Opinion writer

The Justice Department’s inspector general’s report released Thursday makes clear that former FBI director James B. Comey blew it in his handling of Hillary Clinton’s emails. He treated her unfairly, intruding into the election in ways that worked to Donald Trump’s benefit. Inspector general Michael Horowitz found that the FBI didn’t erroneously let Clinton go free. To the contrary, his report makes clear that Comey acted outside department norms in ways harmful to her. According to The Post:

The inspector general found “no evidence that the conclusions by department prosecutors were affected by bias or other improper considerations.” The report acknowledged that certain emails appeared to contain classified information, but investigators determined the FBI’s conclusion that Clinton did not intend to expose classified information was legitimate. …

Inspector general Michael Horowitz accused Comey of insubordination, saying he flouted Justice Department practices when he decided only he had the authority and credibility to make key decisions and speak for the Justice Department.

Comey made a “serious error of judgment” in sending a letter to Congress on Oct. 28 announcing he was reopening the investigation of Clinton’s use of the server while secretary of state, the report found, and called it “extraordinary that Comey assessed that it was best” for him not to speak directly with either the Attorney General or the Deputy Attorney General about his decision beforehand. . . .

The report chided [then-Attorney General Loretta E.] Lynch for indecision after meeting with former president Bill Clinton on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport in the late stages of the campaign. She neither recused herself from the case to avoid the appearance of impropriety, nor did she assert herself more vigorously as Comey seized command.

So Comey and others at the FBI made serious errors that very well might have impacted the election. But Republicans have some legitimate grips as well. Horowitz “singled out” Peter Strzok, who worked on both the Clinton email case and Russia investigation, for his highly partisan texts to FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Furthermore, “the report identified five officials with some connection to the email probe who were expressing political views, faulting them for having brought ‘discredit to themselves, sowed doubt about the FBI’s handling of the midyear investigation, and impacted the reputation of the FBI.’ The midyear investigation refers to the Clinton email probe.”

In short, the FBI has made a great number of errors that both sides will insist were partisan and affected the outcome of the Clinton and Russia probes. There is plenty for conspiracy theorists to sink their teeth into, but no one convinced his side was done wrong by a plot is likely to be persuaded otherwise.

Three things are clear.

First, Comey’s conduct violated Justice Department norms and very possibly cost Clinton the election. Trump, already concerned about the legitimacy of his election, will have to wrestle with the fact that but for Comey’s grandstanding, he would not be president. Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees respectively, put out a statement which began:

The stark conclusion we draw after reviewing this report is that the FBI’s actions helped Donald Trump become President.  Director Comey had a double-standard: he spoke publicly about the Clinton investigation while keeping secret from the American people the investigation of Donald Trump and Russia.

The FBI should not have spoken publicly about the case after recommending against criminal charges. They should not have revealed that they had reopened the case just days before the election. These actions violate longstanding guidelines designed to protect citizens from unfair attacks and avoid influencing elections.

Second, Comey’s errors were not about dishonesty but rather overreach and tone-deafness. There is no reason to doubt his recollections in the Trump case. However, given his conduct and those of several FBI agents, Mueller will have a special burden to piece together a case in which these witnesses did not taint the case. That’s not a legal judgment; it’s a political reality. Mueller’s case surely will be a mosaic of hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents; a strong case should not be affected by a handful of intemperant FBI agents (who in any case worked under Mueller’s supervision).

Third, given how tribalistic Republicans are, the report will give them ample reason to denigrate the ongoing Russia investigation and disregard its results. Even on facts, apart from the involvement of Comey and other FBI officials, the GOP may not be willing to act on ample evidence of other crimes or misconduct. In light of this report, the case New York State filed Thursday against Trump and his family members looms even larger. It may be that issues far afield from Russia ultimately do Trump in.

Democrats hope that Mueller’s credibility and factual discoveries are substantial enough to disentangle a final report from this mess. Unfortunately, at a time when Americans are deeply mistrustful of government, the inspector general’s report is going to make matters worse.