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U.S. Politics Comey was ‘insubordinate’ in handling of Clinton e-mail probe, but not politically motivated: report

James Comey, the former director of the FBI, appears before the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington, on June 8, 2017.

DOUG MILLS/The New York Times News Service

The Justice Department’s inspector general Thursday painted a harsh portrait of the FBI during the 2016 presidential election, describing a destructive culture in which James Comey, the former director, was “insubordinate,” senior officials privately bashed Donald Trump and agents came to distrust prosecutors.

The 500-page report criticized Comey for breaking with long-standing policy and publicly discussing – in a news conference and a pair of letters in the middle of the campaign – an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server in handling classified information. The report was a firm rebuke of those actions, which Comey has tried for months to defend.

Nevertheless, the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, did not challenge the conclusion that Clinton should not be prosecuted. That investigation loomed over most of the presidential campaign, and Horowitz and his investigators uncovered no proof that political opinions at the FBI influenced its outcome.

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“We found no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations,” he wrote. “Rather, we concluded that they were based on the prosecutor’s assessment of facts, the law and past department practice.”

But the report – initiated in response to a chorus of requests from Congress and the public – was far from an exoneration. Horowitz was unsparing in his criticism of Comey and referred five FBI employees for possible discipline over pro-Clinton or anti-Trump commentary in electronic messages. He said agents were far too cozy with journalists. And he described a breakdown in the chain of command, calling it “extraordinary” that the attorney general acceded to Comey during the most controversial moments of the Clinton investigation.

The result, Horowitz said, undermined public confidence in the FBI and sowed doubt about the bureau’s handling of the Clinton investigation, which even two years later remains politically divisive. Clinton’s supporters blame Comey for her election loss. Trump believes that Comey and his agents conspired to clear Clinton of wrongdoing because they were openly hostile to his candidacy.

Horowitz repeatedly said he found no evidence that the FBI rigged the outcome. “Our review did not find documentary or testimonial evidence directly connecting the political views these employees expressed in their text messages and instant messages to the specific investigative decisions we reviewed,” the report said.

The report is especially critical of two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who exchanged texts disparaging Trump. Many of those text messages had been released, but the report cites a previously undisclosed exchange:

Trump is “not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Page wrote.

“No,” Strzok wrote. “No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”

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Page has left the FBI and Strzok has been reassigned to human resources. Like other top FBI officials, they were involved in both the Clinton case and the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. So while the inspector general’s report focuses entirely on the Clinton case, it has ramifications for the investigation being carried out by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Any evidence of bias or rule-breaking in one case could be used to undermine confidence in the other.

Trump has repeatedly declared the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and was eagerly anticipating the release of Thursday’s report. He was briefed on it but was notably silent about the conclusions.

The Republican National Committee, though, distributed talking points to supporters criticizing a “fervent anti-Trump bias” and calling for Strzok’s termination. The White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offered few remarks.

“It reaffirmed the president’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the political bias among some of the members of the FBI,” she said. But she referred questions to the current FBI director, Christopher Wray.

Wray, in a rare news conference, said he took the report seriously but said nothing in the report “impugns the integrity” of the FBI. “Our brand is doing just fine,” he said.

Wray was confirmed last year after the abrupt firing of Comey, and the report serves as an unflattering book end to Comey’s 3 1/2-year tenure. The findings sharply criticize his judgment as he injected the FBI into presidential politics in ways not seen since at least the Watergate era.

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Comey held a news conference in July 2016 to announce that he was recommending no charges against Clinton and to publicly chastise her e-mail practices. It was highly unorthodox; the Justice Department, not the FBI, makes charging decisions. And officials have been reprimanded for injecting their opinions into legal conclusions. Comey withheld his plans for a public statement from his bosses at the Justice Department.

“It was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to do so,” the inspector general wrote, “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.”

Then in late October, over the objection of top Justice Department officials, Comey sent a letter to Congress disclosing that agents were scrutinizing new evidence in the Clinton case.

That evidence did not change the outcome of the inquiry, but Clinton and many of her supporters blame Comey’s late disclosure for her defeat. Former campaign aides expressed disbelief Thursday at another revelation in the report – that Comey had used a private e-mail account to conduct official FBI business while he supervised the investigation into Clinton’s e-mail practices. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Brian Fallon, the former campaign spokesman.

And Clinton herself responded on Twitter, noting only, “But my emails.”

Comey has defended his actions, saying he would have faced criticism for any decision, so he opted to be transparent. FBI officials have acknowledged that they made those decisions in part because they assumed Clinton would win, and they worried about appearing to conceal information to help her.

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Comey and his agents also grew suspicious of Justice Department prosecutors. Working-level agents wanted prosectors to be more aggressive – a tension that the inspector general found “caused significant strife and mistrust” between the two groups.

Comey, too, said his decisions were influenced in part by concerns that political appointees at the Justice Department did not have the credibility to close the investigation. In an op-ed published in The New York Times responding to the report, Comey said he believed he was making the right decisions at the time.

“As painful as the whole experience has been, I still believe that,” he wrote. “And nothing in the inspector general’s report makes me think we did the wrong thing.”

Comey has cultivated a reputation for fierce independence and supreme self-confidence. Those traits were both assets and vulnerabilities. Agents widely saw him as a strong leader.

But Comey believed he was the only one who could steer the FBI through the political winds of the Clinton case, and that left him alone to answer for the bureau’s actions.

Officially at least, Comey’s handling of the Clinton case cost him his job. After the firing, the White House held up as justification a Justice Department memo that criticized many of the actions now highlighted by the inspector general. In that regard, the inspector general would seem to underscore the stated reason for Comey’s dismissal.

But Trump has muddied this issue. Hours after the firing, he undercut his own staff and said he planned to fire Comey even before receiving the recommendation. He said he had been thinking about the Russia investigation when he fired Comey. His lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, added more recently that Comey was fired for refusing to publicly exonerate Trump in the Russia case.

Those comments, along with Comey’s account of private conversations with the president, prompted the appointment of a special counsel to begin investigating Trump for possible obstruction of justice. That inquiry continues. The inspector general’s report does not directly affect that case, although anything that undermines Comey’s credibility is politically and legally beneficial to Trump.

The inspector general is separately reviewing some aspects of the Russia investigation, including Trump’s theory – backed up by no evidence – that the FBI spied on his campaign for political purposes. Those matters were not covered in Thursday’s report.

Horowitz’s investigation has led to the firing of one top FBI official, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Horowitz issued a report in March that said McCabe had been dishonest about his contacts with the news media about Clinton.

McCabe has been a frequent target of Trump’s ire and is central to his theory that the FBI secretly worked to exonerate Clinton. McCabe’s wife ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat for the Virginia Senate and received significant campaign donations from an ally of Clinton. Despite the president’s criticism, the inspector general said Thursday that McCabe had not been required to recuse himself from the Clinton case.

Among Horowitz’s original tasks was to identify whether FBI agents improperly disclosed information about the Clinton case to reporters. But his inquiry was stymied, he said, because improper contacts with journalists were so common. “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,” he wrote.

The report omitted any discussion of a potential leak of information in fall 2016 to Giuliani, who was then one of Trump’s key campaign surrogates but not yet his lawyer. Shortly before Comey announced the discovery of new emails in the Clinton case, Giuliani appeared on Fox News and hinted that major news was about to break: “I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises,” he said.

Horowitz has indicated that another report addressing leaks is forthcoming. It is not clear whether Giuliani’s remarks will be addressed.

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