On Thursday, the Justice Department’s inspector general released a long-anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server that handled classified information. Here are some quick takeaways from the report.
1. Learn How To Interpret An IG Report
The best way to understand an inspector general (IG) report is less as a fiercely independent investigation that seeks justice and more like what you’d expect from a company’s human resources department. Employees frequently think that a company’s human resources department exists to serve employees. There’s some truth in that, but it’s more true that the human resources department exists to serve the corporation.
At the end of the day, the HR department wants what’s best for the company. The FBI’s IG Michael Horowitz has a good reputation for good reason. But his report is in support of the FBI and its policies and procedures. As such, the findings will be focused on helping the FBI improve its adherence to those policies and procedures. Those who expected demands for justice in the face of widespread evidence of political bias and poor judgment by immature agents and executives were people unfamiliar with the purpose of IG reports.
The IG is also a government bureaucrat producing government products that are supposed to be calm and boring. In the previous report that led to Andrew McCabe’s firing as deputy director of the FBI and referral for criminal prosecution, his serial lying under oath was dryly phrased as “lack of candor.” In this report detailing widespread problems riddled throughout the Clinton email probe, the language is similarly downplayed. That’s particularly true in the executive summary, which attempts to downplay the actual details that fill the report with evidence of poor decision-making, extreme political bias, and problematic patterns of behavior.
2. FBI Agent Who Led Both The Clinton and Trump Probes Promised He’d Prevent Trump’s Election
Such as this one! On page 420, the IG says that the conduct of five FBI employees who were caught talking about their extreme political bias in the context of their duties “has brought discredit to themselves, sowed doubt about the FBI’s handling of the Midyear investigation, and impacted the reputation of the FBI.” The Midyear investigation was the code for the Clinton probe. Or note this blistering passage:
[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, that ‘we’ll stop’ candidate Trump from being elected—after other extensive text messages between the two disparaging candidate Trump—it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice.
The report goes on to say that the text messages and Strzok’s decision to prioritize the counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign over the Clinton email criminal investigation “led us to conclude that we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision was free from bias.”
This text is not just interesting because the FBI’s deputy head of the counterintelligence division who was investigating a major-party candidate told the woman he was cheating on his wife with that “we” would stop the candidate from becoming president. It’s also interesting because this text was hidden from congressional committees performing oversight of the FBI.
3. Comey Mishandled The Clinton Probe In Multiple Ways
It’s worth re-reading
Acting Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s May 9, 2017, recommendation that James Comey be fired as FBI director. He cited Comey’s usurpation of the attorney general’s authority in his press conference announcing that Clinton’s case would be closed without prosecution, the release of derogatory information about Clinton despite the decision to not indict her, and Comey’s letter to Congress announcing the FBI had reopened a probe against Clinton.
The IG backs up each and every one of those critiques, and adds much more detail to them.
We concluded that Comey’s unilateral announcement was inconsistent with Department policy and violated long-standing Department practice and protocol by, among other things, criticizing Clinton’s uncharged conduct. We also found that Comey usurped the authority of the Attorney General, and inadequately and incompletely described the legal position of Department prosecutors.
The IG said Comey violated longstanding department practice to avoid “trashing people we’re not charging.” He also inadequately and incompletely explained how Justice prosecutors came to make decisions. “Many of the problems with the statement resulted from Comey’s failure to coordinate with Department officials,” the IG wrote. Had he talked with them, they would have warned him about the problems his statement posed. What’s more, the prosecutors had a very different understanding of why they were declining to charge Clinton than the one Comey claimed they had in his public press conference.
Comey also violated departmental practice in announcing publicly he reopened the probe after additional relevant emails were found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Both of these decisions were controversial inside and outside the agency.
4. Comey Is Slippery And Weird
The 568-page report includes many examples of Comey being duplicitous and sneaky during his handling of the Clinton email probe. For instance, he asked Attorney General Loretta Lynch how to handle questions regarding the criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information on a secret server. She told him to call it a “matter.” He didn’t object and even complied.
But a year later, the conversation was leaked to The New York Times in a story that painted Comey as a non-partisan truth-teller beset by both Democrats and Republicans. Daniel Richman, the same man who was used to leak Comey’s anti-Trump memos, was a source for the anti-Lynch story.
