The long-awaited report of Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz on the conduct of his department in its investigation of the Trump campaign has been finally, mercifully released at the start of another sure-to-be-exhausting week of induced impeachment hysteria, and spin machines were ready to roll on both sides of the aisle.
As always, Republicans and Democrats hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest. The left will celebrate that Horowitz, in a 21-month investigation, could not find documentary or testimonial evidence of political bias in the FBI’s decision to surveil Trump campaign operative Carter Page. The right will counter with 17 errors of omission and inaccuracies detailed by the IG in the department’s application for a FISA warrant to conduct the surveillance. Also the right will highlight that President Barack Obama’s FBI did not pressure Christopher Steele about the funding source — the Clinton campaign — for his scurrilous and discredited dossier, which was presented as a crucial component of the FISA application.
The New York Times headlined the story “Russia Inquiry Report Finds Mistakes but No Anti-Trump Plot.” The Washington Post went with “Inspector general report says FBI had ‘authorized purpose’ to probe Trump campaign’s Russia ties.” The New York Post offered the more generic “Justice Department’s Inspector General releases review of Russia probe.” Fox News displayed the on-screen headline “DOJ IG Report Slams FBI Handling of Russia Probe.”
Caution is strongly advised before final conclusions are reached on the conduct of the Obama Justice Department and intelligence agencies in surveilling the Trump campaign and alleged attempts to cripple his early presidency. The story of what happened will not, and cannot, be complete until we receive the results of the more expansive investigation by Attorney General William Barr and his lead investigator John Durham.
Horowitz’s probe was limited in significant ways. He could investigate the conduct only of those in the Justice Department, the equivalent of an internal affairs investigation by a police department. He could not expand his probe into Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, among others.
The “insurance policy” to guarantee Trump’s defeat discussed in texts between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page, among other politically explosive conversations and actions, is acknowledged but not considered evidence of bias in the IG report – undoubtedly a hard conclusion for many to swallow. However, no matter what further information about that duo might come, their hate-filled messages about the Republican presidential candidate have left a trail of distrust severely damaging to the FBI’s reputation.
In the end, no matter how you choose to process this exhaustive 434-page report on the subject of Obama administration surveillance of the Trump campaign, it is like hearing one channel in a stereo song. You get a notion of the basic direction, with limited findings and assignment of blame, but cannot complete the understanding until the other channel, the Barr-Durham report, is added. If you hear only drums and brass, what will it sound like when guitar and bass are added?
There is good reason to believe much is yet to be revealed. Stories and books have detailed how the FBI, a branch of the Justice Department, was late to the game of investigating the alleged Trump-Russia connection, and that it was the Obama administration’s intelligence agencies that took the lead. The relevant facts on the intelligence element of the Trump-Russia investigation will be forthcoming in the AG’s report.
For both those who find the report insufficiently critical of the Justice Department as well as those who believe it shatters the conspiracy theories of Trump loyalists, a sound strategy would be to reserve final judgment until the full panoply of evidence and findings is released in the months ahead.
The two sides hardly will refrain from political histrionics, of course, but those convinced of improper conduct by former FBI Director James Comey, Brennan, and company would be wise to hold firm to whatever trust they have in Barr, as he has vowed to get to the bottom of the spying on the Trump campaign and has done nothing to demonstrate he is not trustworthy.
Put another way, we can reasonably conclude that, whatever the findings of Barr and Durham, we are not likely to receive a more fair, scrupulously investigated, or well-considered report than the one they continue to compile, which will transform this monaural IG report into full stereo.
Read more from Tim Donner.