If you wade through the entire inspector general’s report, consider the content and tone of the FBI correspondence quoted within it, and ponder the timeline, you will finally get an answer to the key question I, and millions of Americans, have asked: If key members of the FBI were actually biased against Donald Trump, why did the FBI so dramatically damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the last days before the election? Why did it draft a letter to Congress announcing that it was reopening its email investigation a month after it found Anthony Weiner’s laptop, a letter that detonated like a bomb in the campaign and had a measurable effect on Hillary’s polling?
Now we know. The decisions leading up to that moment were influenced by a toxic stew of anti-Trump bias and institutional self-interest. The combination of those two factors sent an FBI torpedo straight at the SS Hillary, blasting another hole in a ship that was already taking on water.
The vast majority of the report simply reaffirms and amplifies previous reporting. It provides an interesting window into the shock and concern inside the FBI when Barack Obama appeared to prejudge the case and exonerate Hillary. It details how the FBI focused on Hillary’s alleged intent, even though one of the relevant statutes imposes criminal penalties for mere “gross negligence,” when it declined to recommend Espionage Act charges against her. And it provides a blow-by-blow account of James Comey’s defiant decision to depart from DOJ policy and practice and make an independent announcement of the FBI’s recommendation.
But then, when the story moves into the fall, things change. The report has new details and a new narrative that provide the last, strange twist on the strangest election cycle of my lifetime. It goes something like this: As the Hillary investigation (“Midyear Exam”) wound down, the Trump investigation (“Crossfire Hurricane”) spun up. Key members of the Midyear team — including employees who expressed deep loathing of Trump — transferred their efforts to the Crossfire investigation. When investigators found hundreds of thousands of potentially relevant emails (including emails between Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton) on Anthony Weiner’s computer, the Crossfire investigators were reluctant to dive back into Midyear, and they let the computer languish — for weeks — until prodded by investigators in New York.
Then, confronted with the reality that his agents hadn’t started to examine the emails, Comey’s institutional protective instincts kicked in, and he felt that he had to inform Congress of the new development — to preserve the FBI’s nonpartisan image during the presumed Hillary presidency. Little did he know (little did most people know), the Hillary campaign was a tottering, fragile mess, and this last FBI action may well have pushed her past the tipping point.
Don’t believe me? Let’s go to the IG report. Here’s the top-line conclusion of the role of bias in these last, fateful days.
In assessing the decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop, we were particularly concerned about text messages sent by [Peter] Strzok and [Lisa] Page that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions they made were impacted by bias or improper considerations. Most of the text messages raising such questions pertained to the Russia investigation, and the implication in some of these text messages, particularly Strzok’s August 8 text message (“we’ll stop” candidate Trump from being elected), was that Strzok might be willing to take official action to impact a presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. Under these circumstances, we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias. [Emphasis added.]
Of course Strzok wasn’t the only relevant actor, and the IG noted that other officials were involved in the investigation (including Strzok’s superiors) who hadn’t demonstrated similar bias, but even then the IG “did not identify a consistent or persuasive explanation for the FBI’s failure to act for almost a month after learning of potential Midyear-related emails on the Weiner laptop.”
Indeed, reading the report, one is left with the impression that if investigators in New York hadn’t prodded the Midyear team, the Weiner laptop would have remained unexamined until after the election.
This impression is amplified by the dramatic contrast between the flurry of calls and meetings in late September and early October (just after the emails were discovered) and the total absence of activity in the weeks that followed. As the IG stated, “After October 4, we found no evidence that anyone associated with the Midyear investigation, including the entire leadership team at FBI Headquarters, took any action on the Weiner laptop issue until the week of October 24, and then did so only after SDNY raised concerns about the lack of action.”
When asked to justify the lack of action, multiple key witnesses refer to the priority on the Russia investigation. Here’s FBI assistant director Bill Priestap:
If you’re wondering, you know, hey, this is a really big deal, and why aren’t you asking about it every, every minute of every day type thing, whatever, it was the, we went from this thing to the Russia thing. And the Russia thing took them as much as my time as this thing before. And I don’t want to say distracted, but yeah.
And here’s Strzok:
We were consumed by these ever-increasing allegations of [Russian] contacts and coordination and trying to get operations up, and following people. . . . Doing a lot of stuff that was extraordinarily consuming and concerning. So this pops up, and it’s like . . . another thing to worry about. And it’s important, and we need to do it. Okay, get it handled. Come back to us, and then back to this, you know, is the government of Russia trying to get somebody elected here in the United States?
FBI lawyer Lisa Page said that “she and other members of the Midyear team” were “super-focused” on the Russia investigation. Then there’s this, from Comey:
It was Russia, Russia, Russia all the time. . . . Well not just Russia, Russia, Russia. [It was also] Midyear Congress, Midyear Congress — because they had, somebody had to review the documents that were going up to Congress and there was a constant demand for documents and briefings on Midyear and Russia at the same time.
