The FBI mishandled the politically charged investigation of classified information found on Hillary Clinton’s private email server, and Bureau agents engaged in improper behavior including a text message threat to prevent Donald Trump from becoming president, according to a Justice Department inspector general probe.
A report by Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz, however, appeared to let the FBI off the hook for allowing political biases and concerns about protecting the FBI’s reputation influence its investigation of classified data found on the email server.
Former FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by President Trump, came in for blistering criticism in the IG report for not informing Justice Department superiors about his decision in July 2016 to publicly exonerate Clinton in the probe—three weeks before she was named the Democratic presidential nominee.
Comey and the FBI were also was criticized in the report for delaying and then re-opening the email investigation days before the November 2016 election after tens of thousands of new emails were found after the probe had been closed in July.
The IG found “no evidence” Comey’s July 2016 statement ending what the report called the FBI’s “Midyear” probe of classified information found in the Clinton emails was the result of political bias or “an effort to influence the election.”
“We concluded that Comey’s unilateral announcement was inconsistent with Department policy and violated long-standing department practice and protocol by, among other things, criticizing Clinton’s uncharged conduct,” the report said.
“We also found that Comey usurped the authority of the attorney general, and inadequately and incompletely described the legal position of department prosecutors.”
Comey announced July 5, 2016, that he was recommending against prosecuting Clinton based on a lack of illegal intention and asserting that no reasonable attorney would prosecute her for the security breaches.
The FBI also failed to act quickly in responding to the discovery of emails between Clinton and key aide Huma Abedin found two months later on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, Abedin’s husband, as part of an investigation of Weiner sexting with a minor.
The delays created the perception that the FBI was slow-rolling a decision to reopen the email probe.
Comey told investigators when he learned of the Weiner laptop emails he did not know Weiner was Abedin’s husband and failed to grasp the significance of the new evidence.
Clinton place both “secret” and “top secret” information on emails found on the private server used while she was secretary of state to avoid triggering official records preservation rules.
The FBI declined to charge her for the mishandling of classified information because classification markings had been removed from the information in the emails, the report said.
The 568-page IG report, “A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election” contains details of several FBI and Justice Department scandals that emerged since the 2016 election.
The report reveals that:
- Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch acted improperly in not cutting short a meeting aboard an aircraft with former President Bill Clinton during the investigation of Hillary Clinton. Both Lynch and Bill Clinton denied discussing the ongoing email probe during the meeting.
- The FBI improperly permitted two Clinton aides who were witnesses in the investigation to sit in on the FBI’s questioning of Clinton
- Comey drafted an initial statement exonerating Clinton months before the investigation ended.
- The draft statement exonerating Clinton also removed the term “gross negligence”—a condition that could have been used for prosecution—and replaced with “especially concerning.”
- An initial assessment in the Comey draft statement saying foreign spy services were “reasonably likely” to have accessed the classified data on the Clinton server was replaced with “possible.”
- FBI ethics officials “did not fully appreciate” the potential conflict of interest by former FBI Director Andrew McCabe’s wife receiving $675,288 in 2015 from Clinton associate Terry McAuliffe, then-governor of Virginia, for her political campaign for a state senate seat. McCabe became head of the email probe in early 2016.
- The FBI improperly regarded a parallel investigation of Russian collusion with the Trump presidential campaign in 2016 to be more important the Clinton email probe.
The most damaging disclosures in the IG report relate to five FBI officials, including FBI counterintelligence official and Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok who was involved in both the email and Russia probes.
Strzok was having an affair with Lisa Page, special counsel to the FBI deputy director, and the two officials exchanged thousands of emails revealing political bias against Trump and in favor of Clinton.
The IG report noted “particular concern” by the apparent political bias in elevating the Russian investigation over the email probe, as revealed in text messages between Strzok and Page.
The texts between the two FBI officials “potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions they made were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”
Most of the texts between Strzok and Page that appeared to impact investigative decisions were related to the Russian probe that was not part of the IG review.
“Nonetheless, when one senior FBI official, Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, Page, ‘No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it’ in response to her question, ‘[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!’, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects,” the report said.
“Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias,” the report said.
In addition to Strzok and Page, text messages also were reviewed by the IG related to two other FBI agents, one on the email probe, and another FBI lawyer.
“The text messages and instant messages sent by these employees included statements of hostility toward then candidate Trump and statements of support for candidate Clinton, and several appeared to mix political opinions with discussions about the Midyear investigation,’ the report said.
The conduct “brought discredit to themselves, sowed doubt about the FBI’s handling of the Midyear investigation, and impacted the reputation of the FBI.”
No direct evidence was found that the political biases were linked to investigative decisions, the report said.
But the report noted “the conduct by these employees cast a cloud over the FBI Midyear investigation and sowed doubt over the FBI’s work on, and its handling of, the Midyear investigation.”
“Moreover, the damage caused by their actions extends far beyond the scope of the Midyear investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral fact finding and political independence.”
The IG finding of bias will likely fuel further criticism by President Trump of the Russia investigation that eventually was elevated into Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
Trump has denounced the probe of Russian collusion with the Trump campaign as a political witch-hunt designed to discredit his presidency.
Clinton, for her part, has blamed Comey for undermining her election bid by re-opening the email investigation so close the election.
The IG report said Comey believed that his failure to disclose the newly found emails to Congress would be an act of concealment.
The IG, however, sharply criticized Comey for saying he had only two doors to enter, one for concealment and one for publicizing the re-opened probe.
“The two doors were actually labeled ‘followpolicy/practice’ and ‘depart from policy/practice,'” the report said.
“Although we acknowledge that Comey faced a difficult situation with unattractive choices, in proceeding as he did, we concluded that Comey made a serious error of judgment.”
Comey was also influenced in mishandling the case because he believed Clinton would be elected president and he feared the information would leak if the FBI failed to make it public.
He also was concerned that “failing to disclose would result in accusations that the FBI had ‘engineered a cover up’ to help Clinton get elected,” the report said.
The report said there also were “concerns about protecting the reputation of the FBI” and worries about the perceived illegitimacy of a Clinton presidency if the discovery of the emails was not made public.
“We found no evidence that Comey’s decision to send the October 28 letter [to Congress] was influenced by political preferences,” the report said.
“Instead, we found that his decision was the result of several interrelated factors that were connected to his concern that failing to send the letter would harm the FBI and his ability to lead it, and his view that candidate Clinton was going to win the presidency and that she would be perceived to be an illegitimate president if the public first learned of the information after the election.”
Regarding FBI agents disclosing information to reporters, the IG stated that agents had unauthorized contacts with reporters and accepted favors and gifts in apparent exchange for details about the email investigation.
“We identified numerous FBI employees, at all levels of the organization and with no official reason to be in contact with the media, who were nevertheless in frequent contact with reporters,” the report said.
“In addition, we identified instances where FBI employees improperly received benefits from reporters, including tickets to sporting events, golfing outings, drinks and meals, and admittance to nonpublic social events,” the IG said, noting the improper activities are under investigation.
The report said leaks, fear of potential leak and “a culture of unauthorized media contacts” influence FBI decisions regarding its investigations.
The report recommended providing guidance to agents and prosecutors on legal actions that could impact an election.
The IG also called for making an explicit rule that an investigating agency cannot announce its charging decision without consulting the attorney general or other senior Justice officials.
The report also suggested developing a policy on discussing the conduct of uncharged persons in public statements.
The IG also recommended improving the policy of saving of text messages from official mobile phones and devices and to include a banner on the devices warning users they have no expectation of privacy.
Better education of FBI employees regarding the policy on accepting gifts is also needed, along with disciplinary action to deter improper conduct.