Late last week, the Justice Department's inspector general released a report examining the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's email server during the 2016 presidential campaign. President Trump claims the report vindicates the theory, frequently touted both by him and his supporters, that he was the victim of a Deep State conspiracy concocted by FBI agents who gave Clinton a pass for her criminal activity while investigating non-existent collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
"The IG Report is a total disaster for Comey, his minions and sadly, the FBI," President Trump tweeted on Friday. Trump's reaction is not so much wrong as misleading. The report is incredibly damning of the investigation into Clinton's email server, but not because it was wrong not to charge her, but because former FBI Director James Comey kept violating department norms to intervene in a presidential election.
The irony of Trump firing Comey last year has always been that his stated pretext for doing so was perfectly meritorious. Comey did make a series of bad decisions in 2016 that ended up hurting Clinton's election chances. And the IG report vindicates this pretextual reason for the firing. But of course, Trump did not actually fire Comey for his mistreatment of a candidate Trump repeatedly claimed belonged in prison. He fired him for not quashing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections.
Trump's assertion that the IG report contains evidence of bias against Trump and his campaign hinges mostly on a text exchange between two FBI officials, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok. In response to Page texting that Trump is "not ever going to be president, right?" Strzok replied, "[n]o. No he's not. We'll stop it." This is an inappropriate thing for an FBI official to text, as the IG report noted, particularly since Strzok was involved in both the Clinton email server investigation and the Trump/Russia investigation.
But the text is important only if Strzok actually took any actions that would damage Trump or help Clinton, and there is no evidence that he did. The IG report found "no connection" between Strzok's view of Trump and decisions made in the investigations, in either "documentary or testimonial evidence." It's hardly surprising that, in a large organization, some individual agents would have anti-Trump sentiments. But the IG report found nothing suggesting anything remotely resembling an anti-Trump conspiracy at the FBI.
The report is, however, harshly critical of two decisions Comey made during the 2016 campaign: his editorializing in calling Clinton's behavior "extremely careless" when he announced his recommendation that no charges be filed against her, and his potentially history-altering decision to send a letter announcing the re-opening of the Clinton investigation in late October 2016 based on emails found on a laptop belonging to disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. (The emails were quickly determined to redundant and/or immaterial, and Comey announced before Election Day that his recommendation not to charge Clinton hadn't changed.)
The report strongly and persuasively condemns Comey's choices in both cases. Comey's first announcement was found to be "inconsistent with department policy and violated long-standing department practice and protocol" and to have "usurped the authority of the attorney general." Similarly, Comey's decision to send the letter on Oct. 28 was determined by the report to be "a serious error of judgment." And while the report did find that the investigation into the emails on Weiner's laptop — which were found in September — was slow, not only was there no evidence that this was a product of political bias, the time it took to examine the material clearly hurt Clinton; it would have been much better for her, politically, for the material to have been disregarded as insignificant in early September rather than early November.
What makes Comey's actions particularly hard to defend are the very different ways in which the Trump and Clinton investigations were handled. The report uncovers an email Comey sent on Oct. 5 that former DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller aptly calls "infuriating." In the email to then-CIA Director John Brennan and then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Comey argues that "the window has closed" for informing the public about the investigation into Russian interference in the election, because a statement would damage the intelligence community's "reputation for independence" and would expose the FBI and CIA to "serious accusations of launching our own 'October Surprise.'" In itself, this argument is entirely reasonable. But it is also utterly impossible to square with Comey's highly prejudicial statements about Clinton, the last of them made less than two weeks before Election Day.
The IG report concludes there is no evidence Comey's double standard was the product of partisan bias, and at least in the sense of a conscious decision to help Trump win, this is probably true. Comey presumably expected Clinton to win and wanted to insulate himself from Republican criticism in the aftermath. But whatever his intentions, his actions helped Trump, and may have even been decisive in the election. Whatever motivated Comey's misjudgments, the idea that the IG report shows a conspiracy against Trump is simply absurd.