This week in the Russia investigations: A Justice Department report impacts Washington like a meteor; the inspector general confirms the presence of likely fraudulent intelligence; a special agent’s words could be a political gift to President Trump.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz has painted his masterpiece.
His report about the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server is the Ulysses of government reports — a universe in microcosm, a bottomless trove, an opus that will be studied for generations … or at least until the next big flap blows up on TV.
Even though Horowitz didn’t focus on the department’s Russia investigation, he did address it at length because of the role it played as a subplot to the main narrative, and the details he included are interesting.
Here are a few of the high points, the questions they answer and the questions they raise.
The fraudulent frame-up
Why did then-FBI Director James Comey feel he needed to take the Clinton email matter into his own hands and cut out his own bosses, the leaders of the Justice Department?
There are many answers to that question, but one thing Comey says didn’t play a role was the questionable information he received that purported to show that then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch had promised to go easy on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Except it kind of did.
The Washington Post has told the story before, and now the IG confirms it: In March 2016, the FBI got ahold of “highly classified information,” according to the report, that “included allegations of partisan bias” or attempts by Lynch to impede the Clinton email probe.
The FBI looked into the discovery and could not corroborate it, plus Comey told investigators he knew from the first moment that the discovery wasn’t true. According to the Post, the material purported to be a Russian intelligence document that discussed an email that was not included.
In that purported email, Lynch supposedly told a Clinton campaign staffer not to worry about the investigation because she would take care of everything.
It also said, according to the new IG report, that Comey was deliberately drawing out the Clinton email investigation to help Republicans. Comey told investigators that he knew it wasn’t true and that he didn’t believe that Lynch had offered the assurance to the Clinton campaign that the questionable document described.
However, even though Comey never believed the information, it still helped prompt him to decide to box out Lynch and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, the report says:
“Comey said that he became concerned that the information about Lynch would taint the public’s perception of the [Clinton] investigation if it leaked, particularly after DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 began releasing hacked emails in mid-June 2016.”
Meaning what? Not only did the Russians influence the conduct of American officials with a questionable document — the use of forgeries is a long-standing aspect of active measures — but also the American officials involved here knew the material almost certainly wasn’t real. Even so, it still affected Comey’s choices, and to the degree it was intended to help disrupt the election, it worked.
Even though the IG report confirms the questionable documents aspect of the 2016 story, it leaves frustrating questions unanswered: How many other examples were there of bad or questionable intelligence getting into the stream collected by the FBI or other agencies? And how many decisions by American policymakers in 2016 and before or since have been affected by false intelligence deliberately planted to throw a monkey wrench into the works?
The skeptical investigator
Onetime FBI attorney Lisa Page and current special agent Peter Strzok did not intend to leave for posterity a rich account of their thoughts and feelings as they lived through the events of 2016 — but that is what they have done. Some of the thousands and thousands of text messages sent from their official government mobile phones were published by Horowitz’s investigators and have embarrassed the bureau as badly as any other primary source documents in its history.
That fuels attacks by Trump and his allies that people in the “deep state” are out to get him. The IG and congressional investigators have debunked some of the conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation, including, most recently, allegations of political snooping on the Trump 2016 campaign. But the material in the new report only affords more opportunities to detail just how anti-Trump Page and Strzok were.
From a political perspective, the news is even better for the White House. Not only were Page and Strzok obviously anti-Trump, but they also weren’t even certain there was a substantive basis to the Russia investigation. They discussed going to work for special counsel Robert Mueller when he was appointed in May 2017. Page pinged Strzok and said: Don’t you want to join an investigation that could lead to impeachment?
Strzok replied: “you and I both know the odds are nothing. If I thought it was likely I’d be there no question. I hesitate in part because of my gut sense and concern there’s no big there there.”
Translation: Yes, as a fellow opponent of Trump, I want to get onto this investigation to bring him down. However, I am not convinced there is a substantive basis upon which to believe that is possible.
Strzok later said as much afterward when he was interviewed by investigators.
“As I looked at the predicating information, as I looked at the facts as we understood them from … the allegations that Russia had these emails, and offered to members of the Trump campaign to release them. As we looked at the various actors, the question [was,] … was that part of a broad, coordinated effort, or was that simply a bunch of opportunists seeking to advance their own or individual agendas … which of that is it? … My question [was] about whether or not this represented a large, coordinated conspiracy or not.”
Meaning what? As recently as May 2017, when Mueller was appointed, a senior FBI investigator with privileged access to the Russia investigation — one with an apparently personal ax to grind against Trump — wasn’t sure whether there was any collusion between the campaign and the attacks.
Strzok was removed from that investigative team in the summer of 2017 once the text messages came to the attention of the special counsel’s office, according to media reports. Page had already completed her stint on that team and returned to the FBI by that time.
To be clear, there is no doubt about the Russian active measures campaign that targeted the 2016 presidential election. There is no telling what the FBI and other intelligence agencies have discovered since Mueller’s appointment — except for all the telling Mueller’s office has done through indictments and plea deals.
The president said Friday that the IG report “totally exonerates me.” Trump also asserted, “I did nothing wrong. There was no collusion, there was no obstruction, and the IG report yesterday went a long way to show that.” He continued, “I think the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited.”
The IG report did not look into the Trump campaign’s activities and is completely separate from the Mueller Russia probe.
But in a twist that might have come straight out of the laptop of a Hollywood screenwriter, Page and Strzok’s correspondence has arguably wound up giving a huge political boost to Trump.