A highly anticipated review of the origins of the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is set for release Monday, following last-minute signaling from President Donald Trump and his allies that the report may not much offer much in the way of blockbuster revelations that the probe was tainted by politics.
Officially, the report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to focus on the accuracy and completeness of information the FBI and Justice Department presented to federal judges in order to obtain a secret surveillance warrant for former Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page in October 2016 and to renew it on three occasions during the first half of 2017.
However, the review took on a larger-than-life quality over the past year-and-a-half, with some Trump supporters predicting that it would show that Trump and his advisers were the victims of a politically motivated vendetta by FBI agents and Obama appointees intent on undermining Trump’s upstart presidential bid and the early days of his presidency.
Former officials said they expect Horowitz’s report to contradict Trump’s narrative by concluding that the FBI and Justice Department’s investigative interest in Russian ties to the Trump campaign was legitimate and that — by and large — the investigation was handled professionally.
But the watchdog report is also expected to criticize some aspects of the inquiry, including the FBI’s vetting of a so-called “dossier” of accurate, inaccurate and unconfirmed information on alleged ties between Russia and candidate Trump’s coterie.
Republicans say the FBI relied too heavily on the dossier prepared by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, didn’t do enough to verify it and was not explicit enough with judges about the fact that Steele’s work was funded by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic Party. The surveillance applications did contain a page-long footnote that said Steele was funded by someone who appeared intent on finding “information that could be used to discredit [Trump’s] campaign.”
Trump has repeatedly sought to drum up interest in Horowitz’s review, stoking expectations about it even on the eve of its release.
“I.G. report out tomorrow. That will be the big story!” the president wrote on Twitter Sunday.
However, in recent days, Trump also seemed to prepare his supporters for the possibility that Horowitz’s report might not be the blockbuster some Trump backers have been anticipating, with the most significant revelations still to come from another, ongoing investigation being led by the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut, John Durham.
“I'm looking forward to seeing the IG report,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Saturday. “And I look forward very much to seeing what happens with the Durham report, maybe even more importantly — because it's a horrible thing that took place and it should never happen to another president.”
Durham’s inquiry, instigated by Attorney General Bill Barr, appears to have a broader scope than the inspector general review. Durham’s probe also progressed to a criminal investigation a couple of months ago, officials familiar with the inquiry have said, giving him the power to force testimony from people outside the Justice Department.
Precisely what Durham is investigating criminally remains unclear, but press reports have said that one issue he is examining is whether a then-FBI attorney who handled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications for Page, Kevin Clinesmith, altered an email related to that work. No charges have been filed over the issue, which appears to have been uncovered during the inspector general’s review.
GOP leaders struck a similar tone to Trump over the weekend. The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes, welcomed whatever information Horowitz is able to add to the mix, but said the big news is still to come.
“The additional evidence that Horowitz comes up with, that'll be great for us, because we're really interested if he found the exculpatory evidence that wasn't provided to the FISA court,” Nunes (R-Calif.) said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”
Nunes emphasized that Horowitz’s review was limited to applications to the surveillance court and was not a wide-ranging inquiry into all aspects of the Trump-Russia probe.
"He's only looking at FISA abuse. All of that evidence needs to be sent to Durham,” added Nunes. "That’s ultimately going to be the key … is, what does Durham find in looking at this entire debacle, which is targeting a political campaign by the FBI and the Department of Justice."
Republicans have been pressing Horowitz to wrap up his report in recent months. He signaled several months ago that his report was largely complete, but that the process of declassifying it had proven time-consuming. He is set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to answer lawmakers questions about the 20-month-long review.
Horowitz, a former federal prosecutor, was nominated by President Barack Obama in 2011 and confirmed by the Senate to the watchdog job in 2012. The inspector general is not part of the Justice Department chain of command and is supposed to operate independently of the administration.
Justice Department observers will also be keenly watching Attorney General Bill Barr’s reaction to the new report and whether he tries to translate, interpret or dispute its findings in a way favorable to Trump.
Barr fueled the narrative about Obama-era dirty tricks against the Trump campaign by opining at a House hearing in April that Trump’s presidential bid had been subjected to “spying” by people in the U.S. government.
“I think spying did occur,” Barr said.
The remark outraged former Justice Department and FBI officials, who faulted Barr for using the provocative term to describe court-approved surveillance begun on a former Trump campaign adviser with less than three weeks to go before the election.
The following month, Barr said he had not meant by his comment to declare that anything improper was done.
“My first job was in CIA and I don't think the word spying has any pejorative connotation, at all. To me, the question is always whether or not it's authorized and adequately predicated,” he told a Senate panel. “I don't consider it a pejorative.”
Barr will reportedly take issue with at least one key finding of Horowitz’s report: that the FBI’s decision to open a counterintelligence investigation into Trump campaign officials in July 2016 was justified by the facts in hand at the time. The Washington Post reported last week that Barr has told associates that he believes Horowitz lacked enough facts to make such a judgment and that more information may be available from intelligence agencies that could have impacted that decision.
Spokespeople for Horowitz and Barr declined to comment directly on the forthcoming report in advance of its release. However, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec issued a statement praising the inspector general’s efforts.
“The Inspector General’s investigation is a credit to the Department of Justice,” Kupec said last week. “His excellent work has uncovered significant
information that the American people will soon be able to read for themselves. Rather than speculating, people should read the report for themselves…watch the Inspector General’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and draw their own conclusions about these important matters.”