WASHINGTON — A much-anticipated report on the early stages of the FBI’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia heavily criticized how the FBI obtained court orders to eavesdrop on a former Trump campaign aide but found no evidence of political bias or improper motivation by the FBI.
The 434-page report by the Justice Department’s independent inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is an exhaustive examination of a case that has reverberated throughout official Washington for more than three years, challenging Republicans’ long-standing support for federal law enforcement, overturning the bureau’s leadership and igniting scrutiny that has continued long past the exhaustive special counsel’s report released in April.
The report found no evidence to back up the president’s claim that the FBI’s investigations of his campaign and four former aides were inspired and tainted by political bias.
But in a finding that President Donald Trump is certain to seize on, the report documented a pattern of omissions, errors and inconsistencies in the bureau’s applications for warrants to eavesdrop on Carter Page, a former Trump campaign aide.
Here are some of the key findings.
No Evidence for Trump’s ‘Witch Hunt’ Theory
The report debunked essential elements of the president’s conspiracy theory.
The president’s narrative, for which he has offered little evidence, is essentially that a cabal of politically biased law enforcement and intelligence officials — a “deep state” — set out to sabotage and spy on his campaign because they were opposed to his election and wanted to undermine him once he won.
Trump and his allies claimed a wide-reaching conspiracy to use false opposition research funded by Democrats to justify opening an investigation that would allow them to infiltrate and spy on the Trump campaign, wiretap Page and sabotage Trump’s presidency.
Horowitz did not find evidence supporting that narrative.
“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions” by the bureau, the report concluded.
The report also said, “Witnesses told us that they did not recall observing during these discussions any instances or indications of improper motivations or political bias on the part of the participants.”
In August 2016, in an operation the FBI dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” the bureau opened investigations into four Trump campaign officials: Page; campaign chairman Paul Manafort; George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser; and Michael Flynn, who went on to become Trump’s first national security adviser.
Then What Did the FBI Get Wrong?
There were procedural problems in the process of getting warrants.
Horowitz cited multiple errors and omissions related in the applications to eavesdrop on Page, findings that may bring a renewed focus on the secret process to obtain and approve such warrants.
In October 2016, the Justice Department obtained permission from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to wiretap Page, who had recently stepped down from his role as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Page had close ties to Russia, which he had visited in the summer of 2016, and had previously interacted with Russia’s foreign spy service. The wiretap application portrayed Page as a suspected unregistered agent of a foreign power. The court extended the warrant three times.
The warrant applications relied heavily on information provided by Christopher Steele, a British former intelligence agent who said his information came from a confidential source. In a serious failing, the bureau failed to inform the court that when agents interviewed Steele’s source, that person failed to back up some of Steele’s assertions, the report found.
Horowitz also found that investigators should have told the court that Page had previously given information to the CIA about his overseas contacts. Page has described himself as an unpaid confidential intelligence source to the CIA and FBI.
Horowitz also found that Kevin Clinesmith, a low-level FBI lawyer, altered an email that was apparently included in the packet of information that went to the court as part of an application to renew the warrant. Horowitz has made a criminal referral about Clinesmith for possibly making a false statement that misled his colleague.
Changes Recommended for How the FBI Can Open Investigations
The report shows the relatively low bar for the FBI to open an incredibly consequential investigation.
Without consulting with the Justice Department, top FBI counterintelligence investigators made the decision to open Crossfire Hurricane, according to the report. The investigators had consulted with the deputy FBI director and the bureau’s top lawyer.
The FBI director, James Comey, was not involved in the decision, the report said. Sometime after the investigation was opened, Comey told the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, and deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, a few details about it.
The report says there was nothing wrong with this. The Justice Department guidelines for opening an investigation give the FBI the authority to start an investigation — no matter how politically sensitive — on its own.
“We believe that investigations affecting core First Amendment activity and national political campaigns raise significant constitutional and prudential issues,” the report said.
Still, Horowitz said that in the future a top official — such as the deputy attorney general — should be notified before “such an investigation so that department leadership can consider these issues from the outset.”
The Report Debunked Trump’s Accusation About Obama’s Role
Trump has long claimed the Obama administration had been behind the investigation.
The report found that President Barack Obama and top administration officials played no role in the investigation. Comey said he believes he told Obama and other top White House officials about the broad outlines of the investigation in an August 2016 meeting in the Situation Room, at least a month after it was opened.
“Comey said he thought it was important that the president know the nature of the FBI’ s efforts without providing any specifics,” according to the report.
Comey said that the meeting was also attended by White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, national security adviser Susan Rice; Obama’s CIA Director John Brennan and two other top intelligence officials. Comey said after he relayed this information no one responded or followed up with questions.
The inspector general also took on media reports that Brennan gave the FBI information that led to the inquiry. Comey told the inspector general that the information Brennan passed to the FBI related to election interference but “Brennan did not provide any information that predicated or prompted the FBI open Crossfire Hurricane.”
What About Former Officials Whom Trump Has Vilified?
The report appeared to absolve them of taking investigative action out of bias against Trump.
Trump and his allies have demonized a group of top FBI officials who oversaw the opening and early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation, portraying them as a cabal who launched a witch hunt in a politicized coup attempt. These include former director James Comey; former deputy and acting director, Andrew McCabe; Peter Strzok, a former top counterintelligence agent; Lisa Page, a former FBI lawyer who worked on the case; and James Baker, the former general counsel.
During an earlier examination into the handling of investigations into Hillary Clinton’s personal email server, Horowitz uncovered the fact that Strzok and Page had sent text messages to each other expressing animus toward Trump while working on the Russia case. He also found messages by Clinesmith indicating that he did not like Trump or his policies. The findings led Mueller to remove Strzok and Clinesmith from the special counsel team.
But as he also did in his report on the Clinton email investigation, Horowitz said that while these text messages demonstrated bad judgment and cast a cloud over the bureau, he found no evidence that any of the actions they took with the investigation stemmed from their personal political views.
Separately, Trump’s allies have disparaged a senior Justice Department expert in Russian organized crime, Bruce Ohr, who knew and met with Steele even after the FBI had officially severed its relationship with Steele for speaking to the press about his dossier. Ohr’s wife, Nellie, was a researcher at Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that hired Steele.
The report is critical of Ohr’s decision not to let his supervisors at the Justice Department know about his interactions with Steele and the FBI, but said Ohr did not violate a specific policy or that he was part of an attempted coup.