Comey threatened to appoint a special counsel in the Clinton probe if Justice officials didn’t help him get what he wanted. He bizarrely claimed he was going to announce he’d make no recommendation on the Clinton email probe. He decided he was going to make a solo announcement trashing Clinton while announcing she was not being charged, but let the Justice Department think they would be making a statement together:
Comey admitted that he concealed his intentions from the Department until the morning of his press conference on July 5, and instructed his staff to do the same, to make it impracticable for Department leadership to prevent him from delivering his statement. 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.
He claimed that he didn’t grasp the significance of the hundreds of thousands of Clinton emails being found on Weiner’s computer because he didn’t know that Weiner was married to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Beyond being too ridiculous to believe, the claim is hardly exonerating. It would mean he was not interested to learn that hundreds of thousands of Clinton emails relevant to a highly charged criminal investigation were found on the laptop of an unrelated man.
Comey asked Justice officials for feedback on his decisions but did so through assistants, suggesting he viewed any feedback as a dangerous encroachment on his decision-making.
“We asked Comey why he asked for the Department’s feedback and then ignored the feedback that he received,” the IG wrote. Later, “Both Lynch and [Deputy Attorney General Sally] Yates explained that they were concerned that any direct discussion with Comey—particularly any discussion in which they told him not to send the letter—would be perceived as an attempt to prevent him from fulfilling his ‘personal ethical obligation’ to notify Congress. Both stated that they were concerned that the fact of any such direct discussions would leak and would be portrayed as Department leadership attempting to ‘prevent information damaging to a candidate from coming out’ (Lynch) or ‘strong-arming’ Comey (Yates).”
5. FBI Has A Massive Leak Problem And Is Doing Nothing About It
As mentioned, both Lynch and Yates were worried that performing legitimate oversight of Comey would be leaked against them to the media. Fear of leaks was also mentioned by many top FBI officials as a major reason that the Southern District of New York was able to force the FBI to reopen the Clinton probe.
“We have profound concerns about the volume and extent of unauthorized media contacts by FBI personnel that we have uncovered during our review,” the report stated. Two attachments were included showing rampant discussions with reporters by people not authorized to be talking to reporters. One FBI executive was caught having had 26 conversations with one reporter and seven conversations with another reporter. They even created charts to help show how rampant the conversations were:
The report showed myriad FBI employees violating FBI policy and department ethics rules.
FBI employees received tickets to sporting events from journalists, went on golfing outings with media representatives, were treated to drinks and meals after work by reporters, and were the guests of journalists at nonpublic social events.
The IG said the leaks were difficult to track down because of how many people had access to classified and non-public information. The IG also said the culture of widespread leaking made it difficult to crack down:
Second, although FBI policy strictly limits the employees who are authorized to speak to the media, we found that this policy appeared to be widely ignored during the period we reviewed. We identified numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization and with no official reason to be in contact with the media, who were nevertheless in frequent contact with reporters. The large number of FBI employees who were in contact with journalists during this time period impacted our ability to identify the sources of leaks.
6. FBI Almost Got Away With Ignoring Clinton Emails On Weiner Laptop
In September 2016, when an investigator in the Southern District of New York found hundreds of thousands of Clinton emails and Blackberry messages on a laptop being searched in relation to an investigation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, he immediately alerted his supervisors. They alerted the FBI, who sat on the information for weeks, only acting after the New York office complained repeatedly.
By October 3, the case agent assigned to the Weiner investigation expressed concern that the FBI appeared to be sitting on what he’d told them. Later he told the IG:
The crickets I was hearing was really making me uncomfortable because something was going to come crashing down…. And my understanding, which is uninformed because…I didn’t work the Hillary Clinton matter. My understanding at the time was I am telling you people I have private Hillary Clinton emails, number one, and BlackBerry messages, number two. I’m telling you that we have potentially 10 times the volume that Director Comey said we had on the record. Why isn’t anybody here? Like, if I’m the supervisor of any CI squad in Seattle and I hear about this, I’m getting on with headquarters and saying, hey, some agent working child porn here may have [Hillary Clinton] emails. Get your -ss on the phone, call [the case agent], and get a copy of that drive, because that’s how you should be. And that nobody reached out to me within, like, that night, I still to this day I don’t understand what the hell went wrong.
