President Donald Trump on Monday claimed victory in the mixed findings of a Justice Department watchdog report into surveillance of his 2016 presidential campaign and the origins of the ensuing Russia investigation — a position belied somewhat by the inspector general’s finding no direct evidence of political bias in the launching of the probe, despite serious faults with the FBI’s applications for surveillance warrants of Trump’s campaign.
The highly anticipated, 400-page report from the inspector general, Michael Horowitz, found multiple “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the FBI’s requests for court-ordered surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser and flawed vetting of the so-called Steele dossier.
But it also found that the bureau had an adequate basis for launching its investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia in the run-up to the election, and, unlike conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and his supporters, that it was not motivated by political bias.
Still, Trump ripped the report’s findings at the beginning of an unrelated meeting at the White House on Monday, calling its revelations “incredible, far worse than I would’ve ever thought possible” and accusing former officials of “an attempted overthrow of government.”
“It should never again happen to another president,” he said, proclaiming later that “it’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”
Trump told reporters he’d just been briefed on the lengthy document. But he suggested he would receive further “very detailed briefings” on the report, and still maintained that the Russia probe had been unfounded, an accusation boosted by Attorney General William Barr.
“It’s a very sad day when I see that, a very sad day when a lot of people see that,” Trump said. “They had no nothing. It was concocted, and you say what you want, that was a — probably something that’s never happened in the history of our country.”
The report rebutted claims made by Trump that law enforcement officials planted spies in his campaign and that the Russia investigation was based on unfounded allegations contained in materials prepared by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. But it contained multitudes of criticism of investigators’ handling of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act process for the campaign adviser Carter Page.
“We are deeply concerned,” Horowitz wrote in his report, “that so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked investigative teams; on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations; after the matter had been briefed to the highest levels within the FBI; even though the information sought through the use of FISA authority related so closely to an ongoing presidential campaign; and even though those involved with the investigation knew that their actions were likely to be subjected to close scrutiny.”
Trump took aim at one finding in particular, that one of the renewals of the FISA warrant of Page relied in part on an email altered by an FBI lawyer.
“Well, they fabricated evidence and they lied to the courts and they did all sorts of things to have it go their way,” he told reporters. “And this was something that we can never allow to happen again.”
Trump also suggested that the findings made public on Monday further justified his decision to fire FBI Director James Comey in 2017, though he didn’t name the former FBI chief.
“What they were doing and what they would have done if I didn’t make a certain move — a certain move that was a very important move because it would have been even worse, if that’s possible,” he asserted at the White House. “And they might’ve been able to succeed. This was an overthrow of government. This was an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught.”
But he said he was still holding out for the results of a broader investigation into the opening of the Russia probe being conducted at the request of Barr by U.S. Attorney John Durham, an inquiry that all three men hinted would contradict Horowitz’s report and be far more damning.
“I look forward to the Durham report, which is coming out in the not-too-distant future,” Trump said. “It’s got its own information, which is this information, plus plus plus.”
Though Trump spoke with an air of vindication about Monday’s report, the nature of its findings has provided fodder for both Democrats and Republicans to dig in on their respective backing of or opposition to the Russia probe. A flurry of partisan spin — and defenses of government institutions — issued from all corners of Washington.
The president’s defenders in Congress jumped to highlight the number of faults Horowitz found within the FBI, assailing investigators’ continued reliance on the Steele dossier despite concerns about its reliability.
“While there may be reasonable differences about whether or not there was a lawful predicate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I believe there will be no debate among reasonable-minded people, particularly lawyers, about how the system not only got off the rails but in my view became the criminal enterprise to defraud the FISA court.”
Vice President Mike Pence also hailed the inspector general‘s report, labeling its findings “one of the greatest abuses of investigative power in our lifetime.”
He reiterated Trump’s hope that no other U.S. president be subjected to the kind of treatment outlined by Horowitz denouncing “career bureaucrats at the Department of Justice” who, from the start of Trump’s candidacy, allegedly “sought to undermine this President and our Administration — including falsifying information and suppressing the truth.”
Trump additionally received support from his attorney general, who endorsed the criticism laid out by Horowitz but also rejected his finding that the Russia probe was adequately predicated.
