The Report on the FBI’s Clinton Investigation Is 500 Pages. Our Experts Broke It Down.
A much-anticipated inspector general’s report about the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton released Thursday found that former Director James B. Comey was “insubordinate,” but it did not challenge the decision not to charge Clinton and did not conclude that bias influenced that choice.Posted — Updated
A much-anticipated inspector general’s report about the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton released Thursday found that former Director James B. Comey was “insubordinate,” but it did not challenge the decision not to charge Clinton and did not conclude that bias influenced that choice.
The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, criticized several aspects of the federal investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. Among them were a decision by Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch to meet former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac; the move by Comey to publicly say the bureau was recommending no charges while also condemning Hillary Clinton’s conduct in detail; and Comey’s disclosure that the FBI had reopened the investigation after finding new evidence to examine, and his re-closing of it days before the 2016 presidential election.
Horowitz is also investigating the department’s handling of the Russia investigation, which President Donald Trump and his Republican allies in Congress have sought to portray as scandalous. While several of the same officials were involved in both inquiries, the new report focused only on the Clinton investigation.
Here are the highlights Times reporters compiled as they read the report.
Comey made a “conscious decision” not to tell the Justice Department about holding a news conference in July 2016, according to the report. During the event, Comey announced that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges in the Clinton investigation. The report found that it was “extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to do so, 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 over his actions.”
Comey has said the decisions he made in 2016 were meant to protect the FBI and shield it from politics. But the inspector general said that Mr. Comey’s “decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.”
FBI officials recommended no charges against Clinton or her aides under a statute that criminalizes “gross negligence” in handling classified information. That decision turned on an interpretation of the statute that sets a high standard for what a defendant’s state of mind had to be: The conduct must be “so gross as to almost suggest deliberate intention,” be “criminally reckless” or fall “just a little short of willful.”
While the inspector general report does not take a fresh look at the officials’ judgment that the evidence in the Clinton case clearly fell short of that standard, it backs their key interpretation of the law, saying it “was consistent with the department’s historical approach in prior cases under different leadership, including in the 2008 decision not to prosecute former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for mishandling classified documents.”
Trump and his supporters have repeatedly insinuated that the process was rigged and that a fair investigation would have resulted in charging Clinton with a crime — an idea underlying calls for the appointment of a second special counsel to reinvestigate her. But the report’s endorsement of how investigators interpreted the law undermines that view.
The text was sent by Peter Strzok, a senior FBI official who worked on both the Clinton email server and Russia investigations. Responding to a question by Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer, that Trump is “not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok responded: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
The report also says that three other unnamed FBI officials working on the investigation expressed political views, saying their conduct “has brought discredit to themselves,” undermined confidence in the email investigation and damaged the reputation of the bureau.
The inspector general said it found no evidence that the FBI officials’ political views had influenced the outcome of the email server case, although the report said it could not be sure whether one decision made by Strzok — to prioritize the Russia investigation over swiftly following up on the discovery in late September 2016 of possible evidence in the email case — was “free from bias.”
Nevertheless, the report said the officials had damaged the bureau’s “reputation for neutral fact-finding and political independence.” That conclusion seems likely to become fodder for fresh accusations of bias by Trump and his allies who have sought to discredit the Russia investigation by portraying its early stages as scandalous.
In a finding drenched with irony, the inspector general report said investigators discovered that three top officials on the inquiry into Clinton’s handling of sensitive government information — Comey, Strzok and Page — “used their personal email accounts to conduct FBI business.” Comey in particular used it on “numerous instances” for unclassified business.
Some supporters of Clinton have long fumed that the FBI’s decision to open a criminal inquiry into her use of private email for official business as secretary of state in the first place was unjustified because it is routine for officials to do so — or at least was at the time. The investigation was focused on a handful of emails later deemed to contain classified information.
The fact that Comey and others also sometimes used their personal email accounts for official business underscores their argument. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Brian Fallon, the former Clinton campaign spokesman.
