The former FBI director James Comey did not follow protocol in his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the justice department’s independent watchdog has said in a new report.
A highly anticipated review by the DoJ’s inspector general, which was released on Thursday, condemned Comey and a handful of individual FBI personnel.
But the report found no evidence to support Donald Trump’s claim that the agency was motivated by political animus as it investigates potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. It also concluded that Comey’s controversial actions around the investigation into Clinton’s emails, although “deviant” from procedure, were not politically biased.
The 500-page report largely focuses on the conduct of the nation’s top law enforcement agency, which is historically non-partisan, during the 2016 presidential election.
The report also includes previously unreported text messages between two FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, who privately criticized Trump and previously worked on the bureau’s Russia investigation.
Among the new text messages uncovered in the report is one dated 8 August 2016, three months before the election, in which Page asked: “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
Mueller reassigned Strzok last summer after the anti-Trump messages came to light. Page is no longer with the FBI.
“The conduct by these employees cast a cloud over the entire FBI investigation,” the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, said in the report.
He nonetheless concluded: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions we reviewed.”
Horowitz had a similar assessment for Comey, whose particular actions leading up to the election have been the subject of intense debate due in large part to his reopening of the federal investigation into Clinton’s emails just 11 days before Americans went to the polls.
“While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part,” Horowitz wrote, “we nevertheless concluded that by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the department as fair administrators of justice.”
The report calls Comey “insubordinate” and says his actions were “extraordinary” for failing to communicate with his superiors at the DoJ at pivotal moments in the Clinton investigation. It also asserts that a series of errors in senior leadership tarnished the agency’s reputation as a neutral arbiter of justice.
“The damage caused by these employees’ actions extends far beyond the scope of the midyear (Clinton) investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral factfinding and political independence,” the report reads.
Comey responded to the allegations on Twitter, stating: “The conclusions are reasonable, even though I disagree with some.”
“People of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently,” he added. “I pray no director faces it again. Thanks to IG’s people for hard work.”
Comey was controversially fired by Trump in May 2017 – a move the president conceded was due in part to “this Russia thing”, contradicting the assertions of his own White House that Comey’s role in overseeing the Russia investigation was not a factor in his firing.
Aitan Goelman, a lawyer representing Strzok, said the findings in the report reaffirmed the former agent’s insistence that his personal political views did not interfere with the matters he was tasked with investigating.
“While pundits and politicians are using this matter to advance their agendas, the truth about Special Agent Strzok’s character and professionalism is found in the fact that every witness asked by the OIG said that Strzok’s work was never influenced by political views,” Goelman wrote.
Lawmakers in Congress are set to be briefed on the inspector general’s report on Thursday, which is likely to escalate tensions between the justice department and Trump. The president has repeatedly dismissed the special counsel’s investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with the Russians as a “witch-hunt”.
On Thursday, fresh from his return from a historic summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, in Singapore, Trump tweeted that he was back to the “Witch Hunt always remembering that there was No Collusion and No Obstruction of the fabricated No Crime”.
He added: “So, the Democrats make up a phony crime, Collusion with the Russians, pay a fortune to make the crime sound real, illegally leak (Comey) classified information so that a Special Councel will be appointed, and then Collude to make this pile of garbage take on life in Fake News!”
Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, told reporters Trump was briefed on the report earlier Thursday, while adding it “reaffirms the president’s suspicion about Comey’s conduct and about the political bias of some members of the FBI”.
Mueller’s inquiry has produced indictments against at least 20 people and three companies, including several former members of Trump’s campaign. At least three former Trump officials – former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, and former campaign aide Rick Gates – have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russians.
In a statement, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, said the report report “reveals a number of significant errors by the senior leadership of the Department of Justice and the FBI during the previous administration”.
Sessions, who has so far rebuffed Republican calls for a second special counsel to examine the FBI’s Russia investigation, also suggested additional action could be forthcoming pending recommendations from a separate and ongoing review of the bureau’s conduct that is being led by US attorney John Huber.
“The department is not above criticism,” Sessions said. “This has been a prolonged and painful process for the Department and the FBI. But this is not the end of the process.”