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Inspector general finds Comey mishandled FBI's Clinton email inquiry, disclosing it to public improperly

Inspector general finds Comey mishandled FBI's Clinton email inquiry, disclosing it to public improperly
James Comey speaks during a stop on his book tour in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / Associated Press)

A long-awaited review of the FBI’s actions during the 2016 campaign concludes former FBI Director James B. Comey and others mishandled the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and improperly shared information about that investigation with the public.

The report, released Thursday by Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, said Comey acted improperly but was not motivated by political bias. It does not question his decision not to pursue a criminal case against Clinton. But it harshly criticized the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the matter.

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The report also revealed new text exchanges between top agents involved in the investigation that reflect antipathy toward Donald Trump and a desire to keep him from winning the 2016 election.

Trump’s allies quickly seized on those texts as evidence for his claim that people within the FBI have conspired against him.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the report “reaffirms” Trump’s “suspicions about Director Comey." The text messages the report unveiled illustrated "the political bias the president has been talking about,” she said.

The report also documents “harm caused by leaks, fear of potential leaks and a culture of unauthorized media contacts” by FBI agents and officials.

Ironically, however, given Trump’s fury over leaks and concerns over politics at the FBI, the report suggests that the leaks and the bias the text messages reflected may have ultimately done more damage to Clinton, in part by delaying the FBI from reopening its investigation into her emails until the final days of the campaign, when the action was most harmful to her.

The focus of the report was on how the FBI went about investigating Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State. The practice violated government protocol and left classified information at risk of exposure. Clinton was accused by political opponents of recklessly endangering national security and trying to conceal her communications from disclosure under open records laws.

The Justice Department’s handling of the investigation was attacked by Democrats and Republicans. Trump’s allies complained that the department, and Comey in particular, failed to pursue what they perceived to be blatant law breaking by Clinton. Democrats were enraged that Comey disregarded procedure by publicly sharing details about the email investigation in a manner that inflicted considerable political damage on Clinton.

The report offered no assessment of how the FBI’s actions ultimately affected the outcome of the election, but allies of Clinton and Trump used it to bolster their case that their candidate was gravely harmed by the agency.

The investigators called the manner in which Comey disclosed the FBI’s findings on Clinton’s email, at a news conference in July of the election year, “extraordinary and insubordinate.”

“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 stated.

“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,” Horowitz wrote in the report’s conclusions.

Comey should have worked in coordination with then-Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch, the report said. Comey decided not to work closely with Lynch following disclosure that she had met with former President Bill Clinton at an airport in Phoenix while the investigation was going on.

The report found that while there is no evidence Lynch and Clinton engaged in inappropriate discussions at that meeting, “we also found that Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance problem created by former President Clinton’s visit and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment.”

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In interviews with investigators, Comey described the predicament he was in as a “500 year flood” for the FBI, leaving him facing a confluence of events in which following department protocol threatened to do more lasting damage to the agency than proceeding as he did. Lynch’s credibility had been undermined, and he did not want to give the public a reason to suspect the FBI’s refusal to prosecute Clinton was politically motivated, he said.

Comey stuck by his decisions in an op-ed published in the New York Times shortly after the report’s release.

“Nothing in the inspector general’s report makes me think we did the wrong thing,” he wrote. He argued the report’s most important conclusion was that the FBI made the right call in declining to press for criminal charges against Clinton. He noted the report “resoundingly demonstrates that there was no prosecutable case against Mrs. Clinton, as we had concluded. Although that probably will not stop some from continuing to claim the opposite is true, this independent assessment will be useful to thoughtful people and an important contribution to the historical record.”

Horowitz said Comey and his colleagues compounded the problems caused by his initial news conference when he revealed in October, shortly before the election, that a cache of Clinton’s emails had been found on a laptop computer owned by former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was married at the time to Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin. The FBI was reopening the investigation, Comey said.

Clinton and her aides have said ever since that Comey’s announcement might have cost her the election by slowing her momentum in the final days of the race and sowing doubts about her in the minds of voters who were on the fence.

The report reveals that Comey acted in part because he worried incessantly that leaks within the FBI would lead to the media learning about the reopening of the investigation. If he did not announce that publicly, he feared, the public might see the FBI as concealing information to help Clinton.

