The U.S. Justice Department’s watchdog on Thursday criticized former FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but said it found no evidence that Comey had been motivated by “political bias.”
In a long-awaited review of the investigation, the department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, did not question Comey’s decision to close the investigation without bringing charges against Clinton, but said the former FBI director made a “serious error of judgment” when he went public with the bureau’s findings in the run-up to the vote.
“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 said.
“Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment,” the report said.
Focused on decisions
The inspector general’s probe focused on decisions made by Comey, at key moments during the campaign, to publicly disclose the FBI’s findings in the Clinton email probe, without coordinating with then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
On July 5, 2016, Comey publicly announced that he was not bringing criminal charges against Clinton for her handling of classified information in her emails.
Then, on Oct. 28, less than two weeks before the election, Comey informed members of Congress that he was reopening the investigation after discovering a new cache of emails, before closing it a second time just two days before the election.
The inspector general said those announcements deviated from long-standing Justice Department protocols that require the FBI director to coordinate statements with the attorney general and let Justice Department officials report on major investigations.
Later Thursday, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau accepted the findings in the report but noted that it in no way “impugns the integrity” of the agency.
“As I said earlier, fair and independent scrutiny is welcome and appropriate accountability is crucial. We’re going to learn from this report, and we’re going to be better and stronger as a result,” Wray said.
Speaking hours after the release of the report, he said the most important point he took away from it was that it found no evidence of political bias or improper consideration “actually impacting the investigations under review.” He said the FBI would continue to drill “home the importance of objectivity — and of avoiding even the appearance of personal conflicts or political bias in our work.”
Wray said the bureau had taken some steps, such as reassigning people and referring some cases to be reviewed by the FBI’s internal personnel department, although he would not comment on who might have been referred.
“We’ve already referred conduct highlighted in the IG report to OPR, the FBI’s independent Office of Professional Responsibility. We need to hold ourselves accountable for the work we do and the choices we make,” Wray said. “And we’re doing that, fairly but without delay.”
He also said there was a new policy regarding contacts with reporters and news leaks. He said bureau staff would receive “intensive training” and it would be made “painfully” clear what the department’s new rules were.
Comey came under harsh criticism for his actions during the election.
While Republicans blasted his initial decision to publicly exonerate Clinton, Democrats blamed him for costing them the election by reopening the investigation so close to the vote.
Trump, who had praised the relaunch of the probe on the eve of the election, last year cited Comey’s handling of the Clinton email investigation when he abruptly fired him as FBI director. The president later said that he had the “Russia thing” in mind when he fired Comey.
Comey has long defended his actions during the election, writing in a recently released book that he did “something I could never imagine” in order to protect the bureau’s independence after concluding that Lynch “appeared politically compromised.”
In a tweet after the report’s release, Comey wrote that the “conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some.”
“People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation,” he wrote.
The inspector general expanded his investigation last year after discovering a series of anti-Trump and pro-Clinton text messages exchanged during the campaign by two senior FBI officials on the investigative team. The report said investigators for the inspector general found text and instant messages exchanged by five FBI employees assigned to the Clinton email investigation team.
The report said that while the messages “cast a cloud” over the FBI’s handling of “the investigation and the investigation’s credibility,” investigators found no evidence that their political bias “directly affected” the email probe.
The report singled out two FBI officials — Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, and Lisa Page, a lawyer — for exchanging text messages that “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
Strzok and Page were romantically involved at the time. In one exchange uncovered during the investigation, Strzok wrote to Page, “No. No, he won’t. We’ll stop it,” in response to Page’s question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”
The inspector general wrote that Strzok’s response “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.”
Both Strzok and Page briefly worked for special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the election. Mueller removed Strzok from his team after the disclosure of his text messages. Page later left the special counsel’s office.
Trump and his Republican allies have seized on the text exchanges to allege that the FBI was systematically biased against the president.
The report elicited mixed reactions.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the report reaffirmed Trump’s “suspicions about Director Comey,” adding that the text messages exchanged between Strzok and Page showed “the political bias the president has been talking about.”
Trey Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House oversight and government reform committee, said he was “alarmed, angered and deeply disappointed” by the findings.
The report confirms that the FBI decisions during the election “deviated from traditional investigative procedures in favor of a much more permissive and voluntary approach,” Gowdy said in a statement.
But Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the inspector general “found no evidence” that Comey and other FBI and Justice Department officials “acted on the basis of political bias or other improper considerations. Instead, their decisions were made on the basis of the facts and the law.”
Moreover, Schiff said in a statement, “Nothing in the IG’s report calls into question the legitimacy or conduct of the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation, or the importance of allowing the Special Counsel to complete his work without political interference.”
Nick Schwellenbach, director of investigations at the Project on Government Oversight, a government watchdog, said the FBI’s actions during the investigation “damaged the credibility of the Justice Department and the FBI in an investigation that desperately needed to be beyond reproach.”
“Justice Department and FBI leadership need to take a deep look inward and sort out how they should collaborate in high-profile, politically sensitive investigations,” he said.