Watchdog Expected to Find Russia Probe Valid

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Justice Department’s internal watchdog was to release a highly anticipated report Monday that is expected to reject President Donald Trump’s claims that the Russia investigation was illegitimate and tainted by political bias from FBI leaders. it also is expected to document errors during the investigation that may animate Trump supporters.

The report, as described by people familiar with its findings, is expected to conclude there was an adequate basis for opening one of the most politically sensitive investigations in FBI history, which Trump has denounced as a witch hunt. It began in secret during Trump’s 2016 presidential run and was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his state of the nation address in Moscow in 2018. (AP file photo)

The report comes as Trump faces an impeachment inquiry in Congress centered on his efforts to press Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden — a probe that Trump also claims is politically biased.

Still, the release of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review is unlikely to quell the partisan battles that have surrounded the Russia investigation for years. And it’s not the last word: A separate internal investigation continues, overseen by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr and led by a U.S. attorney, John Durham. That investigation is criminal in nature.

Trump tweeted Sunday: “I.G. report out tomorrow. That will be the big story!”

He has said that he was awaiting Horowitz’s report but that Durham’s report may be even more important.

Horowitz’s report is expected to identify errors and misjudgments by some law enforcement officials, including by an FBI lawyer suspected of altering a document related to the surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. He has been fired. Those findings probably will fuel arguments by Trump and his supporters that the investigation was flawed from the start.

But the report will not endorse some of Trump’s theories on the investigation, including that it was a baseless “witch hunt” or that he was targeted by an Obama administration Justice Department desperate to see him lose to Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It is not expected to undo Mueller’s findings or call into question his conclusion that Russia interfered in that election to benefit the Trump campaign, and that Russians had repeated contacts with Trump associates.

Some of the findings were described to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity by people who were not authorized to discuss a draft of the report before its release. The AP has not viewed a copy of the document.

It is unclear how Barr, a strong defender of Trump, will respond to Horowitz’s findings. He has told Congress that he believed “spying” on the Trump campaign did occur and has raised questions about whether the counterintelligence investigation was done correctly.

The FBI opened its investigation in July 2016 after receiving information from an Australian diplomat that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had been told before it was publicly known that Russia had dirt on the Clinton campaign in the form of thousands of stolen emails.

By that point, the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, an act that a private security firm — and ultimately U.S. intelligence agencies — attributed to Russia. Prosecutors say that Papadopoulos learned about the stolen emails from a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud. Papadopoulous pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about that interaction.

The investigation was taken over in May 2017 by Mueller, who charged six Trump associates with crimes and 25 Russians accused of interfering in the election either through hacking or a social media disinformation campaign. Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

He examined multiple episodes in which Trump sought to seize control of the investigation, including by firing James Comey as FBI director, but declined to decide whether Trump had illegally obstructed justice.

The inspector general’s investigation began in early 2018. It focuses in part on the FBI’s surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. The FBI applied in the fall of 2016 for a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Page’s communications, with officials expressing concern that he may have been targeted for recruitment by the Russian government.

Page was never charged and has denied wrongdoing.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is to hear testimony from Horowitz on Wednesday, said he expected the report would be “damning” about the process of obtaining the warrant.

“I’m looking for evidence of whether or not they manipulated the facts to get the warrant,” Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

The warrant was renewed several times, including during the Trump administration. Republicans have attacked the procedures because the application relied in part on information gathered by an ex-British intelligence operative, Christopher Steele, whose opposition research into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia was funded by Democrats and the Clinton campaign.

In pursuing the warrant, the Justice Department referred to Steele as “reliable” from previous dealings with him. Though officials told the court that they suspected the research was aimed at discrediting the Trump campaign, they did not reveal that the work had been paid for by Democrats, according to documents released last year.

Steele’s research was compiled into a dossier that was provided to the FBI after it had opened its investigation.

The report also examined the interactions that senior Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr had with Steele, whom he had met years earlier through a shared professional interest in countering Russian organized crime. Ohr passed along to the FBI information that he had received from Steele but did not alert his Justice Department bosses to those conversations.

Ohr has since been a regular target of Trump’s ire, in part because his wife worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS, the political research firm that hired Steele for the investigation.

This is the latest in a series of reports that Horowitz, a former federal prosecutor and an Obama appointee to the watchdog role, has released on FBI actions in politically charged investigations.

Last year, he criticized Comey for a news conference announcing the conclusion of the Clinton email investigation, and for then alerting Congress months later that the probe had been effectively reopened. In that report, too, Horowitz did not find that Comey’s actions had been guided by partisan bias.

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