When federal government agencies produce reports, they are often worth reading but what really matters is what action is taken as a result of those reports being parsed and studied by lawmakers and department heads. In recent memory, this has never been truer of any report than that of Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz. Horowitz and FBI Director Christopher Wray appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer questions about the IG report on the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Hearings conducted by congressional committees rarely produce startling new information. They are, more often than not, concerned with clarification of matters already known, They also provide opportunities for members of Congress to grandstand or make politically-charged accusations or – at least – implications. For Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, the latter opportunity was eagerly taken. Republican Senators focused on the evidence – or lack thereof – of political bias on the part of FBI agents investigating Clinton.
Democrats Go After Trump
There were several main points to be taken away from the hearing although, to be sure, there are still several unresolved and disputed issues.
Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy, Dick Durbin, and Richard Blumenthal all focused on the same point; that President Donald Trump had made statements suggesting the IG report completely exonerated him and showed that the Russia collusion investigation is merely a ‘witch-hunt.’ Try as they did, however, none were able to get to Horowitz to say that Trump was wrong or was lying. This is really what they wanted him to say. Instead, Horowitz pointed out that Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation was outside of his purvue and that his report did not pass judgment on the credibility of that investigation.
Horowitz and the FBI Not Done Yet
The Inspector General is by no means finished. He continues to investigate matters related to the handling of the Clinton email investigation; matters that came to light as a result of his principle investigation, on which he has now reported. One of those matters is former FBI Director James Comey’s handling of memos he wrote following meetings and telephone conversations with President Donald Trump. The Inspector General will be producing further reports in the coming weeks or months.
The FBI’s internal affairs division, known as the Office of Professional Responsibility, is investigating the conduct of unnamed FBI employees. It could be assumed that former Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok is one of those being investigated. Former FBI attorney Lisa Page, with who Strzok exchanged anti-Trump text messages, resigned from the Bureau in May 2018.
No-one involved in the hearing, either Republican or Democratic senators, Inspector General Horowitz or Director Wray, was willing or able to defend any of the statements or actions of James Comey. It seems that almost nothing about the FBI’s management of the Clinton investigation was normal, procedural or even rationally explicable. Senator Orin Hatch (D-UT) cited “Missteps at every level of the Department of Justice.”
Wray’s initial response to the IG report was that issues of misconduct and poor judgment at the Bureau should not be considered a matter for great alarm as those issues involved only “a specific set of events back in 2016, and a small number of FBI employees connected with those events.” Hatch suggested to Wray that this was not simply a small number of employees but the Bureau’s Director, Deputy Director and the lead agent (Strzok) on a major investigation. Hatch further suggested that if this level of misconduct is found after looking into just one investigation, “I can only imagine what else is out there…”
Republicans Not Letting Up on Bias Claims
On the subject of intent and political bias, Republicans went hard after the volume of evidence produced by the IG report. Although Horowitz concluded that there was no documented evidence that political bias had motivated investigative decisions, he admitted on several occasions during the hearing that the concerns about such bias remained open. Specifically, he cited the decision by Strzok to prioritize the Russian collusion investigation over the probe into Clinton emails discovered on the laptop computer of Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Specifically, Horowitz said he “did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over the Wiener Laptop review was free from bias.”
Republican Senators Mike Lee, Lindsey Graham and John Kennedy, between them, laid out a damning case for circumstantial evidence of political bias. That Strzok, who was the lead agent for both the Clinton investigation and the FBI’s probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, was apparently determined to prevent Trump from becoming president was at the core of this evidence. It was Strzok who wrote of an “insurance policy” against Trump winning the election; it was Strzok who replied to Lisa Page’s concern that Trump would win by saying “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
The Office of the Inspector General admits that this last text displays a clear willingness to use the power of the FBI to prevent a candidate from winning an election. Set against the Bureau’s disregard of normal investigative procedure when conducting the Clinton email investigation and then the opening of an investigation into the Trump campaign, these Republican senators point out that the circumstantial evidence of political bias is undeniable.
In particular, Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was not satisfied and went as far as suggesting that Horowitz “re-open” his own investigation into the matter. “I’m not buying it,” he said, at one point.
The DOJ Inspector General has more work to do, yet, and further reports can be anticipated. In addition, the FBI has at least one internal investigation ongoing. Eventually, this affair will converge with the opening of the Mueller investigation. At some point, the entire validity of the latter will be under the spotlight since the two matters, the Clinton email and the collusion investigations, are inextricably linked by virtue of the same FBI personnel being involved in both. The specter of political bias has not been vanquished. The biggest question that remains is whether it will bleed over into the many questions involving Special Counsel Mueller.