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Report by U.S. Justice Department’s internal watchdog finds no evidence of political bias in FBI's probe into Trump Campaign

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz

Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz   | Photo Credit: AP

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The report, as described by people familiar with its findings, is expected to conclude there was an adequate basis for opening one of the most politically sensitive investigations in the bureau's history and one that Mr. Trump has denounced as a ‘witch hunt’

The FBI was justified in opening its investigation into ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia and did not act with political bias, despite “serious performance failures” up the bureau’s chain of command, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said in a highly anticipated report Monday. The findings undercut President Donald Trump’s claim that he was the target of a “witch hunt.”

The report from the Justice Department’s inspector general revealed for the first time that the FBI had also sent an informant to record a conversation with a “high-level Trump campaign official,” who was not considered a subject in the Russia probe. The official was not identified by name.

The report also found the Bureau was justified in eavesdropping on a former Trump adviser and that there was not documented or testimonial evidence of any political bias.

Yet its nuanced conclusions deny a clear-cut vindication for either side, on the one hand repudiating theories and criticism spread by Mr. Trump and his supporters while also finding errors and misjudgments likely to be exploited by Republican allies as the President faces a probable impeachment vote this month.

The President has also sought to downplay expectations, saying repeatedly that he was more eager for the report of John Durham, the hand-picked prosecutor selected by Attorney General William Barr to conduct a separate review of the Russia probe.

The report, as described by people familiar with its findings, is expected to conclude there was an adequate basis for opening one of the most politically sensitive investigations in FBI history and one that Mr. Trump has denounced as a witch hunt. It began in secret during his 2016 presidential run and was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The report comes as Mr. Trump faces an impeachment inquiry in Congress centred on his efforts to press Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden — a probe the President also claims is politically biased. Still, the release of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review is unlikely to quell the partisan battles that have surrounded the Russia investigation for years.

It’s also not the last word — a separate internal investigation continues, overseen by Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, and led by a U.S. attorney, John Durham. That investigation is criminal in nature and Republicans may look to it to uncover wrongdoing that the Inspector General wasn’t examining.

‘Will not endorse the President’s theories’

Mr. Trump tweeted Sunday — “I.G. report out tomorrow. That will be the big story!”

But the report will not endorse some of the President’s theories on the investigation, including that it was a baseless “witch hunt” or that he was targeted by an Obama administration Justice Department desperate to see Republican Trump lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It also is not expected to undo Mr. Mueller’s findings or call into question his conclusion that Russia interfered in that election in order to benefit the Trump campaign and that Russians had repeated contacts with Trump associates. Some of the findings were described to on condition of anonymity by people who were not authorized to discuss a draft of the report before its release. The AP has not viewed a copy of the document.

It is unclear how Mr. Barr, a strong defender of Mr. Trump, will respond to Mr. Horowitz’s findings. He has told Congress that he believed “spying” on the Trump campaign did occur and has raised public questions about whether the counter-intelligence investigation was done correctly.

The FBI opened its investigation in July 2016 after receiving information from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told before it was publicly known that Russia had dirt on the Clinton campaign in the form of thousands of stolen emails.

Papadopoulos pleads guilty

By that point, the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, an act that a private security firm — and ultimately U.S. intelligence agencies — attributed to Russia. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Papadopoulos learned about the stolen emails from a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud. Mr. Papadopoulous pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about that interaction.

The investigation was taken over in May 2017 by Mr. Mueller, who charged six Trump associates with various crimes as well as 25 Russians accused of interfering in the election either through hacking or a social media disinformation campaign. Mr. Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.

The Inspector General’s investigation began in early 2018. It focuses in part on the FBI’s surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page. The FBI applied in the fall of 2016 for a warrant from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor Mr. Page’s communications, with officials expressing concern that he may have been targeted for recruitment by the Russian government. He was never charged and has denied any wrongdoing.

Senator Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is scheduled to hear testimony from Mr. Horowitz on Wednesday, said he expected the report would be “damning” about the process of obtaining the warrant.

“I’m looking for evidence of whether or not they manipulated the facts to get the warrant,” Mr. Graham, R-S.C., said on Fox News Channel’s “Sunday Morning Futures.”

Warrant renewed several times

The warrant was renewed several times, including during the Trump administration. Republicans have attacked the procedures because the application relied in part on information gathered by an ex-British intelligence operative, Christopher Steele, whose opposition research into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia was funded by Democrats and the Clinton campaign.

In pursuing the warrant, the Justice Department referred to Mr. Steele as “reliable” from previous dealings with him. Though officials told the court that they suspected the research was aimed at discrediting the Trump campaign, they did not reveal that the work had been paid for by Democrats, according to documents released last year.

Mr. Steele’s research was compiled into a dossier that was provided to the FBI after it had already opened its investigation. The report also examined the interactions that senior Justice Department lawyer Bruce Ohr had with Steele, whom he had met years earlier through a shared professional interest in countering Russian organized crime.

Mr. Ohr passed along to the FBI information that he had received from Steele but did not alert his Justice Department bosses to those conversations. He has since been a regular target of Mr. Trump’s ire, in part because his wife worked as a contractor for Fusion GPS, the political research firm that hired Mr. Steele for the investigation. This is the latest in a series of reports that Mr. Horowitz, a former federal prosecutor and an Obama appointee to the watchdog role, has released on FBI actions in politically charged investigations.

Last year, he criticized James Comey for a news conference announcing the conclusion of the Clinton email investigation, and for then alerting Congress months later that the probe had been effectively reopened. In that report, too, Mr. Horowitz did not find that Mr. Comey’s actions had been guided by partisan bias.

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2020 5:28:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/russia-probe-report-by-us-justice-departments-internal-watchdog-finds-no-evidence-of-political-bias/article30260743.ece

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