In a highly anticipated report released Thursday, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General found that political bias within the Federal Bureau of Investigation didn’t influence the outcome of its 2016 probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
As part of their investigation, inspector general Michael Horowitz and his team reviewed 1.2 million documents and interviewed more than 100 subjects, including former FBI director James Comey, former attorney general Loretta Lynch, and President Bill Clinton, among others. They concluded that while then-FBI director Comey may not have been driven by partisanship, his actions related to the Clinton case did deviate from department norms to the detriment of the FBI’s reputation.
“While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part, we nevertheless concluded that 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 reads. It also stresses that the task of investigating the FBI’s conduct was made “significantly more difficult” after text messages critical of President Trump were discovered on the devices of five FBI agents. Still, the report says, “Our review did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed.”
The contents of the lengthy document were first reported by Bloomberg before being released publicly. But even before it was published, politicians and political pundits rushed to their respective corners, seizing on Tweet-sized snippets that would back up their pre-existing viewpoints. The inspector general’s investigation came in the wake of bitter criticism being directed at the FBI from both sides of the political spectrum. At its core, the scandal centered around Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, as well as the investigation into the Trump campaign’s potential ties to Russia.
Democrats accused Comey of grandstanding about Clinton’s case during a press conference in the summer of 2016, divulging more details than were necessary given that Clinton was not being charged with any crimes. They also blamed the Bureau for influencing the election by announcing that the investigation into Clinton’s emails was being reopened just weeks before voters headed to the polls. All along, the FBI said nothing about an open investigation of the Trump campaign.
But Trump supporters have been among the biggest critics of the FBI since the election, reserving special derision for two FBI officials involved in the case, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, who exchanged disparaging text messages about Trump. Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation in December after the text messages were discovered; Page is no longer with the Bureau. The Trump camp has also condemned former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe for allegedly misleading investigators about disclosing sensitive information to the media, and accused him of pro-Clinton bias because his wife received political donations from Clinton allies while running for office. And, of course, Trump himself has been involved in a year-long battle against Comey, after he unceremoniously fired the FBI director last May, telling NBC News the decision had to do with the “Russia thing.”
Horowitz’s report stops short of accusing the FBI of working behind the scenes to ruin either Trump or Clinton. Instead, he attributes years of missteps at the FBI to the fact that key players, including Comey, didn’t adhere to protocol. He criticizes both Comey and former attorney general Loretta Lynch for failing to communicate properly before Comey’s press conference in the summer of 2016 and before he alerted Congress the FBI was reopening the case in the fall. “We found it extraordinary that Comey assessed that it was best that the FBI Director not speak directly with the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General about how best to navigate this most important decision and mitigate the resulting harms,” the report reads, “and that Comey’s decision resulted in the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General concluding that it would be counterproductive to speak directly with the FBI Director.”
The report stretches on for 568 pages, but that still hasn’t satisfied some on the right, who believed the report would uncover what President Trump has described as a thoroughly corrupt investigation. Earlier this month, he tweeted that he hoped the report wouldn’t be “changed and made weaker.” “There are so many horrible things to tell,” he wrote, “the Public has the right to know.”
By Thursday morning, before it was even released, some of the President’s most faithful followers had already written a letter to Horowitz complaining the report had been watered down. “We are concerned that during this time, people may have changed the report in a way that obfuscates your findings,” wrote Representatives Andy Biggs, Ron DeSantis, and Matt Gaetz. They requested the inspector general produce his original drafts along with the final published form.
Still, even in its current state, revenge-hungry partisans found plenty of meat on the bone. The report includes previously unseen text messages between Page and Strzok, in which Page, who was romantically involved with Strzok, asked him, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok, who was an investigator in both the Clinton email case and the probe of the Trump campaign replied, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.” But the inspector general concludes even this had no material impact on the Clinton investigation, though it did “cast a cloud over the FBI’s handling” of the investigation.
Comey, for his part, responded to the report with a tweet. “The conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some,” he wrote. “People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently. I pray no Director faces it again.”
The report outlines a series of recommendations for the Bureau that could prevent the appearance of bias from getting in the way of its work again. It suggests the FBI adopt policies around what employees can and can’t discuss regarding ongoing investigations and recommends an ethics review regarding campaign donations and conflicts of interest. It also includes a suggestion that seems tailor made for Page, Strzok, and office dwellers everywhere: to add a warning banner to all FBI devices reminding their users that they “have no reasonable expectation of privacy.”