WASHINGTON (AP) — A Justice Department watchdog report has turned into Washington’s latest Rorschach test: President Donald Trump and his critics are cherry-picking what they want from its findings to either discredit or defend investigators conducting a probe into his campaign and White House.
The report, 500 pages thick and more than a year in the making, offered a nuanced conclusion about the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe. It criticized the FBI and its former director, James Comey, personally but didn’t find evidence that political bias tainted the investigation in the months and days leading up to Trump’s election.
Instead, it said that in the final analysis the Clinton probers’ conclusions “were based on the prosecutors’ assessment of the facts, the law and past department practice.” Trump vigorously disagreed.
“The end result was wrong. There was total bias,” he declared Friday. “Comey was the ring leader of this whole, you know, den of thieves. It was a den of thieves.”
Trump wielded portions of the report as weapons on Friday, questioning the integrity of the Justice Department by pointing to politically charged communications among FBI employees as proof that the bureau was “plotting against my election.”
The president’s allies seized upon text messages, pointing to one from an agent in August 2016 that said “We’ll stop it” in reference to a potential Trump victory. Another from a bureau lawyer said “Viva le resistance.” And Trump took it one step further, barreling out of the White House on Friday for an unannounced, early-morning television interview that turned into a nearly hour-long appearance with reporters, during which he returned time and again to the idea that the report had exonerated him amid special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing probe into Russian election interference.
“There was no collusion. There was no obstruction. The IG report yesterday went a long way to show that,” Trump said on the White House North Lawn. “And I think that the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited.”
But Trump’s claim was off base: The report drew no conclusions about the president’s involvement or allegations of Russian efforts to affect the election in his favor.
Still, its criticism of Comey — leveled by an inspector general appointed by President Barack Obama — is important to Trump as he tries to inoculate himself against accusations that he obstructed justice by firing the FBI director last May.
The president’s lawyers want to paint Comey’s firing as something he was both authorized to do under the Constitution and correct to do based on Comey’s performance. The White House initially said Trump fired Comey over his handling of the Clinton investigation, though the president himself muddied that explanation days later when he said he was thinking of “this Russia thing” when he sent the FBI chief packing.
The report did scold Comey for publicly announcing his conclusion that Clinton should not face charges, saying it was insubordinate and extraordinary that he would not have coordinated the statement with his Justice Department bosses. It also chastised him for announcing, again without Justice Department backing, that the investigation would be reopened because of newly discovered Clinton emails found on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, who was married to a Clinton aide.
Despite Trump’s criticism, the first announcement was seen as having a mixed effect on the election, the second as hurting Clinton’s chances.
Judgments on how the new report will impact Trump’s legal future predictably break down along party lines.
Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, said, “If you look at the fruit of the poisoned tree, you can’t have that kind of bias in somebody wanting to make sure the president gets defeated leading an investigation. I don’t think any of us would want our enemy investigating us.”
But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Democrat from Connecticut, declared that “any effort to use this report as an excuse for shutting down the special counsel’s investigation is both disingenuous and dangerous.”
“Nothing in this report detracts from the credibility of the special counsel’s investigation,” Blumenthal said, “and nothing here suggests the special counsel investigation resulted from FBI bias or improper conduct.”
Though the report doesn’t validate all of Trump’s claims, it does make clear that some employees involved in the Clinton and Russia investigations communicated with each other about wanting Trump to lose. Much of the public attention has been focused on Peter Strzok, a seasoned FBI counterintelligence investigator who worked the Clinton investigation and was later on Mueller’s team until anti-Trump text messages with an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, were discovered.
Among the text exchanges that have been made public is one from August 2016 in which Page said, “(Trump’s) not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok responded by saying, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it”
Those text exchanges caused the inspector general to evaluate whether any of Strzok’s decisions were affected by political considerations.
The watchdog office said it could not be certain that the decision to prioritize the Russia investigation in October 2016 over scouring the Weiner laptop for possible evidence against Clinton was free from bias. But the report also noted that Strzok was not the sole decision-maker and that he and Page sometimes advocated for more aggressive investigative steps than others in the Clinton investigation.
Others, though critical of Comey, believed the report helps fortify the Department of Justice against Trump’s attacks.
“I think it essentially concludes what was obvious at the time, and that’s that Comey was just largely ignoring rules, both in July and in October,” said Matt Miller, a former Department of Justice official under Attorney General Eric Holder. “That’s not really a surprising conclusion for anyone who knows how DOJ is supposed to work.”
Miller expressed particular exasperation with an email included in the report in which Comey told intelligence leaders that he did not think it wise to make an official statement on Russian meddling in American politics one month before the election for fear of creating an “October surprise.” That was sent just weeks before he threw the race into upheaval by reopening the case over Weiner’s laptop. Still, Miller said he was not surprised by the inspector general’s conclusion that Comey’s actions weren’t motivated by political bias.
“I never thought that’s what it was,” he said. “I thought it was a misplaced confidence in his own righteousness, combined with really inappropriate pressure from one political party that wasn’t matched by the other.”
Lemire reported from New York. Associated Press writer Mary Claire Jalonick contributed reporting.
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