The investigators expressed alarm at the amount of confidential information that flowed to the media from FBI officials unauthorized to share it.

One chart revealed the number of phone calls a sampling of unnamed reporters had exchanged with FBI agents and other officials in the bureau. In one case, a reporter appeared to have had more than 110 phone conversations with 18 different officials who were not authorized to speak to the news media.

“We have profound concern about the volume and extent of unauthorized media contacts,” the report said.

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Trump has been eagerly anticipating the report, which he correctly predicted would be highly critical of Comey and the FBI. His eagerness has persisted even though the report suggests that the FBI’s actions hurt Clinton’s campaign and therefore helped him win in 2016.

The president’s allies seized on a new text message the report unearthed between special agents involved in the investigation, who expressed a desire to stop Trump from getting elected. Investigators wrote that they were “deeply troubled” by that exchange and that the agents “brought discredit to themselves” and “sowed doubt about the FBI’s” investigation.

The exchange that most concerned investigators was between agents Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who were involved in a romantic relationship.

At one point Page texted: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok, who was playing a lead role in the separate investigation into Russian interference in the election, which had begun during the summer of 2016, responded: “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”

The report noted that Strzok and Page exchanged messages critical of several other political figures in both parties.

Their exchanges on agency phones, and those of three other FBI officials involved in the Clinton investigation, had damaged the FBI’s reputation as a neutral fact finder and showed a “gross lack of professionalism,” the report said. It recommended the FBI consider taking administrative action against the employees.

The investigators concluded that Strzok’s bias against Trump may have motivated him to focus the agency’s resources on the Russia investigation in late September 2016 when agents became aware that thousands of emails linked to Clinton had turned up on Weiner’s laptop.

It was not until Oct. 28 that the FBI announced publicly that those emails had been found. The FBI closed the investigation again a few days later, on Nov. 6, finding that none of the emails on Weiner’s computer were new and relevant to its investigation.

“The FBI’s inaction had potentially far-reaching consequences,” the report said, referring to the failure to act on those emails earlier in the fall. The report said investigators found all the reasons agents cited for not moving faster, including being tied down with the Russia investigation, “unpersuasive.”

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said at a news conference that those agents will be held accountable. But he emphasized that the report involved a small group of people over a narrow time frame and did not find that the investigation into Clinton was tainted by political bias.

“Nothing in this report impugns the integrity of the workforce as a whole or the FBI as an institution,” Wray said.

Trump has been publicly feuding with Comey, the former FBI director, since firing him in May 2017. At a time the president is pressuring law enforcement to end its investigation into Russian collusion during the campaign, a report that tarnishes the FBI’s credibility provides useful ammunition for Trump.

Trump, who turned 72 Thursday, predicted days ago that the findings would be a welcome birthday present.

Each side could pick evidence from parts of the 500-page document to build their cases.

Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions responded to the report by expressing confidence that the FBI would “learn from past mistakes.” He also left open the possibility that a special counsel could still be appointed to look further into the conduct of the FBI and the Justice Department during the 2016 campaign and immediately after the election.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), a longtime Clinton nemesis, said the report “shows how the FBI became infected with politics and continuously disregarded rules and procedures to the detriment of Donald Trump and benefit of Hillary Clinton.”

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank) had the opposite takeaway. Like many Democrats, he said the report clearly revealed how “the actions of the FBI and DoJ in the run up to the 2016 election benefited Donald Trump’s candidacy and harmed that of Hillary Clinton.”

Strzok’s attorney Aitan Goelman called the report “critically flawed in its bizarre conclusion” that political bias by his client may have delayed the reopening of the FBI investigation into Clinton emails. He argued the finding was undermined by other findings in the report, which suggest Strzok responded appropriately to the discovery of the emails.

In one final bit of irony, the report noted that Comey and other officials had used personal emails improperly to conduct FBI business even as they were investigating Clinton’s email practices.

The revelation moved Clinton to retweet that news with a concise reaction: “But my emails.”

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with information on a news conference by FBI Director Christopher Wray, a tweet by Hillary Clinton and additional reaction.

12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional detail from the inspector general’s report and reaction.

11:20 a.m.: This article was updated with language from the inspector general’s report and additional details.

This article was originally published at 8 a.m.

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