And I told her, I’m a little scared here. I don’t know what to do because I’m not political. Like I don’t care who wins this election, but this is going to make us look really, really horrible. And it could ruin this case, too. And…I said the thing that also bothers me is that Comey’s testimony is inaccurate. And as a big admirer of the guy, and I think he’s a straight shooter, I wanted to, I felt like he needed to know, like, we got this. And I didn’t know if he did.
Although all the relevant information was given to the FBI by September 29, they came back to the agent weeks later to ask questions he’d repeatedly answered. But the FBI agents claimed that the information they learned in late October was new to them. The IG says this is not true: “By no later than September 29, the FBI had learned virtually every fact that was cited by the FBI in late October as justification for obtaining the search warrant for the Weiner laptop.”
The FBI claimed that they didn’t take action on the laptop because “1. The FBI Midyear team was waiting for additional information about the contents of the laptop from NYO, which was not provided until late October. 2. The FBI Midyear team could not review the emails without additional legal authority, such as consent or a new search warrant. 3. The FBI Midyear team and senior FBI officials did not believe that the information on the laptop was likely to be significant. 4. Key members of the FBI Midyear team had been reassigned to the investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. election, which was a higher priority.”
The IG said these excuses were hogwash, saying that the first was “unpersuasive,” the second “illogical,” the third “inconsistent” and “insufficient,” and the fourth “unpersuasive and concerning.” The overarching feeling of the report is that the FBI leaders who handled both the Clinton and Trump probes worked very hard to pretend the Weiner incident didn’t happen, only being forced by the New York office’s insistence that protocol be followed.
7. Breathtaking Bias
Some FBI defenders latched onto the IG’s claim that he “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific
investigative decisions we reviewed.” All that means is that none of the politically biased texts specifically said political bias was leading them to make certain decisions. Of course, that would be a weird thing to find in any case.
What the investigators found, however, was breathtaking anti-Trump and pro-Clinton bias from five of the key employees handling the Clinton email probe. No evidence was found of pro-Trump bias. And this evidence of profound bias is only for those who were foolish enough to record their extreme views. The IG also apparently had no texts from Justice Department officials, perhaps because Justice didn’t preserve them.
The texts range from vile insults of Trump and his supporters to fears about how awful a Trump presidency would be and the need to prevent it. One employee said Trump voters were “all poor to middle class, uneducated, lazy POS.” One FBI lawyer discussed feeling “numb” by Trump’s November 2016 election win, later proclaiming “Viva le Resistance” when asked about Trump.
Strzok wrote in July 2016, “Trump is a disaster. I have no idea how destabilizing his Presidency would be.” After the election, Page wrote that she’d bought “All the President’s Men,” adding, “Figure I needed to brush up on watergate.” The two openly fantasize about impeachment.
In the preparation to interview Clinton as part of the criminal probe, Page tells a handful of her colleagues to take it easy on Clinton. “One more thing: she might be our next president. The last thing you need us going in there loaded for bear.”
After each text exchange, the IG report includes defenses from the agents, some even harder to believe than the previous:
August 8, 2016: In a text message on August 8, 2016, Page stated, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok responded, ‘No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.’ When asked about this text message, Strzok stated that he did not specifically recall sending it, but that he believed that it was intended to reassure Page that Trump would not be elected, not to suggest that he would do something to impact the investigation.
All five of the FBI employees were referred back to the FBI for disciplinary action.
8. Clinton Got Breaks, But Some Backfired
While Comey harmed Clinton with how he handled his public announcements about her case, the IG report paints an investigation that was overall quite favorable toward her and her associates. During the Robert Mueller investigation, the federal government has played hardball with Trump associates, ringing them up on false statement charges, raiding their offices, arresting them without warning, and encroaching on attorney-client relationships. For Clinton, a much different approach was taken.
To take just one example, look at the case of Paul Combetta, an employee who handled the migration of Clinton’s email accounts across servers then later deleted the emails. Clinton probe members were sure he was lying about the deletion of the emails in violation of a congressional preservation order. In repeated interviews, he claimed he didn’t delete her emails.
