Trump Probe Justified, DOJ Watchdog Says While Citing FBI Errors

Chris Strohm

(Bloomberg) -- The Federal Bureau of Investigation acted properly when it began a broad investigation into whether then-candidate Donald Trump or people around him conspired with Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general.

“The FBI had an authorized purpose when it opened” the probe “to obtain information about, or to protect against, a national security threat or federal crime, even though the investigation also had the potential to impact constitutionally protected activity,” according to the 434-page report released Monday by Inspector General Michael Horowitz.

The report assesses some of the earliest actions that FBI and Justice Department officials took during their investigation into Trump and his campaign starting in 2016. The president and his conservative allies have long alleged that he was targeted for politically motivated spying in an effort to undermine his candidacy and presidency.

President Trump called the evidence in the report “far worse than I ever thought possible” and the actions it cited a “disgrace.”

In a conclusion quickly seized upon by the president and his supporters, Horowitz cited 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. The report recommends that all FBI officials involved in the case work have their actions administratively reviewed.

“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made on four FISA applications by three separate, hand-picked teams, on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process,” according to the report.

Barr’s Rejection

Trump told reporters at the White House that “they fabricated evidence and they lied to the courts.”

Attorney General William Barr also rejected the report’s key conclusion.

“The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr said in a statement.

Horowitz’s report comes as Trump and his political allies are enmeshed in a ferocious fight against Democrats over impeachment: At the same time the report was released, the House Judiciary Committee was hearing from Republican and Democratic lawyers about their findings following weeks of open and closed-door testimony.

Reactions to Horowitz’s report from lawmakers highlighted the partisan divide.

“The findings of this IG report decimate the claims that the Trump campaign was illegally spied or surveilled, that political advisers were entrapped, that the bias or political motive was in any way a factor,” Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal said.

By contrast, “this is not a good day for the FBI,” said Republican Representative Mark Meadows, one of the president’s fiercest defenders. “There’s more than enough evidence in this report that would suggest a major overhaul in terms of policies and procedures.”

The inspector general found no evidence the FBI used confidential informants or other investigative techniques on members of the Trump campaign before opening the investigation in July 2016.

The bureau wasn’t obligated to notify the Justice Department that it was opening an investigation into members of a presidential campaign for a major political party, according to the report. However, the inspector general said the lack of such a rule is concerning and recommended that the FBI and Justice officials consider developing procedures for doing so.

There’s also no evidence the FBI placed any informants within the Trump campaign or assigned any informants to report on the campaign after the investigation was opened, according to the report.

Officials who led the FBI at the time have said their focus was on investigating Russia’s interference in the election. They’ve said they had an obligation to investigate contacts some people associated with Trump’s campaign had with Russians.

Like inspectors general at other agencies, Horowitz is expected to be an independent, nonpartisan official focused on leading investigations of management and programs, reporting both to the head of the agency and to Congress.

Justice spokeswoman Kerri Kupec praised Horowitz’s “excellent work” last week, calling the investigation “a credit to the Department of Justice.”

Page Surveillance

Page, the former Trump campaign adviser, had been flagged previously by intelligence agencies as a target of Russian interest. The warrant against him was obtained in October 2016, after he left the campaign. The surveillance continued into 2017, after Trump took office.

Republicans have argued that the FISA applications relied heavily on an unverified dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The so-called Steele Dossier had been put together as opposition research against Trump and included salacious allegations concerning the real estate investor-turned-politician that were put forward by Russian operatives.

The Justice Department released a redacted version of the Page surveillance applications last year.

Referring to Trump as “Candidate #1,” the initial application said “the FBI believes that the Russian Government’s efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with Candidate #1’s campaign.”

Trump and Republicans have long argued that Justice and FBI officials didn’t fully inform the FISA court that Steele was paid in part by Trump’s rival in the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that “the FBI repeatedly lied to the FISA Court” to hide that the dossier was “false, phony and could not be used” to “justify spying on the Trump campaign.”

But Democrats cite a lengthy footnote in the initial application that informed a judge on the secret court that Steele was hired by politically motivated people hoping to use it to discredit Trump’s campaign.

With Horowitz’s work completed, Barr is expected to place his emphasis on a continuing investigation that he commissioned from U.S. Attorney John Durham. The prosecutor based in Connecticut is looking into the origins of the federal probe into the 2016 campaign that later led to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

“‘Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S,” Durham said in a statement Monday. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”

Wray’s Changes

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau “embraces” Horowitz’s findings and that he’s ordered more than 40 corrective steps in response, including actions that go beyond those recommended by the inspector general.

“We are making concrete changes to ensure that our FISA protocols, verifications, layers of review, record-keeping requirements, and audits are more stringent and less susceptible to mistake or inaccuracy,” Wray said in a letter to the inspector general.

Other changes will be made to how the FBI uses and handles confidential informants, Wray said.

“We will review the performance and conduct of certain FBI employees who were referenced in the report’s recommendations,” Wray added. “The FBI will take appropriate disciplinary action where warranted. Notably, many of the employees described in the report are no longer employed at the FBI.”

However, Wray didn’t say the FBI will implement new rules requiring the bureau to notify the Justice Department if it does surveillance on members of a major party’s presidential campaign. That’s likely to be a source of tension between the FBI and Justice Department.

(Updates with additional White House comment in sixth paragraph after ‘Page Surveillance’ subheadline)

--With assistance from Daniel Flatley and Justin Sink.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Strohm in Washington at cstrohm1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bill Faries at wfaries@bloomberg.net, Larry Liebert

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