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Report will clear FBI of misdeeds in Russia investigation

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee  on “Oversight of the FBI and DOJ Actions in Advance of the 2016 Election,” on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a House Committee on “Oversight of the FBI and DOJ Actions in Advance of the 2016 Election,” on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, June 19, 2018. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
By Del Quentin Wilber Tribune News Service

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department’s internal watchdog has determined that political bias did not influence the federal investigation of potential links between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, according to people familiar with the matter, countering White House claims of deliberate partisan influence.

Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who will release his long-anticipated report Monday, also found that the FBI had enough evidence to justify obtaining a foreign intelligence warrant in 2016 to conduct secret surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser who had multiple contacts with Russian officials, the people said.

The report’s findings are expected to effectively reject or dismiss the most explosive allegations from President Donald Trump and his allies – that FBI officials and agents broke rules and laws in their pursuit of evidence, and deliberately sought to derail Trump’s candidacy.

But the report also will provide grist for other criticism, and thus may create new partisan friction even as Trump battles an impeachment inquiry in the House.

Horowitz uncovered cases of FBI agents and lawyers acting in careless and unprofessional ways, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the report’s conclusions.

Trump and Republicans are eagerly awaiting the report, with the president saying he expected it to be “historic.”

“Now, what you’re going to see, I predict, will be perhaps the biggest scandal in the history of our country,” the president told Fox News last month.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a public hearing Wednesday into Horowitz’s findings.

The report will be released as the House Judiciary Committee holds its second impeachment hearing into whether Trump abused his power when he pressured Ukraine to announce investigations of his political foes. Lawyers for the House Intelligence Committee will present findings of that panel’s investigation.

After two months of depositions and hearings, Democrats on the Intelligence Committee concluded that Trump improperly “solicited the interference of a foreign government, Ukraine, to benefit his reelection.” In a minority report, Republicans argued the process was unfair and that it showed no evidence of impeachable offenses.

The dispute echoes, in some ways, the earlier investigations into the Trump campaign and Russia’s role in the 2016 election. A special counsel investigation found that Trump’s aides welcomed Russian offers of help during that race, but did not coordinate with them.

Horowitz is not investigating Trump’s efforts regarding Ukraine. Instead, Horowitz looked into the FBI’s handling of secret warrants obtained in 2016 to help determine if Carter Page, a former Trump campaign adviser, was working for Russian spy services.

Trump’s allies have alleged that the Justice Department failed to adequately disclose to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that its application for a warrant on Page relied, in part, on unverified information from Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who compiled a dossier on Trump in 2016 that was ultimately funded by Democrats.

The inspector general also looked at whether the FBI allowed political bias to shape counterintelligence probes involving potential connections between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

Peter Strozk, the FBI agent who oversaw the initial investigation, exchanged private text messages with an FBI lawyer that were disparaging of Trump. Strozk later served as the lead agent on the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a former FBI director.

Strozk was removed from Mueller’s team in 2017 after the text messages were discovered. He was eventually fired.

Strozk also oversaw the FBI’s much-maligned probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of State. Horowitz examined the handling of the email investigation and found no evidence it had been influenced by political bias.

The inspector general, however, chastised Strozk and the FBI lawyer, Lisa Page, writing that their text exchanges helped create “the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations.”

The FBI first obtained warrants from the FISA court in October 2016 to conduct surveillance on Page, an oil industry consultant. It renewed those warrants three more times, the last time in June 2017.

The first warrant was obtained a few weeks after Page disclosed he had left his job as an unpaid foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign amid controversy over his contacts with Russian officials. Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told CNN that September that Page was “not part of the campaign I’m running.”

Page has not been charged with any crimes. In an email to the Los Angeles Times, he wrote that the report was “an important first step in the process. It’s by no means the final word.”

Page has asked Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to permit him to testify at the hearing Wednesday, calling the FISA warrant process a “debacle.”

Horowitz is not the only Justice Department official reexamining investigations into the 2016 campaign.

Attorney General William Barr tapped a U.S. attorney, John Durham, to conduct a parallel investigation into the Russia probes. It is not known when Durham will publish his results or whether it will result in criminal charges. Horowitz has referred at least one person to Durham for a potential criminal investigation.

That referral involves a junior FBI lawyer who doctored an email that was part of the FISA warrant process.

Former federal prosecutors and FBI agents said they don’t expect Horowitz’s report to change the dynamics or close the partisan divide in Washington.

Many Trump supporters “don’t deal in reality or in facts,” said Peter Zeidenberg, a former federal prosecutor. “They deal in conspiracy. So this report will just be further evidence of a deep-state conspiracy.”

Frank Montoya, a former FBI agent who specialized in counterintelligence, said he expects Horowitz to recommend changes to the way FISA warrants are obtained.

In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Horowitz had done “excellent work.”

In a statement, Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said, “Rather than speculating,” Kupec said, “people should just read the report for themselves next week, watch the Inspector General’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and draw their own conclusions about these important matters.”

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