Yes, James Comey erred — but it was never in bad faith.
So says a massive report by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Justice, effectively faulting the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for breaking protocol in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Comey was “insubordinate,” inspector general Michael Horowitz wrote, when he plunged the non-partisan, non-political FBI into the midst of the 2016 election with a news conference chastising Clinton for using a private email server while she was secretary of state.
In the same report, Horowitz also concluded there was no evidence that Comey’s conduct was politically motivated.
Nothing in the report reads as particularly shocking to Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.
“That Comey was insubordinate is hardly a bombshell. That he did not break the law is hardly a bombshell. That his conduct was inappropriate was hardly a bombshell,” he said.
“But what it does do,” Sheinkopf warned, “is it gives some credence to some of the things the president has said.”
That may be just enough for Trump and his loyalists to sow doubt in established institutions and undermine the integrity of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The administration has for months tried to convince Americans the Mueller investigation is little but a biased “witch hunt.”
Complaining last week on Twitter of “numerous delays” for the report’s publication, Trump insinuated something nefarious could be happening behind the scenes.
“Hope Report is not being changed and made weaker!” Trump tweeted.
‘Attacks are already working’
Despite the report exonerating Comey of bias, it didn’t take much to conjure ideas of anti-Trump malfeasance from the 568-page report. Administration loyalists already subscribe to the “deep state” boogeyman belief that shadowy influencers are secretly thwarting the president within government institutions.
“The attacks are already working” when it comes to eroding public faith in Mueller’s work, Sheinkopf said.
He pointed to a new poll suggesting that the special counsel’s public image has been tanking, with 36 per cent of all registered voters viewing Mueller unfavourably, up from 23 per cent last year.
“It’s a general disregard for law enforcement that the president is fostering, and in the FBI in particular. And he’ll segue that into the Mueller investigation, saying Comey is really behind it, and so is the rest of the Justice Department.”
The report’s publication on Thursday was auspicious timing for the president, who turned 72 that day.
“That’ll be maybe a nice birthday present,” he told reporters last week.
It looks like Trump got his wish.
Conservative political commentator Charlie Sykes expects Trump will “weaponize” the inspector general’s report with political spin.
“All he needs is one weapon … and he has a few,” he said.
Mixing it up with Mueller
The most explosive finding in Horowitz’s report appears to be a text-message exchange between two key FBI officials. It has already been seized upon by pro-Trump congressman Pete King for his case that the Mueller investigation is tainted.
In the exchange, FBI agent Peter Strzok tries to allay FBI attorney Lisa Page’s concerns that Trump might be the next president.
“No he won’t. We’ll stop it,” Strzok writes.
To King, a conservative representative from New York, the texts smacked of anti-Trump bias over the entire FBI system. It also put “an indelible cloud over [the] Trump Russia investigation,” King tweeted.
While highly inappropriate, political analysts say the texts hardly prove widespread systemic political bias has corrupted the entire Justice Department. And while Thursday’s report found no evidence Strzok ever used his position to go after Trump, Mueller fired him upon discovering the text messages.
It’s in the Trump administration’s best interests to discredit the Mueller probe. One way to do that, Sykes said, is to connect it to a report that discredits Comey over his conduct during the Clinton probe.
“Of course, this is not about the Mueller investigation,” Sykes said. “But Trump will try to confuse the Mueller investigation with this Clinton email investigation in the public’s mind.”
(Never mind that Comey’s much-maligned decision to hold a news conference in July 2016, in which he recommended against criminal charges for Clinton, is widely seen as having hurt her presidential chances.)
Alabama Republican strategist Jonathan Gray, meanwhile, perceives systemic corruption at the top of the Justice Department. He has connected the dots, he said: If at least two FBI text messaging employees are politically compromised, and if Comey was found to have violated bureau protocol, for example, one could reasonably say Mueller’s investigation must be crooked.
“Who works for Mr. Mueller? Where does he get his lawyers? The Department of Justice. Where do all his investigators come from?” Gray said. “My point is, just because we change the president from Obama doesn’t mean we change the culture of the people doing the work. There’s a culture of impropriety at the FBI and the Department of Justice, and this is who’s overseeing the investigation of the president.”
Asked if this amounted to the “deep state” theory that institutions were conspiring against Trump, Gray didn’t demur. The “rats” from the Obama era, he said, may still be running the ship.
“It’s a problem of culture. It’s going to take time to find these people and get them out. In the end, they will be revealed for who they are — obstructionists, impropriators, or maybe we’ll find a deep state conspiracy.”
Even before Horowitz’s report became public on Thursday, three staunchly pro-Trump congressmen suggested the final version was watered down in reviews. The lawmakers, who have stoked fears about a “deep state,” demanded to see drafts of the report to ensure it was not “compromised in any way.”
Most worrying for Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist in New York, is how many Americans might end up making a mental leap from the Horowitz findings to conclude the Mueller probe is somehow tainted. Enough repetition of any dubious “deep state” claim will eventually work to seep into the public consciousness, he said.
“The Mueller investigation has been above board,” Siegfried said. “But this is a very, very complex and nuanced investigation. And the Trump White House has been focusing on people not understanding the nuance. If they repeat something enough, people will buy it. And at the end of the day, this is a PR war.”