by Pete Williams, Julia Ainsley and Mike Memoli / / Updated
The Justice Department’s watchdog said Thursday that former FBI Director James Comey breached protocol but was not politically motivated in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe.
But the long-awaited report from DOJ’s inspector general does contain new text messages from two FBI employees that Republicans and the White House are sure to seize on as evidence of FBI bias against President Donald Trump. “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, wrote to FBI agent Peter Strzok. “No. No, he won’t. We’ll stop it,” Strzok responded.
But the new messages are more damaging.
Federal law enforcement personnel are entitled to their own political opinions, but only so far as they do not let it interfere with their investigations of political subjects.
“The damage caused by [Strzok and Page’s] actions extends far beyond the scope of the [Clinton email] investigation and goes to the heart of the FBI’s reputation for neutral fact-finding and political independence,” Horowitz said in the report.
The report did not draw any conclusions about Strzok’s conduct when he began participating in the FBI investigation of Russian election interference, which led him to join Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017, reacted to the IG’s report in a tweet and an op-ed for The New York Times.
“I do not agree with all of the inspector general’s conclusions, but I respect the work of his office and salute its professionalism,” he wrote on Twitter.
The IG’s report comes three years after the FBI launched its 2015 investigation into Clinton’s handling of classified materials while she was Secretary of State, sparked by revelations that she used a private email server instead of her government email address.
In January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration, Inspector General Michael Horowitz initiated the review of how the email probe was handled, looking at decisions by FBI and Justice officials — including Comey’s surprise decision to speak about it publicly.
“While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part, 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,” Horowitz wrote.
“We found that it was extraordinary and insubordinate for Comey to conceal his intentions from his superiors, the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General,” Horowitz said of Comey’s decision to call the press conference.
Horowitz said Comey made a “serious error of judgment” when he decided to notify Congress about the existence of new Clinton emails found on disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner’s computer.
The report also says that the FBI had all the information it needed on Sept. 29, 2016, to issue a subpoena to retrieve the emails from Weiner’s computer, but acted too slowly. Comey told the inspector general he isn’t sure if he knew at the time that Weiner was married to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s aide.
Horowitz ruled out political bias in the delay to subpoena the emails in the case of most FBI personnel working on the case, including Comey and his deputy Andrew McCabe. But Horowitz could not rule out whether Strzok was politically motivated, though he points out the decision did not entirely rest on him.
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch was also criticized in the report, particularly for two decisions she made during the course of the Clinton email investigation.
First, she directed the FBI to call the probe a “matter” rather than a criminal investigation. Second, she met with Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, when he climbed aboard her plane on an Arizona tarmac in June 2016. Comey has said the appearance of a cozy relationship between Lynch and the Clintons motivated his decision to independently announce the investigation was closed.
Horowitz said Lynch made an “error in judgment” by not ending the conversation with Bill Clinton sooner but found no evidence that they discussed the email investigation.