WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former FBI Director James Comey made a “serious error of judgement” when he announced shortly before the 2016 U.S. presidential election that he was reopening an investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday.
But Inspector General Michael Horowitz also concluded in a long-awaited, 500-page report that Comey did not exhibit any political bias or try to influence the election. Horowitz also did not contest the decision not to prosecute Clinton for the email affair.
A long-serving law enforcement official, Comey became a controversial figure in the 2016 election, drawing accusations from both Republicans and Democrats that his handling of the probe into Clinton’s emails influenced the campaign.
Comey later headed a separate investigation into alleged ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. Trump fired him as head of the FBI in 2017 and has frequently criticized him since.
Both sides of the partisan divide in U.S. politics are expected to use the Horowitz report to press their cases against Comey, who defended his actions in an op-ed published in the New York Times after the report was released.
“In 2016, my team faced an extraordinary situation — something I thought of as a 500-year flood — offering no good choices and presenting some of the hardest decisions I ever had to make,” Comey wrote.
The inspector general’s inquiry focused on public statements made by Comey about Democrat Clinton’s use of a private email server, instead of a State Department server, while she was secretary of state.
In October 2016, less than two weeks before Election Day, Comey sent members of Congress a letter disclosing that a probe into Clinton’s emails was being reopened after new emails were found. Two days before the Nov. 8 election, Comey said the FBI found no additional evidence in the new emails, but Clinton contends the letter contributed to her defeat by Trump.
John Podesta, who ran the Clinton campaign, said “the report demonstrates beyond doubt” that Comey was unfair to Clinton by announcing developments of the email investigation during the campaign while not revealing the presence of the separate probe beginning in July 2016 into the Trump campaign and Russia.
“This report confirms what we have known for a long time - that the FBI inappropriately applied a double standard to the Clinton and Trump investigations which hurt her and helped elect him,” Podesta told Reuters.
Trump’s allies have signalled they will use the Horowitz report to press their argument that Comey did not act properly while overseeing the Russia probe.
The report sharply criticized Comey for violating Justice Department policies and accused him of usurping the authority of then Attorney General Loretta Lynch when in July 2016 he held a news conference to announce there would be no charges against Clinton for her email use as secretary of state.
Comey chastised Clinton for being “extremely careless” but said there was insufficient evidence to charge her with a federal crime. That upset Republicans who said Comey’s statement could have helped Clinton’s election campaign.
Comey said Lynch forced his hand when she did not recuse herself from the Clinton probe, even after a June 2016 meeting with former President Bill Clinton aboard her plane raised concerns she was conflicted.
Thursday’s report found that while Lynch did not discuss the email investigation with Bill Clinton, she failed “to recognise the appearance problem” created by the meeting.
Trump and his allies have accused a clique of FBI and Justice Department officials of working against Trump.
The Horowitz report was highly critical of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI staff members who exchanged highly charged political messages, finding their texts cast a cloud over the FBI and created the appearance of bias.
In one newly released email from August 2016, Page wrote to Strzok asking “(Trump’s) not ever going to become president, right? Right!”
Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”
Although the report found no evidence that bias impacted decisions surrounding the Clinton email probe prior to July 2016, it said there were questions about whether bias could have factored into Strzok’s professional judgements later that fall.
In a statement Strzok’s lawyer Aitan Goelman said the report, while flawed in some conclusions, found no evidence that his political views had an impact on the Clinton probe.
While some of their messages between Strzok and Page were anti-Trump, others took aim at lawmakers such as U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, whom Clinton defeated for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In a written response to Thursday’s report, the FBI said it accepts the findings that certain text messages were “inappropriate and created an appearance that political bias might have improperly influenced investigative actions or decisions.”
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Warren Strobel; Editing by John Walcott and Alistair Bell