Policy

DOJ Watchdog Report on Comey Stirs Politics on Hill

Sessions calls report an opportunity to learn from past mistakes

Former FBI Director James Comey testifies during a Senate Select Intelligence Committee hearing on Thursday. On Friday, President Trump declared feeling “total and complete vindication.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Even before the results of an internal Justice Department probe were released Thursday, that report into former FBI Director James Comey’s actions during the 2016 presidential campaign had reopened deep political divisions and fueled fresh questions about congressional oversight of the agency’s work.

That’s unlikely to change during the upcoming week of hearings and headlines on Capitol Hill about the watchdog’s report, starting with a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing slated for Monday and another before the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees set for Tuesday.

Lawmakers from both parties staked out political ground ahead of the report from DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, on issues that have become familiar themes in the partisan battle over the FBI’s actions during the campaign and after.

Both Democrats and Republicans criticized Comey’s actions ahead of the November 2016 election when it came to a probe of Clinton’s handling of classified material on a private server, which was the focus of the IG report released Thursday.

But that has morphed into more general criticism from some Republican lawmakers and President Donald Trump of bias in the Justice Department and FBI, which Democrats say is an effort to discredit Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into connections between Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives.

Trump has repeatedly highlighted on Twitter and elsewhere what he calls bias and a “witch hunt” against him in the FBI and Justice Department. His criticisms stem from the Mueller probe, which has resulted in charges against Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, among others.

Horowitz’s report lands on Capitol Hill amid that turmoil. The report concluded that Comey was not motivated by politics when he broke with Justice Department procedures during investigations into Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, Bloomberg and the New York Times reported before the official release.

And the report finds that while those actions still damaged the FBI’s and DOJ’s impartiality, it did not affect the outcome of the investigation, according to the news reports.

“The Inspector General’s report reveals a number of significant errors by the senior leadership of the Department of Justice and the FBI during the previous administration,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement Thursday afternoon. “Accordingly, this report must be seen as an opportunity for the FBI — long considered the world’s premier investigative agency — and all of us at the Department to learn from past mistakes.”

Those findings are sure to fuel questions at the upcoming hearings. Sessions said the Justice Department continues to look at FBI and DOJ decisions made after the election.

That probe will “provide recommendations as to whether any matter not currently under investigation should be opened, whether any matters currently under investigation require further resources, or whether any matters merit the appointment of Special Counsel,” Sessions said.

On Thursday morning, Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, and Ron DeSantis and Matt Gaetz of Florida, sent Horowitz a letter asking for drafts of the report that were sent to DOJ and the FBI so that lawmakers could see if “people may have changed the report in a way that obfuscates your findings.”

In it, the lawmakers reference the long-simmering dispute between Republicans and the Justice Department over the production of documents, something that Republicans have used to call for a second special counsel. “The time has come for complete transparency,” Gaetz wrote on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois is among Democrats who say the report apparently will support their view that Comey’s actions ahead of the election hurt the Clinton campaign and went beyond FBI protocol. But they fear that Republicans will use this to take focus off of or attack Mueller’s probe.

“How many Hillary Clinton email investigations have we had so far? Millions of dollars worth of ongoing investigations,” Durbin said. “If Hillary Clinton’s name is associated with it, they will beat it to a pulp. I don’t think it is in the interest of disclosing the real honest truth of what happened. I think it’s just to continue the political stirring up.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said the main takeaway from this report should be that it has no impact on the special counsel’s investigation.

“There will be attempts to distort and exaggerate it,” Blumenthal said. “But they are completely unfounded and they are part of the pattern and practice of Trump and his surrogates to use any artifice or deception to try to discredit this special counsel.”

In a development likely to add fuel to Republicans calls for transparency, the Justice Department told Congress on Thursday that it had recovered additional text messages between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page that it had not turned over to Congress.

Republicans already said the text messages between Strzok and Page, released in April, showed bias because they referred to Trump as “an utter idiot,” “a loathsome human,” and “awful” while praising Hillary Clinton and the Obamas.

Horowitz’s report includes a discussion of two text messages that the IG investigation found, the Justice Department said. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s office was made aware of the texts only this month, the agency said.

“The Department is now reviewing the newly discovered messages according to the same process outlined above and will transmit work-related messages to Congress as soon as practicable,” the Justice Department email to Congress said.

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