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Long-awaited DOJ review of the Russia probe origins looks to be a bust for conservative conspiracists

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AG William Barr testifies before Congress. (Image via AFP/Nicholas Kamm.)

Republicans and President Donald Trump have eagerly awaited a report from Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz into the origins of the Russia investigation, due out on Dec. 9. But from all appearances — though there will be findings conservatives will latch on to in order to support their conspiracy theories — it looks to be a big bust for the main thrust of their favorite attacks on the investigation.

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Trump and his defenders — mostly in right-wing media, but also, notably, Attorney General Bill Barr — have repeatedly suggested or claimed outright that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” designed to take down the president before he was even elected. President Barack Obama, some of them have argued, was behind the whole thing. Trump himself actually started much of this with a completely baseless and false tweet early in his presidency:

At the heart of all this is the right-wing theory that the  Russia investigation, particularly the element that probed connections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin effort to interfere in the 2016 election, was an unjustified political attack. This would be a great abuse of the Justice Department and an egregious civil rights violation, at the very least. But according to three new reports published Friday from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, Horowitz’s forthcoming report will find that the investigation was properly predicated.

Of course, this shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who read Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. Even though it did not find enough evidence to charge a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, it found extensive evidence of suspicious and troubling ties between the two sides that undoubtedly warranted investigatory scrutiny.

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The Times reported: “[The] draft report … concludes that the F.B.I. had enough evidence to meet the legal standard for opening the investigation, though Mr. Horowitz emphasized that the bar is low, the people said.”

“The report isn’t expected to accuse top FBI officials of abusing their authority because they were biased against Mr. Trump, a person familiar with it said—a claim the president and his supporters have long alleged,” the Journal noted.

The Post found: “In broad terms, the report refutes accusations of a political conspiracy by senior law enforcement officials against the Trump campaign to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton, while also knocking the bureau for procedural shortcomings, said the officials.” (It was easy to dismiss the view that the Justice Department was weaponized against Trump from the start, however, given that FBI Director James Comey likely put the nail in the coffin of Hillary Clinton’s campaign by publicly reopening the investigation of her emails days before the election.)

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So what did Horowitz find that conservatives will like?

The most explosive allegation seems to be that an FBI lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, reportedly fabricated part of the application for surveillance of Carter Page. The FBI began monitoring Page — who had ties to Russia and was reportedly targeted by spies as a potential asset before he worked for Trump —  after he had worked for the Trump campaign.

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What’s the significance of the Page surveillance application? It’s all a bit circuitous. Trump’s claim about Obama tapping the wires at Trump Tower has been thoroughly debunked, and no evidence ever supported it. But Trump defenders have twisted it into an allegation that there was spying on the Trump campaign, which then was twisted mostly around vague allegations about the improper surveillance of Page.

That a DOJ official apparently falsified evidence in a criminal investigation while authorizing surveillance of Page is a big deal, and if true, it’s great that it was uncovered. Everyone should be happy when law enforcement abuses are uncovered. But the reports do not indicate that the errors in the applications for surveilling Page would have undermined the case for the surveillance, even if they are serious.

And the finding doesn’t suggest what conservatives have long asserted, which is that the Russia probe was a hit job. Instead, it reflects what we should expect — that heavy scrutiny is likely to find some errors and wrongdoing in any human endeavor.

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Clinesmith reportedly worked both on the Russia investigation and the Clinton email investigation, though, which will certainly inspire more conspiracy theories. Clinesmith no longer works at the FBI, the reports said.

The reports also suggest that Horowitz found addition “errors and ommissions” and procedural issues in the Page surveillance and the FBI’s work, but none are as significant as the Clinesmith finding. One FBI working on the case will reportedly be found to have been “careless,” according to the Times. Horowitz reportedly referred the Clinesmith case to U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is working with Barr on a separate criminal investigation related to the probe. The scope of Durham’s probe is unclear.

The report will also reportedly debunk some specific aspects of conspiracy theories that conservatives have pushed. In particular, the Times found:

The report is also said to conclude that Joseph Mifsud, a Russia-linked professor who told a Trump campaign official that Russia had damaging information on Mrs. Clinton in the form of hacked Democratic emails — a key fact used to open the investigation — was not an F.B.I. informant. That undercuts an assertion of conservative critics of the inquiry.

None of the evidence used to open the investigation came from the C.I.A. or from a notorious dossier of claims about Trump-Russia ties compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent whose research was funded by Democrats, the report concludes, according to the people briefed on it.

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However, it also said: “Still, people familiar with questions asked by Mr. Horowitz’s investigators have suggested that he is likely to conclude that the filings exaggerated Mr. Steele’s track record in terms of the amount of value that the F.B.I. derived from information he supplied in previous investigations.”

The Times also noted:

…while Mr. Horowitz criticizes F.B.I. leadership for its handling of the highly fraught Russia investigation in some ways, he made no finding of politically biased actions by top officials Mr. Trump has vilified like the former F.B.I. director James B. Comey; Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy who temporarily ran the bureau after the president fired Mr. Comey in 2017; and Peter Strzok, a former top counterintelligence agent.

Again, any legitimate criticism of law enforcement should be welcome. Given the immense power the FBI has to involve itself in ordinary people’s lives, it should subject to sharp oversight and scrutiny.

But it should also be recognized that Horowitz is conducting his investigation under intense political pressure. Trump, Barr, and the conservative media world are clearly desperate for him to find something to distract from the president’s wrongdoing. This isn’t to suggest that he would fabricate findings, of course, but that he may overstate their significance.

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He’s already done this. He released a report on Comey’s handling of memos memorializing his interactions with Trump in early 2017, which the former FBI director later released publicly in a successful effort to trigger the special counsel investigation. As I’ve previously argued, that report completely vindicated Comey. But Horowitz framed his findings as a harsh condemnation of Comey, absurdly dinging the former director for rules violations that occurred after he no longer even worked for the Justice Department. And he completely ignored the context of Comey’s decisions, which is that his termination was likely a criminal act of obstruction of justice by the president.

So while I don’t expect Horowitz’s findings to be false, and while I welcome any findings that shine light on the functioning of law enforcement, I don’t expect him to give everyone a fair shake.

Even more confidently, I predict that, regardless of the general thrust and conclusions of Horowitz’s findings, the right wing will blow it out of proportion. If, as seems likely, the conspiracy theories about an FBI plot against Trump — and that the Russia investigation was a hoax — are thoroughly demolished, they won’t care at all. After all, the best conspiracy theories can never be disproven in the minds of true believers.


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