WASHINGTON — A highly anticipated report issued Monday by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that the FBI had sufficient basis to investigate Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and didn’t embed a spy among his staff — a sharp rebuke of some of the president’s pet conspiracy theories.
The 434-page report, “Review of Four FISA Applications and Other Aspects of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane Investigation,” which comes from the DOJ’s largely independent accountability office, contradicts the president and his Republican backers who claimed the report would find that the FBI overstepped its bounds when it opened an investigation in 2016 into whether Trump’s campaign staff members were working with Russians.
“Opening the investigation was in compliance with FBI policies,” the report found, adding that it was “opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication.”
And yet the investigation found many mistakes and possible criminal misconduct by a former FBI agent involved in seeking a warrant to eavesdrop on Trump’s staff, which will provide fodder for Republicans who have argued that the 2016 campaign probe was corrupt.
“We found no evidence that the FBI attempted to place any [confidential human sources] within the Trump campaign, or task any [confidential human sources] to report on the Trump campaign,” the report found, while noting that the FBI did hold “several” meetings with “individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign, including a high-level campaign official who was not a subject of the investigation.”
“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” said the report, which also noted that there wasn’t a satisfying explanation for the FBI’s missteps.
Trump and other Republicans have long claimed the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election — including the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign was tied to that effort — were a “witch hunt” and “hoax” perpetrated by the liberal “deep state” under former president Barack Obama and that the FBI planted a snoop in his campaign.
Instead, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report found that the FBI’s leadership had no documentary or testimonial evidence of political bias when it obtained a warrant against former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page.
The report criticized the FBI for “17 significant errors and omissions” in those warrant applications, too, validating Republican concerns that an FBI agent had modified records when it obtained those warrants in 2016.
“The surveillance of Carter Page continued even as the FBI gathered information that weakened the assessment of probable cause and made the FISA applications less accurate,” the report said. This includes information that raised “significant questions about the reliability of the Steele election reporting,” as well as findings that some of it was incorrect, referring to the infamous dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, who had worked for a firm with ties to the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. (The dossier was first published by BuzzFeed News in January 2017 after Trump, Obama, and other US officials were briefed on its contents.)
Trump has long stoked a conspiracy he called “Spygate,” alleging that the FBI was out to get him, tweeting in 2018, “Reports are there was indeed at least one FBI representative implanted, for political purposes, into my campaign for president. It took place very early on, and long before the phony Russia Hoax became a ‘hot’ Fake News story. If true - all time biggest political scandal!”
Thick as a Bible and likewise open to interpretation, the report threw enough bones to each side that partisans ignored aspects that conflicted with their previous stances and plucked out new facts for fresh talking points. Trump focused on mistakes by the FBI, even if that meant ignoring that the report rebuked his previous claims about politically motivated spying.
"They fabricated evidence and they lied to the courts and they did all sorts of things to have it go their way," Trump said at an education roundtable Monday afternoon. "This was an overthrow of government; this was an attempted overthrow, and a lot of people were in on it and they got caught; they got caught red-handed."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham told reporters that afternoon, "I'm perfectly OK with a counterintelligence investigation" as a general matter. "My beef is that the FBI lied," Graham continued, calling it "a criminal conspiracy to defraud the FISA court."
Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, the minority leader, issued a statement that ignored deceptions at the FISA court. "The FBI’s investigation was valid and without political bias," he said, pointing out that the report reiterated that "Russian President Putin directed his intelligence services to interfere in the 2016 elections in favor of Donald Trump."
Horowitz’s investigation began in March 2018 when then–attorney general Jeff Sessions wanted to know whether the FBI violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, when it obtained warrants against Page. The investigation began in July 2016. Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser on Trump’s campaign, has long-term ties to Russia: Page said he met with a Russian spy in 2013, and he told lawmakers he held meetings with Russian officials in 2016.
Yet Republicans have been concerned that FBI agents left out exculpatory evidence that could have favored Page when obtaining the warrants. They have also claimed that the FBI relied too much on the Steele dossier.
The report found that claims in the Steele dossier were among several points used to assert probable cause to obtain the FISA warrant for Page — including Page’s past ties to Russia and reports of “the Russian government’s attempted coordination with members of the Trump campaign” — while also noting that officials found “the Steele reporting pushed [the FISA proposal] over the line in terms of establishing probable cause.”
The FBI omitted evidence that might have weakened its case, the report found. For instance, Page had been approved as an operational contact for another US government agency from 2008 to 2013. “Our review found that FBI personnel fell fall short of the requirement in FBI policy that they ensure that all factual statements in a FISA application are ‘scrupulously accurate,’” the report noted.
The FBI’s investigation also failed to corroborate claims in the Steele dossier that were used in the FISA warrant. Nevertheless, the investigation continued, and applications to renew the warrant applications did not include exculpatory evidence that might have weakened those applications. “The FISA applications made it appear as though the evidence supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case,” the report states.
Attorney General Bill Barr praised the report's findings, saying in a statement, "The FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken. It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory."
Separately, the report included details from investigators' conversations with Steele, including that he pushed back on suggestions that his report was "biased," calling those allegations "ridiculous" and noting that "if anything he was 'favorably disposed' toward the Trump family before he began his research because he had visited a Trump family member at Trump Tower and 'been friendly' with [the family member] for some years. He described their relationship as 'personal' and said that he once gifted a family tartan from Scotland to the family member." ABC News reported that the Trump family member is Ivanka Trump. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Barr has launched his own parallel inquiry into the origins of the Russia probe that looks more broadly at the intelligence community. That investigation, which is led by Connecticut US Attorney John Durham, became a criminal matter, the New York Times reported, when Horowitz referred the case to prosecutors after finding that an FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, allegedly altered a document when applying for the wiretap of Page.
Although Clinesmith is not mentioned by name in the report, the inspector general did refer information about an agent altering an email used in the FISA warrant application to the Justice Department, consistent with the Inspector General Act of 1978.
Horowitz is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Dec. 11. The committee’s chair, Graham, told Fox News’ Sean Hannity this month that he expected the Horowitz report to uncover a smoking gun: “Here's what I think we're going to find — that they pulled a fast one on the FISA court, quite frankly misled and defrauded the FISA court.”
Graham added on Sunday Morning Futures on Fox News, “I think you're going to see the system off the rails. I think you're going to see members of the Department of Justice and FBI taking the law into their own hands.”
Republicans have attacked the credibility of intelligence agencies, which universally found that Russia sought to elect Trump and defeat Clinton in 2016, such as by hacking the Democratic National Committee’s servers to obtain damaging information on Clinton's campaign. Trump’s boosters have further denounced findings by former special counsel Robert Mueller that while Trump’s staff did not actively conspire with Russian agents, they welcomed attempts at election interference. Instead, Republicans have widely embraced debunked conspiracy theories that Ukraine — not Russia — was the actual election interloper.
Mueller’s investigation resulted in indictments against more than three dozen people for various crimes, including top Trump campaign officials and members of Russian intelligence.
Read the Inspector General's report:
This story was updated with a statement from Attorney General Bill Barr.