Analysis: 5 take-aways from report on Comey's handling of email probe

By Callum Borchers
The Washington Post
Updated 6/14/2018 2:57 PM
  • The Justice Department's watchdog faults former FBI Director James Comey for breaking with protocol in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But it says his decisions were not driven by political bias ahead of the 2016 election.

    The Justice Department's watchdog faults former FBI Director James Comey for breaking with protocol in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But it says his decisions were not driven by political bias ahead of the 2016 election. Associated Press/July 7, 2016

Former FBI Director James Comey predicted last month that the Justice Department inspector general "might bang me for [my] decisions."

"Bang" turned out to be a fittingly forceful verb choice.

In a report published Thursday after an 18-month review, Inspector General Michael Horowitz faulted Comey's handling of an election-season investigation of Hillary Clinton's private email use as secretary of state. Here are five key take-aways from the 500-page report.

The report criticizes Comey for public disclosures

No decision by Comey has been more scrutinized than the one he made in October 2016. That is when, shortly before Election Day, he sent a letter to Congress notifying lawmakers that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email investigation, which he had declared closed at a news conference four months earlier.

"I only saw two options," Comey told The Washington Post last month, explaining his thinking. "I could speak about it and tell Congress what I had said under oath repeatedly was no longer true, or I could conceal that fact. Both of those are horrible options, one more horrible than the other. Speaking is horrible. Bad -- really bad. Concealing is catastrophic, in my view, because think of what will happen to the institutions of justice if you hide from the American people that you know something they relied upon is a lie now. ... Which do you choose? I don't think you choose the catastrophic option. I think you got to choose the really bad option. People could disagree."

The inspector general did disagree. Horowitz wrote that Comey made a "serious error of judgment" when he sent the letter to Congress.

The report also accuses Comey of insubordination

When Comey decided to notify Congress that the FBI was reopening the Clinton email investigation, he did so without input from Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch or Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. The inspector general called Comey's solo act "extraordinary" -- and not in a good way.

Comey, however, has said that Lynch and Yates avoided the difficult choice. Here's what he told The Post last month:

"I actually gave them the chance to make the decision. I had my chief of staff inform their chiefs of staff, saying, 'The director thinks that he has to notify Congress about this, but he would welcome your input.' And the response was, 'We think it's a bad idea, but we don't wish to speak to him.' And my reaction to that was, 'OK.'

"And I was tempted -- as I said in the book -- I was actually tempted, in that moment, to say, 'You know what, tell them I've decided that it's their decision,' just to see what they would do. Or, 'I've decided I'm not going to say anything,' and see what they would do. But I thought, 'That's cowardly. You're the director of the FBI. You have a responsibility to the institution to act in its interest.' "

At the time, Lynch's perceived impartiality had been compromised by a meeting with former President Bill Clinton. She had said she would accept the FBI's recommendations about whether to prosecute Hillary Clinton.

The report validates the result of the Clinton email investigation

President Donald Trump contends that Clinton should have been indicted and has called the email investigation "phony." Although Horowitz criticized the very public way that Comey handled the probe, the inspector general concluded that the investigation itself -- and the ultimate recommendation not to charge Clinton -- were sound.

Horowitz found "no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations."

-- The report slams individual agents' biases

Trump has cast himself as the target of a "deep state" conspiracy at the FBI and other agencies. The inspector general's report does not suggest anything so widespread.

It does, however, identify five FBI officials whose private communications indicated troubling personal biases.

Two of the officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, already are well known for exchanging anti-Trump text messages. The inspector general's report reveals a previously undisclosed text message written by Strzok that, in Horowitz's estimation, showed a "willingness to take official action" to prevent Trump from becoming president.

"[Trump's] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!" Page wrote to Strzok.

"No. No he won't. We'll stop it," Strzok replied.

The report arms supporters of Trump and Clinton with new ammunition

As The Post put it, the report offers "chapter upon chapter" of material Trump can use to his political advantage. It probably matters little that the report does not address the origin of an investigation now led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is looking into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential race and possible coordination with Trump's campaign. Trump can nevertheless use the report's criticism of certain individuals to level broad attacks on the justice system.

And for Clinton voters convinced that Comey robbed their candidate of her rightful place in the Oval Office, the inspector general's conclusion that he made a "serious error of judgment" strengthens their position.

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