The Justice Department inspector general announced Wednesday that he will examine a series of controversial applications to surveil a former Trump campaign adviser, along with the department’s relationship with a former British intelligence officer who provided information for those requests.
Conservatives have long alleged the Justice Department acted inappropriately in obtaining a warrant to surveil former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page — in particular because the department relied on information that was funded in a roundabout way by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The review by Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz is likely to produce a report that assesses the appropriateness of those dealings.
Horowitz will be wading into a political minefield, as the warrant to surveil Page and the former British intelligence officer who provided information to aid that effort have become significant friction points in the partisan squabbling over special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
A GOP memo released last month alleged the Justice Department had misled the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain the warrant by not making clear that one source of information — former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele — was ultimately funded by the Clinton campaign. Steele is author of the infamous dossier of damaging allegations about Donald Trump. He was employed to research Trump by the opposition research firm Fusion GPS, which had been hired by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. President Trump has seized on the GOP findings to allege abuse of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Democrats fired back with a memo asserting that their Republican counterparts were misstating the facts, and that the effort to surveil Page was appropriate.
They noted that Page had been on the FBI’s radar for years, and although the application to surveil him did not use names, it made clear that some of its sources might have had political motivations. The warrant, for example, said that Steele had been approached by a “U.S. person” hired “to conduct research regarding Candidate #1’s ties to Russia,” according to the Democrats.
“The FBI speculates that the U.S. person was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit candidate #1’s campaign,” the application said, according to the Democrats.
Candidate #1 refers to Trump.
The reaction Wednesday similarly seemed to split along party lines. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the crime and terrorism subcommittee, both issued statements welcoming the inspector general’s review, although Graham added, “I still believe we need a second special counsel to ensure the investigation is thorough and complete.”
The two senators had written Horowitz last month asking him to look into several Russia-related matters, though more recently, they and other legislators said a second special counsel should be appointed.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, said in a statement it was “a shame that the Inspector General has to devote resources to investigate a conspiracy theory as fact-free, openly political, and thoroughly debunked as the President’s so-called ‘FISA abuse.’ ”
The application to conduct surveillance on Page, and three extensions, were approved by four separate judges, all appointed by Republican presidents. The first warrant was issued in October 2016.
Page said in a text message: “Thus far, Members of Congress and Russian entrepreneurs in U.S. Courts have made the greatest initial progress in getting to the bottom of Washington’s illegal influence on the 2016 election. Whereas many of these illicit schemes allegedly occurred in part within DOJ, it’s encouraging that members of their staff are now investigating the increasingly clear pattern of wrongdoing.”
That Horowitz will look into the matter is not completely surprising; Attorney General Jeff Sessions had indicated he would do so late last month. It remains to be seen, though, whether Horowitz’s examination will satisfy conservatives, particularly the president.
After Sessions indicated last month that Horowitz would conduct a review, Trump reacted angrily on Twitter, writing “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!”
FISA refers to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Since last year, Horowitz has been investigating another politically charged topic: the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and former FBI director James B. Comey’s public statements about it. He has yet to release a public report on that review, though it already has had significant consequences.
Horowitz found, for example, that Andrew McCabe, as deputy director of the FBI, had authorized two other FBI officials to disclose information to the media, and then allegedly misled investigators about it. Based on those findings, Sessions fired McCabe from his job at the FBI just 26 hours before he could retire.
Horowitz indicated in his announcement that his review of the Page warrant application will review the FBI and Justice Department’s compliance with the law and their own policies, along with their relationship with Steele. Horowitz also said he would consider examining other issues that might arise during his review.