It’s a tale of two investigations. Neither is pretty, but one is, in the end, appropriate and warranted; the other is a grotesque sham. And the story of each investigation illuminates key aspects of the other.
The two investigations I’m discussing are, of course, the Russia investigation and the Ukrainian investigation of Vice President Joe Biden, which, as far as we can tell, never actually existed, despite Trump’s efforts.
Both stories, though, were front and center on Monday in a spectacular concurrence of American political news. The Justice Department inspector general released its review on the origins of the Russia investigation that targeted four members of the 2016 Trump campaign and their potential ties to the Kremlin. At the same time, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing about the report from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) on the Ukraine scandal, which focused on President Donald Trump’s effforts to induce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations of Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
The central findings of the IG report were precisely what had been reported in recent days. While IG Michael Horowitz found significant errors and omissions in the FBI’s conduct and policies during the investigation, he determined that the Russia investigation was properly predicated and therefore not launched as a politically motivated hoax to take down Trump.
In some ways, this is to be expected. There was never any real indication that the Russia probe was an improper attempt to undermine Trump. And we should expect that any thorough review of any large project of an organization like the FBI will find errors and mistakes and will likely offer recommendations for improvement.
But Trump and Attorney General Bill Barr had repeatedly fed wild speculation that the Russia probe was a “hoax” — and apparently the IG report won’t even change their mind. Since they’ll continue to push this conspiracy theory, it’s significant that the IG has clearly concluded that it’s unfounded.
The errors that the IG found, however, are similarly quite signficant. Not because they prove Trump was perniciously targeted in a corrupt conspiracy (the IG also found issues in the Clinton email probe), but it shows that the FBI’s procedures warrant serious reform, which FBI Director Christopher Wray said Monday he is undertaking. It also emphasizes that inspector general investigations of this kind should be welcomed, and the fact that such errors can be uncovered by a thorough review should give us confidence that oversight mechanisms can provide some real accountability. Everyone, regardless of partisan affiliation or opinion about the Trump-Russia matter, should welcome that.
However, these key findings and conclusions from the report also shed light on what was so disturbing, wrong, and impeachable about Trump’s plot for Ukrainian investigations of Biden and the DNC.
Consider, first, the IG’s finds about the origins of the investigations into four Trump campaign officials. Horowitz found “that the quantum of information articulated by the FBI to open the individual investigations on Papadopoulos, Page, Flynn, and Manafort in August 2016 was sufficient to satisfy the low threshold established by the Department and the FBI.” The report adds: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations.”
Now, most observers would almost certainly agree that, had then-President Barack Obama himself ordered the FBI to go after the Trump campaign in the heat of the election, this would be evidence for political bias in the investigation. This would especially be true if he directed the probe on an extremely flimsy basis. As Horowitz found, this did not occur.
However, we know this occurred in Trump’s efforts to obtain Ukrainian investigations. Trump himself was at the center of the effort to get Ukraine to investigate two rival entities in the 2020 campaign — the DNC and Biden. The fact that Trump cared about little else in Ukraine — Gordon Sondland reportedly admitted that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine.” And Trump never mentioned general “corruption” concerns in Ukraine to Zelensky — just the investigations of his opponents. He clearly doesn’t care about foreign corruption in other countries, his own party, or his own Cabinet. If we also consider the fact that Biden’s actions in Ukraine and apparent conflict of interest with his son Hunter Biden’s work at the company Burisma had been known about publicly for years and yet were never a major focus until he entered the 2020 Democratic primary, then it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the ask for the investigation was purely politically motivated.
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s attorney, even said as he pressed for Ukraine to investigate Biden that information from the probe “will be very, very helpful to my client” — adding as an afterthought that it “may turn out to be helpful to my government.”
And in his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump asked for an investigation of the DNC’s server based entirely on a debunked and preposterous conspiracy theory. This clearly would not have satisfied the predication requirements for an FBI investigation.
So unlike the Russia probe, which Trump has called a “witch hunt” and “treason,” it’s clear the Ukrainian investigations he sought would have been both politically motivated and improperly predicated.
But it’s even worse than that. Consider the errors and failures of policy that Horowitz identified in his report. These failings are serious and need to be addressed.
And yet, while defending Trump’s ask for investigations by Ukraine, his defenders have repeatedly insisted that the country has extreme levels of corruption. It’s exactly this corruption, though, that makes it so dangerous and preposterous for a U.S. president to use his monumental leverage over Ukraine to aim its law enforcement at a domestic political opponent. Not only is it likely to have egregious errors and lapses in procedure many times worse than those at the FBI, but it could also have potentially resulted in an entirely sham investigation, if the Ukrainian authorities concluded it was necessary to frame Biden. (Thankfully, though, it seems Zelensky is genuinely working to fight corruption.)
But there also would have been no mechanism like a trusted and independent U.S. inspector general to provide a transparent report to the American people on the probe. So what Trump wanted was a politically motivated criminal investigation targeting his opponent in the heat of an election, with far less accountability and oversight than is provided for in the DOJ — which, it seems, was unwilling to pursue the investigations Trump wanted in any event.
The evidence shows, then, that what Trump did is far worse and more egregious than the Obama administration’s failures in the Russia probe, which the president claims amounted to “treason.”
We should thank Horowitz, because whatever his other failures may be, his report clarifies what’s at stake in the Ukraine scandal.