Keep in mind that two of the four people above had also engaged in their now-infamous affair and had expressed extraordinary venom against Trump. Strzok had vowed in a text message to Page to “stop” Trump.
This is not to argue that the FBI shouldn’t also have diligently pursued leads in the Russia investigation. It has the resources to do both. It has the manpower to do both. But lest you think that only armchair-pundit quarterbacks find the FBI’s inaction on the Weiner laptop concerning, here’s the case agent, describing his growing alarm:
The crickets I was hearing was really making me uncomfortable because something was going to come crashing down. . . . And my understanding, which is uninformed because . . . I didn’t work the Hillary Clinton matter. My understanding at the time was I am telling you people I have private Hillary Clinton emails, number one, and BlackBerry messages, number two. I’m telling you that we have potentially 10 times the volume that Director Comey said we had on the record. Why isn’t anybody here? Like, if I’m the supervisor of any CI squad in Seattle and I hear about this, I’m getting on with headquarters and saying, hey, some agent working child porn here may have [Hillary Clinton] emails. Get your ass on the phone, call [the case agent], and get a copy of that drive, because that’s how you should be. And that nobody reached out to me within, like, that night, I still to this day I don’t understand what the hell went wrong.
On October 21, a prosecutor identified only as “Prosecutor 1” reached out to Strzok. The resulting text exchange with Page is interesting:
6:49 p.m., Strzok: “Also, work-wise, [Prosecutor 1] called b/c Toscas now aware NY has hrc-huma emails via weiner invest. Told he [sic] we knew. Wanted to know our thoughts on getting it. George [Toscas] wanted to ensure info got to Andy [McCabe]. I told Bill [Priestap].”
6:55 p.m., Page: “I’m sure Andy is aware, but whatever.”
“But whatever” indeed. It wasn’t until days later — on October 25 — that the FBI senior leadership and the Midyear team re-engaged on the laptop. By that time Comey was in a bind. He believed the email review wouldn’t be completed by the election, he had already informed the world that the email investigation was over, and he also believed that Hillary was going to win.
Stay silent, and it looks like the FBI was concealing material facts from Congress and the public. Speak, and he departs from longstanding policy and procedures — and he does so selectively. As the IG notes, “We found unpersuasive Comey’s explanation as to why transparency was more important than Department policy and practice with regard to the reactivated Midyear investigation while, by contrast, Department policy and practice was more important to follow with regard to the Clinton Foundation and Russia investigations.”
The rest, of course, is history. In an election this close, the outcome is affected by countless factors. The FBI didn’t stop Hillary from campaigning in key states. It’s the fault of the Democratic party and Democratic primary voters that they foisted a dishonest candidate on the American public, a person whose conduct not only merited an FBI investigation, it merited indictment. There was, of course, Russian interference that had an unknown impact. But no one can credibly argue that Comey’s late October announcement didn’t matter. Nate Silver has marshalled the evidence, including this interesting chart:
The IG’s report is not the last word on FBI conduct during (and after) the election. And while there were many, many troubling facts in the IG’s narrative, it was also plain that multiple agents and attorneys played it straight. They did their professional best to investigate and evaluate Hillary Clinton without partisan bias. And it is certainly possible for even partisans to do their jobs professionally. It happens every day at every level of government.
But some partisans betray their bias in their words and their actions. It is deeply disturbing and disappointing to see the presence of partisans such as Strzok and Page in key investigations affecting both 2016 candidates. And this isn’t just my judgment. The IG expressed similar concerns:
We were surprised to learn that FBI leadership decided to assign many of the key members of the Midyear team, immediately after determining that no charges should be brought against then candidate Clinton, to the Russia investigation, which touched upon the campaign of then candidate Trump. This is particularly so given the questions being raised by candidate Trump and his supporters regarding the declination decision in the Midyear investigation. While we recognize that staffing decisions are for management to make, we question the judgment of assigning agents who had just determined that one candidate running in an election should not be prosecuted to an investigation that relates to the campaign of the other candidate in the election. The appearance problems created by such a staffing decision were exacerbated here due to the text messages expressing political opinions that we discuss later in this report. Surely, the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division had talented agents who were not involved in the Midyear investigation who could have fully staffed the Russia investigation.
The IG report is complicated, telling a convoluted story of bad-faith bias, good-faith mistakes, and cascading challenges as each new error creates ever-larger dilemmas. But while the story is complex, the lesson is simple. There are reasons why agents and attorneys should go “by the book.” Apply the law to the facts, follow policies and procedures, and let the chips fall where they may. If you put your thumb on the scales, you’ll often unleash forces you can’t control. Just ask Strzok and Page. They aimed at Trump, but they hit Clinton.