trump text messages from two FBI officials who worked the Clinton probe and later the Russia case, including one in which an agent says, “We’ll stop it” with regard to a possible Trump victory.
The report suggests that text from Peter Strzok, who was later dropped from Mueller’s team, “implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.” But it did not find evidence that those views seeped into the investigation.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the report “reaffirmed the president’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the political bias amongst some of the members of the FBI.”
FBI Director Chris Wray told reporters that the bureau accepted the report’s findings and was making changes, including requiring further training for FBI employees and re-emphasizing the importance of objectivity. In a New York Times opinion piece released after the report, Comey wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in which he said he disagreed with some conclusions but respected the watchdog’s work.
The watchdog faults Comey for his unusual July 5, 2016, news conference at which he disclosed his recommendation against bringing charges in the email investigation. Cases that end without charges are rarely discussed publicly. And Comey did not reveal to Attorney General Loretta Lynch his plans to make an announcement.
“We found that it was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to do so, and we found none of his reasons to be a persuasive basis for deviating from well-established Department policies in a way intentionally designed to avoid supervision by department leadership over his actions,” the report says.
Comey has said he was concerned that the Justice Department itself could not credibly announce the conclusion of its investigation, in part because Lynch had met earlier in the summer aboard her plane with former President Bill Clinton. Both said they did not discuss Hillary Clinton’s case.
Concerned about the “appearance that former President Clinton was influencing” the probe, Lynch began talking to her staff the next morning about possibly recusing herself from overseeing the investigation, according to the report. She told the inspector general she decided not to step aside because it might “create a misimpression” that she and the former president had discussed inappropriate things.
Bill Clinton, also interviewed in the IG investigation, said he had “absolutely not” discussed the probe.
Also criticized was Comey’s decision, despite the discouragement of the Justice Department, to reveal to Congress that the FBI was reopening the investigation following the discovery of new emails.
The FBI obtained a warrant nine days before the presidential election to review those emails, found on the laptop of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, and ultimately determined there was nothing in them that changed its original conclusion.
The report faulted the FBI for failing to act with more urgency in reviewing emails from Weiner’s laptop, saying the inaction had “potentially far-reaching consequences.” Clinton supporters say her name could have been cleared well before the election had the FBI moved faster to review the emails. Comey said had he known earlier about the laptop’s import, it might have affected his decision to notify Congress.
The Weiner laptop was discovered right as the FBI was upgrading the nascent Russia investigation. Though there’s no evidence the device was put on the back burner to protect Clinton, the watchdog said it could not be certain that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia probe was “free from bias,” especially because Strzok was exchanging anti-Trump text messages at the time.
The report lambastes Strzok and a now-retired FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, for text exchanges that it says were “deeply troubling” and created the appearance “that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.” Most of the problematic texts relate to the FBI’s Russia investigation, the report notes.
Both Strzok and Page acknowledged that some of their texts could be read as showing bias against Trump, but both insisted bias played no part in their work.
The report also notes that Comey, despite chiding Clinton for mishandling government business, occasionally used personal email himself to discuss FBI matters.
“But my emails,” she said, reacting in a three-word tweet.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick, Steve Braun and Colleen Long contributed to this report.
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