“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. “It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory. Nevertheless, the investigation and surveillance was pushed forward for the duration of the campaign and deep into President Trump’s administration.”
The findings appeared to expose a schism between Barr and Durham on one side and Horowitz and FBI Director Christopher Wray on the other side. Wray copped to the mistakes laid bare in Horowitz’s report, calling the bureau’s errors “unacceptable” and pledging to follow up on the number of recommendations contained within it.
He did not, however, back up claims that the Trump campaign was unfairly targeted, calling the Russia investigation “appropriate.”
Congressional Democrats held up the Horowitz report as proof positive that the Russia investigation was legitimate after it was assailed as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt” by the president over the past few years, but they downplayed its scathing critiques of the FISA process.
“This report debunks the baseless conspiracy that the investigation into Mr. Trump’s campaign and its ties to Russia originated with political bias,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said in a statement, though he predicted that “my Republican colleagues will do their level best to reject the report’s conclusion.”
Schumer pointed to Republicans’ repeated attempts to build up the impending report in the wake of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, contending that their praise shows “there is no bias for the president’s absurd claim that the investigation into his campaign was a hoax or a conspiracy.”
In a joint statement, the chairs of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees pointed to the sheer number of indictments, guilty pleas and convictions that eventually arose from the Russia investigation as proof of its legitimacy.
“The IG’s report shows that the investigation Special Counsel Mueller took over was not politically motivated and that officials acted appropriately in opening the investigation,” Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler and Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney said, though they acknowledged that the president’s allies would find ammunition of their own in the report. “The president, his defenders in Congress, and right-wing media will continue to prop up these conspiracy theories to deflect from the President’s misconduct, but we will not be distracted by their baseless allegations,” they added in an implicit argument for his impeachment.
Several former Justice Department employees who have found themselves skewered by the president and his allies over the years claimed exoneration over the inspector general’s findings, including Comey and fellow former top FBI officials Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Comey blasted Trump and his fellow FBI detractors for what he called their “smears” of the bureau, but said in an interview on MSNBC that he would not be waiting by the phone for an apology.
Andrew McCabe, Comey’s deputy at the FBI and a top Trump target, also asserted that the inspector general’s report cleared him of wrongdoing while reiterating the “unanimity” among top officials in favor of opening the Russia investigation. An attorney for McCabe pointed out that although Horowitz uncovered “numerous errors, process failures, and isolated instances of misconduct” at the FBI, they “took place at multiple layers below Mr. McCabe.”
“Mr. McCabe did not know about any of these issues and the report makes clear that there is no way he could have known unless someone specifically brought them to his attention,” his lawyer said. “The report makes clear that no one did.”
An attorney for Strzok, a former FBI agent who was removed from Mueller’s Russia investigation and later fired after the discovery of anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with FBI lawyer Lisa Page, claimed his client was vindicated by Horowitz.
Trump has routinely savaged Strzok and Page, who were carrying on an extramarital affair, going so far as to mock their relationship at a campaign rally in October. But Horowitz found that neither Strzok nor Page was key a decision-maker when it came to launching the Russia investigation.
The report, Strzok’s lawyer said, “confirms what everyone who has worked with Pete Strzok already knew — in 25 years of protecting our country, his personal opinions never impacted his work as an official of the FBI.”
The lawyer, Aitan Goelman, continued: “Those who recklessly deny this truth for political gain do a grave disservice. By politicizing these issues and attacking Pete and others personally, they undercut the credibility of our country’s law enforcement, weaken our national security, and encourage the forces that threaten our democratic process.”
Page, who recently broke her silence on the president‘s attacks for the first time, responded with her own assertion of exoneration in several tweets.
“For those following along: After two IG investigations; At least a dozen IG lawyers and investigators poring over every text, email, and note I ever wrote; 1000 pages of investigative findings; And the President repeatedly accusing me of bias and treason,“ she wrote, referring to a first report from Horowitz on another politically sensitive investigation she played a role in, “The sum total of findings by IG Horowitz that my personal opinions had any bearing on the course of either the Clinton or Russia investigations? Zero and Zero. Cool, cool.“