What to Watch for in Today’s Report on the FBI’s Clinton Investigation
WASHINGTON — A much-anticipated report about the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton was scheduled to be released Thursday, and few were looking forward to it more than President Donald Trump. Here are the big outstanding questions, and what to look for.Posted — Updated
WASHINGTON — A much-anticipated report about the FBI’s handling of its investigation into Hillary Clinton was scheduled to be released Thursday, and few were looking forward to it more than President Donald Trump. Here are the big outstanding questions, and what to look for.
This has become the most important question of the report, and it is one that the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, did not even set out to answer. He began his investigation last year to scrutinize the actions of the FBI director at the time, James Comey, and his deputy, Andrew McCabe.
But Trump has pushed a theory that a secret cabal of Clinton’s supporters inside the FBI conspired to clear her of wrongdoing over her handling of classified information. This same group of agents, Trump argues, then cooked up a phony investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia as a way to undermine his presidency.
No public evidence has surfaced to prove this theory, and the inspector general is unlikely to claim a wide-ranging political conspiracy at the heart of the FBI. There is evidence that at least some agents on the Clinton investigation disliked Trump. But look for Trump to seize on aspects of the report that support him, and probably discard those that do not.
Clinton’s supporters find this entire argument baffling. It was Comey, after all, who chastised her at a nationally televised news conference, and then — over the objection of the Justice Department — announced just days before Election Day that the FBI was again investigating Clinton. Trump now says the FBI was on her side all along.
Comey was the most high-profile FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover until Trump fired him in May 2017. The inspector general’s report is expected to be an unflattering book end to his career. He is likely to face sharp criticism for that news conference, in July 2016, and his announcement, in late October of that year.
Neither the special counsel, Robert Mueller, nor his investigation is the focus of the report. But it looms over everything that will happen Thursday around the release the report.
When the Russia investigation began, Comey made a decision that ultimately proved fateful. Rather than assign the case to agents in the field, he gave it to the same team at headquarters that had investigated Clinton. So, any criticism of decisions in the Clinton case — no matter how unrelated to the Russia investigation — will ultimately be used by Trump to challenge the integrity of the team that began investigating his campaign.
In the final days of the Clinton investigation, the attorney general at the time, Loretta E. Lynch, held an impromptu private meeting with former President Bill Clinton when the two found themselves unexpectedly on the same tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The meeting led to calls for Lynch to recuse herself from the investigation. She did not, but said she would defer to the FBI and career prosecutors on whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton. The tarmac meeting, as well as Lynch’s half-in-half-out response, are expected to be criticized in Thursday’s report. Lynch has already said she regrets the meeting.
Two FBI officials, who were assigned to both cases, exchanged text messages that revealed strong anti-Trump sentiment. They said Clinton “just has to win” and described a potential victory by Trump as “terrifying.”
Trump’s supporters have seized on these messages as evidence that the FBI was biased against him. The inspector general is expected to criticize the officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, but his conclusions on the matter will be closely watched. FBI regulations allow agents to express opinions both “privately and publicly on political subjects and candidates.”
Horowitz has said he is investigating whether officials improperly disclosed information about the Clinton case to journalists. But one of the most intriguing questions involves the potential leak of information to one of Trump’s key campaign surrogates, Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani appeared on Fox News in October 2016 and hinted that big news was about to break:
“I mean, I’m talking about some pretty big surprises,” he said in one interview. In another, he referenced Clinton and said he expected the surprises to surface in the coming days.
Two days later, Comey broke the news that the FBI was once again investigating Clinton and her emails. Comey has said he ordered an investigation into that disclosure but it is not clear what came of it.
Giuliani is now a lawyer for Trump, who has railed against inappropriate disclosures to reporters.
The inspector general is expected to criticize officials at FBI headquarters for the speed at which they responded to the discovery of new emails on a laptop belonging to the estranged husband of one of Clinton’s top aides. Critics, including some inside the FBI, have suggested that officials at headquarters were uninterested in revisiting the investigation before the election.
The report is expected to run more than 500 pages, and it is likely to criticize many of these decisions and more. It is unclear where Horowitz will come down on the larger question of whether any of these decisions affected the outcome of the case. Inspectors general do not often second-guess investigative conclusions, and it is not clear that Horowitz will weigh in on whether the decision not to charge Clinton was the right one.
As for whether Comey cost Clinton the election? She says he did. Some political scientists have pointed to data to argue that point. But that is one area the report is unlikely to touch.
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