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Opinion The DOJ’s inspector general buries the real news

Since President Trump fired the FBI director, both men have shared conflicting accounts of their relationship. The Fact Checker breaks it down. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

An earlier version of this piece gave the incorrect name for Joyce White Vance. This version has been updated.

With William P. Barr as President Trump’s attorney general, one must always keep in mind that everything out of this Justice Department will be spun, shaded or, in the case of Robert S. Mueller III’s report, misrepresented with the sole purpose of exonerating Trump of any malfeasance and attacking his political opponents. Unfortunately, the media, as it did with Barr’s letter and news conference about the Mueller report, too often accepts the spin without examining the underlying documents.

That seems to be what is happening with the newly released inspector general’s report examining former FBI director James B. Comey’s release of memos documenting Trump’s attempt to secure his personal loyalty and to go easy on Trump’s fired ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. At the time, Trump accused Comey of breaking the law. He tweeted: “James Comey leaked CLASSIFIED INFORMATION to the media. That is so illegal!” Trump’s minions in the right-wing media ran with it. The problem is that it was false.

Enter Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. His report reiterates that DOJ declined prosecution — which by Trump’s own standards is an exoneration. The DOJ could not find that Comey broke the law. The president lied when he accused Comey of violating laws protecting classified information. In a lengthy recap of the memos, Comey’s copying of the memos, his providing memos to the press via a friend and Comey’s testimony, the inspector general repeats several times that there was no prosecution.

That finding is buried in the Trump-Barr cloud of spin, which looks at whether Comey, in attempting to document gross misconduct by the president of the United States, did not follow department procedure. Former federal prosecutor Joyce White Vance tells me, “This debunks the myth from the right that Comey would be prosecuted for his actions. The conclusion of the report questions the ethics of his conduct, but not its legality.”

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One of the memos, Memo 4, contained information covering evidence of obstruction of justice. Horowitz finds a violation of an internal regulation that requires a laborious approval process for release of this type of document in Comey’s giving copies of Memo 4 to the press and to his attorneys along with three other memos. Comey, who was already fired, chose to inform the country of the president’s actions. The inspector general did not find that the memos contained classified information (meaning, they did not), but rather that they related to the Flynn investigation and to Trump’s attempted obstruction. In fact, the memos only lightly touched on Flynn; they related to the president’s illegality in handling the Flynn matter. The inspector general nevertheless concludes Comey violated department policy by not getting a sign-off for release to the media.

Former DOJ spokesman Matthew Miller skewered Horowitz for complaining that Comey’s actions put public pressure on the FBI to investigate presidential wrongdoing. “Comey did what he did because the president was actively trying to dismantle DOJ’s normal way of operating,” Miller tweeted. “The AG and the DAG were both complicit, so Comey had nowhere else to take his concerns. It must be nice to live in the context-free world inhabited by the IG.” Miller argues that this is akin to faulting Comey "for speeding on his way to tell the village that a fire was coming. Such a narrowly-scoped view of the world.”

The headlines will dutifully report Horowitz’s finding that Comey didn’t get sign off under DOJ rules. It would be helpful if they pointed out that the IG reaffirmed Trump’s lies about illegality. It would be even better if the media, which received the Comey documents and wrote stories critical to educating the public about Trump’s obstruction, reminds readers of the context for Comey’s actions.

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