THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT released Thursday a highly anticipated report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe and other sensitive issues in the 2016 election. It is not the report President Trump wanted. But there is enough in it for him and his allies to twist and cherry-pick that its actual findings are likely to be lost in partisan noise.
Given Mr. Trump’s allegations about the FBI conspiring against him, the first thing to note is that the report provides no support for the theory of a broad anti-Trump plot. True, the inspector general uncovered private messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, including one saying “we’ll stop” Mr. Trump from becoming president. “The conduct by these employees cast a cloud over the entire FBI investigation,” the report reads.
But examining the actions the FBI took, the inspector general concluded that Mr. Strzok “was not the sole decisionmaker” and, in fact, “advocated for more aggressive investigative measures” against Ms. Clinton. “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative actions we reviewed.” The inspector general also concluded that the decisions made on how to conduct the Clinton investigation were reasonable.
This only supports what was obvious to anyone watching the campaign, during which the FBI took steps that hurt Ms. Clinton while not going public with its investigation of possible Russian efforts to help Mr. Trump.
The missteps began with then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch failing either to fully recuse herself from decision-making in the Clinton email probe or to take full responsibility for the investigation. That led then-FBI Director James B. Comey to conclude that he should make an extraordinary public announcement in July 2016 that the probe had come to a close, which, while clearing Ms. Clinton of any criminal wrongdoing, contained a strong rebuke of her actions. The inspector general found that the conclusion not to prosecute Ms. Clinton was legitimate but that the public spectacle was not.
Even less defensible was Mr. Comey’s decision, shortly before the election, to announce that the FBI was reviewing more Clinton-related emails on a laptop the agency had obtained. The inspector general noted that the laptop’s contents had sat, unexamined, for weeks. Once they were assessed, they did not change the FBI’s previous conclusions. There was no justification for going public so close to Election Day.
“While we did not find that these decisions were the result of political bias on Comey’s part, we nevertheless concluded that by departing so clearly and dramatically from FBI and Department norms, the decisions negatively impacted the perception of the FBI and the Department as fair administrators of justice,” the inspector general found.
The valid, nonpolitical lesson arising from the inspector general’s report is that the FBI needs to be better prepared to handle politically sensitive investigations. The agency must take special care not to affect elections. It should shy from making statements about people not charged with crimes, and major announcements should be vetted carefully through the Justice Department hierarchy. As for FBI officials, they can have personal views, but they should refrain from saying careless things even in private.
These principles are not new. If they had been followed two years ago, American history might look very different.