The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Justice Dept. inspector general moves from Clinton email to Russia and Trump, he risks becoming a political weapon

In the coming weeks, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz is expected to release a nearly 500-page report criticizing the Justice Department and FBI for their handling of the Clinton email investigation, people familiar with the matter said. Meanwhile, he has intensified his review of the Russia investigation, interviewing the FBI agent who once led the case and inviting him back for a second conversation, one of the people said. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz recently summoned an FBI agent important to the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election for an interview. His investigators wanted to know how the bureau came to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, and in particular, the chronology of events that led them to seek a secret court order to do so.

As the Justice Department’s internal affairs cop, this is the sort of work Horowitz does: investigating the investigators. In that role, he has suddenly found himself in the political spotlight, a potentially decisive voice in the partisan controversies over the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, and its subsequent probe of the Trump campaign and Russia.

In the coming weeks, Horowitz is expected to release a nearly 500-page report criticizing the Justice Department and FBI for their handling of the Clinton email investigation, people familiar with the matter said. They, like others in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about matters they are not authorized to discuss publicly. Meanwhile, he has intensified his review of the Russia investigation, interviewing the FBI agent who once led the case and inviting him back for a second conversation, one of these people said.

Here's what we know about former FBI director James B. Comey's decisions about how to end the Clinton email probe. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Those who know Horowitz say his findings will be as nonpartisan as they are thorough. But his work is almost certain to be weaponized by President Trump against federal law enforcement, and some question whether it will quell the tension gripping Washington.

“He’s going to be unflappable, he’s going to be apolitical, he’s going to call it like he sees it,” said Mary Jo White, a former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York who supervised Horowitz when he worked there.

She added: “I think the public should have a very high degree of confidence in whatever he finds. Now, that’s a different question than, ‘How will it be received?’ ”

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Horowitz was appointed to the inspector general’s job in 2012 by President Obama. He had worked previously as a white-collar-defense attorney at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and as a prosecutor in the Southern District of New York and high-ranking official in the Justice Department’s criminal division. He had also been named as a commissioner on the U.S. Sentencing Commission by President George W. Bush.

Those who know him say Horowitz has been unafraid to take aim at those he knows personally.

In his first year as inspector general, Horowitz issued a report critical of agents and prosecutors in Phoenix who ran a botched effort to infiltrate weapons-smuggling rings, as well as senior officials at the Justice Department, in a controversy that has come to be known by the shorthand “Fast and Furious.” In 2015, he detailed allegations of Drug Enforcement Administration agents attending “sex parties” with prostitutes hired by local drug cartels. The head of the DEA stepped down amid that scandal. He has publicly sparred with the Justice Department so that inspectors general could get access to wiretaps, grand jury and credit information for their work.

As Trump and his conservative allies have alleged cascading abuses at the Justice Department, the department’s leaders have seemed to use Horowitz as a pressure release valve.

When conservative lawmakers clamored late last year for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate a host of their concerns, many of them related to Clinton, Attorney General Jeff Sessions pointed to Horowitz’s ongoing review of the Clinton email case. When the GOP raised concerns about a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, Sessions said he had asked Horowitz to review the matter, and Horowitz later confirmed publicly that he would do so.

Most recently, after Trump demanded the Justice Department investigate possible political spying on his campaign, the department again turned to Horowitz, asking him to expand his review of the Page investigation to encompass the president’s request. Trump’s demand stemmed from the FBI’s use of a confidential source in the Russia investigation. The source interacted with three Trump advisers during the campaign, although it remains unclear to what extent the bureau directed those interactions.

To leaders in the Justice Department, the concession was a modest one: Horowitz’s work on the surveillance of Page might have led him to the confidential informant, who had interacted with Page. But some analysts worried it would set a dangerous precedent, as there seemed to be little reason for Horowitz to consider the use of the informant — a common FBI practice in criminal investigations.

“It tells the entire world that the president can request DOJ investigations and get them, even when there’s no apparent cause for them,” said Matt Miller, a former Justice Department spokesman who worked under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

Trump has, in the past, questioned the inspector general’s effectiveness. After Sessions asked Horowitz to investigate the surveillance of Page, the president tweeted, “Why is A.G. Jeff Sessions asking the Inspector General to investigate potentially massive FISA abuse. Will take forever, has no prosecutorial power and already late with reports on Comey etc. Isn’t the I.G. an Obama guy? Why not use Justice Department lawyers? DISGRACEFUL!”

He was referring to James B. Comey, whom Trump fired as FBI director last year. FISA is short for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which sets the conditions under which law enforcement can monitor suspected foreign agents.

But more recently, the president has seemed to see the efficacy in using Horowitz’s findings to advance his line of attacks. After an inspector general report faulted former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe for misleading investigators about his role in a media disclosure, Trump tweeted, “DOJ just issued the McCabe report - which is a total disaster. He LIED! LIED! LIED! McCabe was totally controlled by Comey - McCabe is Comey!! No collusion, all made up by this den of thieves and lowlifes!”

Even before the report, Trump had been a frequent critic of McCabe. The former No. 2 FBI official has claimed the president’s attacks are meant to undermine the FBI and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is leading the Russia investigation. The D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office is exploring whether McCabe should be charged with a crime.

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Trump also has repeatedly mused to associates and aides in the Oval Office about Comey being investigated and charged, particularly amid the heat of his book tour, according to administration officials and advisers.

One of Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said this week that the forthcoming Clinton email report could be a boon for the president — justifying his firing of Comey, and undercutting that as a piece of Mueller’s probe into whether the president obstructed justice. Giuliani said Horowitz is “not a guy who is known to play politics,” and his report “could lay out an overwhelming case.”

“How could there be obstruction of justice when he behaved this way? He needed to be fired,” Giuliani said, referring to Comey. “Any time he puts it out, it is going to be a big deal.”

In recent weeks, Horowitz has invited key players in the Clinton email investigation to review a draft of his report, making them sign nondisclosure agreements before doing so, people familiar with the matter say. The report is exhaustive, they say, and while its conclusions might be debated, the work’s intensity will be hard to critique. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the report for Tuesday, although that date is likely to be moved, as people familiar with the matter say the document likely won’t be public before the middle of the month.

Horowitz’s investigators also interviewed FBI Agent Peter Strzok in detail about an application for a secret court order to monitor Page after he left the Trump campaign, and Strzok is expected to return soon for more questions, a person familiar with the matter said. Strzok, who once led the probe, has become infamous for anti-Trump texts he exchanged with an FBI lawyer.

Raymond Banoun, who hired Horowitz to join the Cadwalader firm and who now has his own practice, said Horowitz knew when he took the job he would have to investigate high-stakes cases that involve people he knew — and even pressure from the president wouldn’t change his mind-set.

“It doesn’t make the job any easier,” Banoun said, “but it’s not going to impact how he makes a decision, or how he reaches a decision.”