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6 takeaways from the Michael Horowitz hearing

On Dec. 11, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Video: The Washington Post)

Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is testifying about his report on the origins of the Russia investigation Wednesday.

Below are some key takeaways. We’ll update this as the hearing progresses.

1. Durham’s objection ‘surprised’ Horowitz

Perhaps the biggest revelation came when Horowitz revealed his interaction with U.S. Attorney John Durham, whom Attorney General William P. Barr appointed to conduct a parallel probe into the Russia probe’s origins. Both Durham and Barr have signaled in recent days that they disagree with Horowitz’s central finding: that the Russia investigation was legitimate based upon the known information.

But Horowitz suggests Durham’s disagreement might be narrower than expected. He said Durham told him in November that the evidence actually did support a preliminary investigation — though not necessarily the full one that was launched.

“He said during the meeting that the information from the friendly foreign government was in his view sufficient to support the preliminary investigation,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz said, though, that Durham “said he did not necessarily agree with our conclusion about the opening of a full counterintelligence investigation, which is what this was.”

That’s significant because it suggests Durham doesn’t believe this whole thing was indeed the complete witch hunt that President Trump has alleged. Durham said in his statement about Horowitz’s report Monday that “last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened."

Durham’s quibble was apparently minor enough, in Horowitz’s mind, that he said he was “surprised” to see Durham release the unusual statement about an ongoing investigation.

We’ll apparently have to wait awhile for Durham’s final word, though.

2. Horowitz won’t bite on ‘spying’

The idea that the FBI was “spying” on the Trump campaign has crept into the mainstream. Initially regarded as a hyperbolic claim by Trump, eventually Republicans warmed to it and started using it. Barr has also controversially used it.

But Horowitz isn’t going there. Under questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), he was given two chances to label what the FBI allegedly did to the Trump campaign “spying.” He demurred both times.

Graham asked him about when an FBI agent went in to brief Trump but also used the meeting to collect information for the investigation. “Was that FBI agent spying on Donald Trump when he went in there?” Graham asked.

Horowitz responded, “It was a pretext meeting that I’m not going to —” Horowitz then trailed off.

Soon after, Graham asked him hypothetically whether it would spying if you “don’t have a legal foundation to surveil somebody, and you keep doing it.” (This was not a conclusion Horowitz actually reached about the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.) Horowitz would say only: “It’s illegal surveillance. It’s not court-authorized surveillance.”

3. No vindication for Comey

Former FBI director James B. Comey did a victory lap after Horowitz’s report was released Monday, authoring a Washington Post op-ed and going on cable news, where he claimed that he was vindicated by Horowitz’s finding that the Russia investigation and investigations of four Trump campaign officials were legitimate.

“So it was all lies,” Comey tweeted. “No treason. No spying on the campaign. No tapping Trumps wires. It was just good people trying to protect America.”

But Horowitz doesn’t seem to agree that Comey is coming out smelling like roses. Graham asked him whether Comey was right that the report vindicated him. Horowitz didn’t directly answer, but the thrust of his answer was clearly “no.”

“I think the activities we found here don’t vindicate anybody who touched this FISA,” Horowitz said, referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) applications to monitor Page.

4. The Rudy Giuliani/leaks probe continues

The Russia investigation, of course, isn’t the only thing the FBI did that raised eyebrows during the 2016 election; so too did Comey’s announcement of newly discovered Clinton emails a week and a half before the election. Clinton and others continue to blame that for her narrow loss.

At issue here for Horowitz is Comey’s indication that part of the reason for the announcement was because of leaks from the FBI’s New York field office. Top Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani, who has close ties to that office, signaled before the announcement that he had been getting information about it.

Giuliani said beforehand there was a “pretty big surprise” on the way. After the news broke, he indicated he had gotten a heads-up, only to walk back his comments.

Without addressing Giuliani specifically, Horowitz said the investigation into such leaks is still ongoing.

“This continues to this day,” Horowitz said. “We are investigating those contacts.”

He was pressed on why the investigation wasn’t complete yet, and he said it was because it was so difficult to establish the content of conversations that might have included such leaks.

5. A moment of reckoning for FISA process

As Horowitz noted, despite the investigation having the proper predicate, there is little to love about how the FISA process was handled. He outlined 17 problems with the Page FISA applications. He was asked at another point whether the second and third applications had the proper legal backing, and while he declined to make such a judgment, he did say, “I would not have submitted the ones they put in — no doubt about it.”

The situation is apparently bad enough that it has pushed Graham to make a significant threat. A longtime proponent of the FISA courts, Graham said he would no longer support them without significant reforms.

“I’m a pretty hawkish guy, but if the court doesn’t take corrective action and do something about being manipulated and lied to, you will lose my support,” Graham said in his opening statement.

He added: “After your report, I have serious concerns about whether the FISA court can continue unless there is fundamental reform. After your report, I think we need to rewrite the rules of how you start a counterintelligence investigation and the checks and balances that we need.”

There is some bipartisan consensus on this, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray quickly pledged internal reforms Monday. We’ll see what Congress might also do.

6. Graham’s sympathy for Carter Page and ‘this poor guy’ George Papadopoulos

In a stemwinder of an opening statement — lasting more than 40 minutes — Graham focused heavily on texts between former FBI agent Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, on the FBI lawyer who Horowitz found had altered a key document in the FISA process, and on other matters.

Some of his more interesting comments, though, came when talking about the Trump campaign advisers who really got this investigation off the ground.

Of Carter Page, the one adviser who was surveilled, Graham suggested that he wasn’t exactly worth the FBI’s time. “If you’ve ever met Carter Page, one thing you will never accuse him of is being James Bond.” (This, of course, ignores that foreign governments don’t generally go after high-level spies when cultivating assets; they go after people they can leverage.)

Graham even referred to George Papadopoulos, whose mid-2016 comments to a foreign diplomat about the Russians having dirt on Hillary Clinton started the Russia probe, as “this poor guy.” Papadopoulos, you may recall, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. In addition, Horowitz’s report found Papadopoulos’s conspiracy theories about being proactively targeted by the U.S. government to be baseless.

Graham summed up: “This national security team was literally picked up off the street.”

It was quite an argument about the team assembled by the now-president of the United States.