The report also found that Strzok used his personal email account for government work. The most troubling example came right before the election, the report said, when Strzok sent an email from his work account to his personal one that included a draft of a search warrant affidavit that was under seal at the time.
— CHARLIE SAVAGE and MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT
McCabe, the former FBI deputy director, did not have to recuse himself from the bureau’s Clinton-related investigations, the report concluded after having found “no evidence of any financial or business ties between the McCabes and the Clintons.” But a Wall Street Journal article about donations to the Virginia state Senate campaign of McCabe’s wife, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from a political committee of a close Clinton ally, created “appearance issues” for the FBI, the report said.
McCabe recused himself from Clinton-related investigations on Nov. 1, 2016, at the behest of Comey. But the report found McCabe then violated his recusal by inquiring about Clinton-related leaks from the FBI to the news media.
The report also faulted Peter J. Kadzik, the assistant attorney general for the office of legislative affairs, for not recusing himself. A longtime friend of John D. Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, Kadzik tried to get his son a job with the Clinton campaign.
An earlier inspector general report this year damaged his reputation for finding that he “lacked candor” with Justice Department officials. Expect McCabe’s fight with the inspector general to continue as he works to rehabilitate his image and federal prosecutors continue to investigate whether he lied.
Agents on the Clinton case learned in late September that their counterparts in the New York office had discovered communications on the laptop of Weiner, then married to a top Clinton aide, that might be relevant to the case. But they waited a month to act, just days before the election, despite knowing “virtually every fact” they would later use to justify a search of Weiner’s laptop, the report found. There was no clear reason for the delay, but the report said that Strzok told investigators that in the run-up to the election, he was consumed by the Russia inquiry.
The Clinton campaign and its allies have argued that by reactivating the investigation so close to Election Day, the FBI helped sink Clinton’s candidacy.
But the report also concluded that given opinions expressed in Strzok’s texts, “We did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up” on the possible new evidence in the Clinton inquiry was free from bias. Republicans quickly seized on the point to argue that Strzok may have been pulling punches to help Clinton politically.
Comey has posited that he had no choice but to reveal to Congress that more Clinton emails had been found on Weiner’s laptop. But the inspector general said that choice was “a false dichotomy” and that “the doors were actually labeled ‘follow policy/practice’ and ‘depart from policy/practice.’”
He did not find that Comey’s myriad fears and beliefs — including the assumption that Clinton would win the election and that the information would leak — justified his actions.
Much like with his decision in July to say that Clinton would not be charged with wrongdoing, the report said the decision to notify Congress was the result of “ad hoc decision making based on his personal views even if it meant rejecting long-standing department policy or practice.”
It underscores long-standing critiques that he has an outsize belief in his own abilities and ethics, and that his self-regard at times has led him to disregard rules.
The inspector general found no evidence that Lynch discussed the email investigation with Clinton when he boarded her plane at the Phoenix airport in June 2016. Comey, who was keenly aware of the meeting’s optics, told investigators that it had “tipped the scales” for him in favor of making a public statement about the conclusion of the case — a decision the report sharply criticized.
Investigators concluded that Lynch’s “failure to recognize the appearance problem created by former President Clinton’s visit and to take action to cut the visit short was an error in judgment.” That failure, and subsequent muddled attempts to explain why she would not recuse herself from the case, provided fodder to Republicans and other Clinton critics who have speculated that Lynch was working to protect the Clintons from the inside of the Justice Department.
Horowitz’s nine recommendations serve mostly as guardrails against the type of behavior the three engaged in. He recommended that the Justice Department explicitly state that investigators cannot speak publicly about charging decisions without getting approval from senior department officials.
It also suggested the department provide guidance about whether agents should take actions that could directly affect an election, including investigative steps, indictments and public announcements. The report said the department needs to make clear that employees have “no reasonable expectation of privacy” in the use of their government-issued devices.
With no guidelines in place, expect more political attacks this year about whether FBI and Justice Department actions affect the midterm elections, namely the special counsel inquiry.
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