DOJ Watchdog Report Finds No Bias in Russia Probe

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department’s inspector general released a 434-page report Monday refuting Republican claims that the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was based on political motives.

The report on the origins of the Russia probe found no evidence of political bias, despite performance failures. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

The report details the origins of the investigation, code name Crossfire Hurricane, condemned by President Donald Trump as a Democrat-led coup at the heart of the government’s top investigative agency.

The investigation focused on campaign advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, as well as former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn.

Trump has long claimed the investigation was biased against his campaign and people within the FBI who wanted to see his campaign fail launched the probe. The report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz has been hotly anticipated in a Washington fiercely divided over the events inside the FBI that set off the investigation opened on July 31, 2016.

Across some 170 interviews with more than 100 witnesses and review of 1 million documents from the FBI and DOJ shelves, Horowitz’s report for the most part does not back up Trump’s claims.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations,” the report states.

Despite the report’s findings, Trump held fast to the claim the investigation was corrupt.

“It’s an embarrassment to our country,” Trump said from the White House. “It’s dishonest, it’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

The report found probes into the investigation’s most high profile names – Papadopoulos, Flynn, Manafort and Page – were justified under DOJ and FBI policy. The decision to investigate Papadopoulos and launch Crossfire Hurricane was based on information gained from an ally, presumably Australia, while the details undergirding the probes into Flynn, Manafort and Page came from government databases and “open source searches.”

The salacious Steele dossier played no role in opening the FBI investigation, according to the report.

“We found no evidence the Steele election reporting was known to or used by FBI officials involved in the decision to open the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.”

The top FBI counterintelligence official, Bill Priestap, signed off on Crossfire Hurricane while still investigating Russia hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails.

Priestap opted not to brief the Trump campaign that it was under investigation, over concerns that doing so would alert campaign officials possibly working with Russia who could change tactics or “otherwise seek to cover-up his/her activities, thereby preventing us from finding the truth,” according to the report.

Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told Horowitz’s team that he reached a similar conclusion.

“He said that the DNC was a victim of hacking and the FBI had known that the DNC was not responsible for the hacks for some time,” the report states.

The report makes clear that hostile statements toward then-candidate Trump unearthed in senior FBI investigators’ texts and emails – including those between Lisa Page and Peter Strzok – did not affect Crossfire Hurricane operations.

Horowitz found similar messages laced with political bias in support of Trump. The day after the president’s 2016 election win, a handling agent texted “Trump!” to a co-handling agent for a confidential human source, who replied, “Hahaha. Shit just got real.”

An FBI leadership flowchart. (Image via Justice Department Office of the Inspector General)

“I saw a lot of scared MFers on [my way to work] this morning. Start looking for new jobs fellas. Haha.” After a “LOL” in response from the co-handling agent, the agent added, “Come January I’m going to just get a big bowl of popcorn and sit back and watch.”

But the report makes clear no evidence points to political bias impacting the opening of the FBI investigation or its final findings.

Uncovering poor judgment calls by individual agents, the report points to failures to properly assess the reliability of the Steele dossier when seeking a surveillance warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016 to monitor Page’s communication.

The warrant was renewed several times during the Trump administration, though the FBI did not ensure information from Christopher Steele, author of the infamous dossier, was completely accurate. All told, there were 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” across the four applications to surveil Page, according to the report.

The most scathing sections of the report describe these errors, faulting agents for not being more careful and supervisors for not keeping a closer eye on such a sensitive investigation.

“In preparation of the FISA applications to surveil Carter Page, the Crossfire Hurricane team failed to comply with FBI policies and in doing so fell short of what is rightfully expected from a premier law enforcement agency entrusted with such an intrusive surveillance tool,” the report states.

Despite the acknowledged errors, the report does not go as far as Trump’s claim that his campaign was spied on.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Lindsey Graham, a close Trump ally in the Senate, compared the handling of the Page applications to a false medical report in a criminal prosecution.

“To me, this would be like giving a lab report, saying that the person you’re investigating – fingerprints don’t match, the DNA doesn’t match, but instead of telling the court that, you say that it does,” he told reporters at a press conference Monday. “It was that obvious.”

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement the report vindicates Justice Department and FBI employees who decided to open a necessary investigation into what were serious allegations against the Trump campaign.

“It may be too much to hope that this report will put to rest the conspiracy theories about the 2016 election – especially now, when the president and his allies are eager to distract from mounting evidence of his abuse of power with respect to Ukraine,” Schiff said. “But their baseless attacks on patriotic public servants must end, so we can put our focus where it belongs: on protecting our nation and democracy from attacks by foreign powers.”

Attorney General William Barr said Monday the Department of Justice could discipline employees the report found committed misconduct and reiterated his belief that the Russia investigation was not justified.

“The inspector general’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said in a statement.

A separate criminal investigation that Barr tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to run still looms over the FBI.

In a response to the report Monday, FBI Director Christopher Wray noted in a statement that reports of agents neglecting proper protocol and procedure “represent constructive criticism that will make us stronger as an organization.” Wray wrote it is the organization’s “obligation as public servants” to ensure agents are objective.

“Anything less falls short of the FBI’s duty to the American people,” Wray wrote.

The report says DOJ attorney Bruce Ohr, attacked by Trump over Twitter, made “consequential errors in judgment” when he failed to inform his supervisor of a meeting with Steele. However, it says he did not violate agency policy. At the time, Ohr’s wife Nellie worked for Fusion GPS, the independent contractor that retained Steele, a personal link that the report states did not violate federal ethics rules but due to appearances should have been raised by Ohr with DOJ ethics officials.

Ohr was “clearly cognizant” of his responsibility to report the continued contact with Steele after the FBI cut ties with the former British spy, the report states. The attorney admitted to investigators that the possibility he would be told by supervisors to cease engaging with Steele factored into his decision not to tell them.

The FBI began its investigation into Russian election interference in July 2016. Former special counsel Robert Mueller took over the investigation in May of the following year, charging six Trump associates with crimes. He resigned in May 2019 after issuing his report.

Graham’s Senate Judiciary Committee has teed up a hearing Wednesday to hear from Horowitz, where the South Carolina Republican promised lawmakers would hear the “good, the bad and the ugly.”

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