WASHINGTON – The Justice Department inspector general said Monday that his office is still probing possible misconduct in the FBI’s safeguarding of its own secrets – from how former Director James Comey handled his private memos, to whether others under him may have given sensitive details to reporters.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz revealed the continued investigative work to lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which on Monday conducted the first hearing to examine his 500-page report assessing how the FBI handled the high-profile investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
The report blasted senior FBI officials for having shown a “willingness to take official action” to hurt Donald Trump’s chances of becoming president, though it determined political bias did not ultimately impact the decision not to charge Clinton with a crime.
Monday’s hearing offered lawmakers on each side of the aisle an opportunity to press their long held talking points about the Clinton email case and the similarly charged investigation into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
Through the inspector general, lawmakers each seemed to score political points. Horowitz conceded bias might have affected one FBI agent’s decision to prioritize the Russia case over the Clinton email probe and called out as particularly troubling a text exchange in which the agent told an FBI lawyer “we’ll stop” Trump from becoming president.
“We found the implication that senior FBI employees would be willing to take official action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects to be deeply troubling and antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Justice Department,” Horowitz said.
But Horowitz rebutted Trump’s claim that the report exonerated him with respect to possible coordination with Russia, saying flatly, “We did not look into collusion questions.”
One of Horowitz’s most notable assertions was that his office, based on a referral from the FBI, was reviewing the handling of Comey’s memos detailing what the former FBI director viewed as troubling interactions with Trump. Horowitz said he planned to issue a report on the matter, as well as another one on leaks from the FBI.
In his book released earlier this year, Comey said he shared one memo – about a February conversation with Trump in which he alleged the president asked him to let go an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn – with a friend, Columbia University law professor Daniel Richman. Richman then relayed the memo’s contents to the New York Times, which Comey has said was meant to spur the appointment of a special counsel.
Another person familiar with the case, however, said Comey eventually shared other memos with his lawyers, including Richman, though he held back some information that he considered classified. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic.
Shortly after Comey was fired, an FBI review determined some of the information in two of his memos was classified, said a person familiar with the matter, prompting the FBI to retrieve those documents from two people with whom Comey had shared them. The information was marked confidential, the lowest category of classified information, another person said. The Justice Department’s inspector general had earlier assured lawmakers privately that he will review the handling of the memos, according to people familiar with the matter.
Horowitz appeared at the hearing Monday with FBI Director Christopher Wray, who sought to assure lawmakers he was working to impose reforms at the bureau and avoid the mistakes of his predecessor.
Wray said he already had ordered the bureau’s No. 3 official to assess how sensitive investigations are handled, ordered new “in-depth” training for senior managers and created a unit to specifically investigate leaks, though he noted the inspector general did not impugn the bureau “as a whole.” That sentiment seemed to irk some lawmakers.
“There is a serious problem with the culture at FBI headquarters,” said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah.
“Senator, I don’t intend in any way to downplay the significance of the report,” responded Wray, before again defending the organization.
“I see the FBI up close, every day,” he said. “The conduct, the character the principle that I see in those people every day is extraordinary and would be an inspiration to the members of the committee.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, asserted that the report showed Clinton “got the kid glove treatment,” and if it were not for the inspector general, FBI officials would “still be plotting about how to use their official position to stop” Trump. The report detailed how investigators on the Clinton case shied from using subpoenas or other legal tools to force witnesses to testify or turn over materials, though it did not conclude the tactics were unreasonable.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the panel’s top Democrat, countered that the inspector general “found no evidence of political bias” in the Clinton email case, particularly in the decision not to prosecute the former secretary of state.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will be the first of two committees to question Horowitz and Wray this week about the report’s findings. After its release Thursday, Republicans seized on the findings that key players in the FBI’s probes of Clinton and Russian interference in the 2016 election expressed anti-Trump sentiments in text messages to each other, especially onein which then-top counterintelligence official Peter Strzok told then-FBI lawyer Lisa Page that “we’ll stop” Donald Trump from becoming president.
Wray, notably, said he did not believe the Russia probe, which is now being led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, was a “witch hunt” – which is the term the president has used to describe it. The FBI director also seemed to suggest the president’scriticisms of the bureau would not affect its work.
“There’s a reason I always say that we are going to do our work independently and objectively, no matter who likes it,” he said.
Horowitz called out the Strzok-Page exchange specifically and noted investigators could not conclude that bias did not affect Strzok in fall 2016, when he and others at the bureau moved slowly to run down a new lead in the Clinton email case. Strzok’s attorney has disputed that finding and argued the inaction only served to damage Clinton. The FBI ultimately resumed work on the case just weeks before the election, and Comey announced publicly it was doing so.
The inspector general’s report was particularly damaging for Comey, calling his actions in the last months of the Clinton email case “extraordinary” and “insubordinate.”
The hearing Monday seemed to foreshadow that his time in the spotlight is not done. While Horowitz confirmed he is reviewing his memos, Republican lawmakers pressed for another possible line of inquiry: Comey’s own use of a private email for work purposes. The inspector found five instances in which Comey either drafted official messages on or forwarded emails to his personal account, though Horowitz said from what he had seen, none of the emails contained classified information.
Grassley said his committee had invited Comey, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe to testify at Monday’s hearing, but each had declined. He took particular aim at Comey, who he said had claimed to be out of the country, though a weekend tweet indicated he was then in Iowa.
“He has time for book tours and television interviews, but apparently no time to assist this committee, which has primary jurisdiction over the Justice Department,” Grassley said.