WASHINGTON (CN) – In a much anticipated report, a Justice Department watchdog said Thursday that former FBI Director James Comey bungled aspects of the Hillary Clinton email investigation during the 2016 presidential election, but that political bias did not factor into the FBI’s decision not to charge Clinton for mishandling classified information.
“We found no evidence that the conclusions by the prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations; rather, we determined that they were based on the prosecutors’ assessment of the facts, the law, and past Department practice,” the 568-page report says.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz had launched a review of whether Hillary Clinton intended to send classified information through insecure systems after lawmakers, members of the public and various organizations requested an investigation into her use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.
While the probe cleared the FBI of conducting a politically biased investigation, the highly anticipated report levied heavy criticism against former FBI Director James Comey and other agents for their conduct while working on the probe, which the FBI dubbed the “Midyear” investigation.
The watchdog accuses Comey of insubordination for going over then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch when he publicly announced on July 5, 2016, ahead of the Democratic National Convention that the agency would not recommend charges against Clinton for her conduct, which he called “extremely careless.”
The watchdog said Comey’s announcement, done without the input of the Justice Department, ran contrary to department policy and practice, specifically in relation to Comey’s criticism of Clinton’s conduct, which she was not charged for.
Comey had told the inspector general that the tarmac meeting between Lynch and President Clinton on June 27 finally “tipped the scales” in his decision to make the statement.
Both Lynch and the former president told the inspector general that they did not discuss the investigation of his wife’s use of a private email server, according to the inspector general report.
But Comey said he had also worried that an announcement from Lynch, who was appointed by a Democratic president, would not be seen as credible.
The inspector general report also criticized Comey for making a “serious error of judgment” when he sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28 – just days before the presidential election – saying the FBI was reopening the Clinton investigation after discovering some of her emails on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the husband of long-time Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
The report also addresses politically charged text messages exchanged between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page, which the watchdog said “cast a cloud” over the investigation and called into question its credibility.
Strzok and Page worked on both the Clinton investigation and the Russia probe, but were dismissed from the latter after their text messages came to light.
Republican lawmakers had seized on their exchanges as evidence that both the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server and Russian interference in the 2016 election – including potential ties between Russia and the Trump campaign – were tainted with political bias.
But the report says Strzok and Page’s political opinions did not influence the Clinton investigation.
“Our review did not find evidence to connect the political views expressed in these messages to the specific investigative decisions that we reviewed; rather, consistent with the analytic approach described above, we found that these specific decisions were the result of discretionary judgments made during the course of an investigation by the Midyear agents and prosecutors and that these judgment calls were not unreasonable,” the report says.
The report cited a previously undisclosed exchange between the two, which the watchdog said had raised concerns about Strzok’s decision-making in the Clinton probe.
“[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Page said to Strzok, who responded: “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
That “Strzok might be willing to take official action to impact presidential candidate Trump’s electoral prospects” prompted the inspector general to review his conduct during the Clinton investigation.
But that review showed that he was not the sole actor for any of the decisions the watchdog looked at during its review. In some instances, the report says, Strzok and Page both advocated for more aggressive tactics in the Clinton investigation, like using search warrants and grand jury subpoenas to garner evidence.