The agents had an email where he talked about the “Hilary coverup operation.” They decided that wasn’t a big deal. One agent said he believed Combetta should have been charged with “false statements for lying multiple times.” But overall they decided it was just so confusing, that the failure to tell the truth was “largely due to a lack of sophistication and poor legal representation.” They gave him immunity, and he started singing. He admitted deleting the emails “despite his awareness of Congress’s preservation order and his understanding that the order meant that ‘he should not disturb Clinton’s email data on the PRN server.'” Sounds nice.
It seems likely that Clinton’s handling of classified information on a secret server, and the FBI’s investigation of it, caused her problems during the 2016 election. But it’s also interesting how the efforts by many to help Clinton kept backfiring. More than anything, there is a lack of confidence that political considerations were absent from the decision to let Clinton skate.
President Obama gave interviews where he stated that Clinton didn’t have intent to harm national security, a talking point later carried by Comey himself. Even before Comey followed Obama’s lead, observers worried that Obama was giving guidance as opposed to offering his opinion. An Obama White House spokesman said he knew Clinton was not a “target” of the investigation, suggesting he had insider knowledge. The FBI claimed he didn’t have insider knowledge.
When the New York office told the FBI about Weiner’s laptop, it appears that the FBI tried to run out the election clock before dealing with it. It would have worked, too, if the New York office hadn’t pushed the matter right before the election — the absolute worst time to deal with a reopening of the investigation.
9. Obama Lied When He Said He Knew Nothing About Hillary’s Secret E-mail Scheme
The IG found that Obama was “one of the 13 individuals with whom Clinton had direct contact using her clintonemail[.]com account.”
In fact, Clinton used her private email for “an exchange with then President Obama while in the territory of a foreign adversary,” a move that led investigators to believe hostile actors had likely gained access to her server. But a paragraph in a draft of Comey’s exoneration of Clinton was changed from Obama to “another senior government official,” and later deleted.
Obama had falsely told reporters he didn’t know of Clinton’s private email system.
10. FBI Agent Joked Clinton Associate Who Lied Would Never Be Charged, Questioned Legitimacy Of Investigation
FBI agents discussed how a witness who obviously lied to them about the Clinton probe would never be charged:
FBI Employee: ‘boom…how did the [witness] go’
Agent 1: ‘Awesome. Lied his -ss off. Went from never inside the scif [sensitive compartmented information facility] at res, to looked in when it was being constructed, to removed the trash twice, to troubleshot the secure fax with HRC a couple times, to everytime there was a secure fax i did it with HRC. Ridic,’
FBI Employee: ‘would be funny if he was the only guy charged n this deal’
Agent 1: ‘I know. For 1001. Even if he said the truth and didnt have a clearance when handling the secure fax – aint noone gonna do sh-t’
That same agent also openly discussed political considerations affecting the Clinton probe. The IG gave a few examples:
January 15, 2016: Responding to a question of when the investigation would be finished, Agent 1 stated, ‘[M]y guess is March. Doesnt matter what we have, political winds will want to beat the Primarys.’
January 28, 2016: ‘…The case is the same is all of them. Alot of work and bullsh-t for a political exercise.’
February 1, 2016: ‘…Its primary season – so we’re being dictated to now….’
February 1, 2016: ‘This is the biggest political sh-t show of them all. No substance. Up at dawn – pride swallowing seige. No headset and hermetically sealed in SIOC.’
February 2, 2016: Responding to a question about how the investigation was going, ‘Going well…. Busy, and sometimes I feel for naught (political exercise), but I feel good….’
May 6, 2016, to Agent 5: ‘pretty bad news today…someone has breathed some political urgency into this…. Everyday DD brief and once a week D brief from now on.’
11. FBI’s Insulting Response
FBI Director Christopher Wray gave a press conference in front of a compliant press corps where he said, “nothing in this report impugns the integrity of our workforce as a whole or the FBI as an institution.” In fact, the report paints a picture of an FBI with a problematic culture.
It’s not just Comey’s usurpation of authority and failure to comply with practices. Multiple people were involved in his condemned decisions. Others were cited for bad judgement in recusal decisions or failure to adhere to recusals. Political bias was rampant in the team of people who handled both the Clinton and Trump email probes. So were leaks, accepting gifts from reporters, incompetence, and other problems.
Instead, Wray issued a strawman defense of employees, bragged about the high number of applicants to the agency, and talked about the low percentage of recruits who were accepted.