House GOP presses DOJ watchdog on bias in Clinton investigation

House Republicans went on the attack Tuesday over the Justice Department watchdog report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation, charging that the bias exhibited by key FBI officials did affect the decision not to charge Clinton.

Republicans on the House Oversight and Judiciary Committees pressed Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz over his conclusion in the report released last week that political bias did not affect the specific prosecutorial decisions reviewed in the Clinton case.

Pointing to the anti-Donald Trump text messages exchanged by FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, Republicans argued that the key officials on the Clinton case had no interest in charging Clinton — but had prejudged the outcome of the investigation into Trump and Russia.

“What is more textbook bias than prejudging this investigation before it’s over and this one before it begins?” House Oversight Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, asked Horowitz. “I am struggling to find a better example of outcome determinative bias than that. So what am I missing?”

Horowitz’s second congressional hearing in the past 24 hours underscored the partisan divide that’s emerged following the release of the inspector general’s 500-page report, which faulted former FBI Director James Comey for insubordination, as well as Strzok and Page for “poor judgment.”

Trump and his Republican allies have seized on the report to argue that the report shows special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is tainted by bias. Democrats meanwhile, have pointed to the actions by Comey and others as ultimately boosting Trump and hurting Clinton in the 2016 campaign.

While Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee often veered into a proxy debate over the Mueller investigation, lawmakers at Tuesday’s House hearing appeared more interested in relitigating the Clinton case and the 2016 election, although the Mueller probe still loomed over the House proceedings. And several Democrats took the opportunity of the high-profile hearing to press their Republican counterparts on the family separation controversy that has roiled Capitol Hill in recent days.

In his testimony, Horowitz explained how his team reached the conclusion that bias did not affect prosecutorial decisions. “We looked at all of that evidence and we assessed whether on that record we could make a finding that bias turned into action by those other individuals, and we didn’t believe there was evidence to reach that conclusion,” Horowitz said.

But that explanation did not satisfy Republicans. House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte faulted the inspector general for not investigating whether the decisions made by the FBI and Justice Department were most effective.

“While we appreciate the IG and his staff for a very detailed investigation, it is critical for the public to also hear what was not included in the report due to the IG’s refusal to question ‘whether a particular decision by the FBI and DOJ was the most effective choice,'” Goodlatte said.

And Gowdy focused his questioning on the FBI interview of Clinton, questioning the decision not to prosecute Clinton based on her intent with classified materials when the FBI interview didn’t question her on that point. The IG report, however, provided a lengthy discussion of agents pressing her with “probing questions.”

“When you make up your mind that you’re not going to charge someone, and you make up your mind that you need to not go in not loaded for bear … and there’s not a single damn question on intent, it is really hard for those of us who used to do this for a living to not conclude they’ve made up their mind on intent before they even bothered to talk to the single best repository of intent evidence, which would be her,” Gowdy said.

Democrats pushed back on the GOP accusations, arguing that the report also found that Strzok and Page also advocated for more aggressive approaches than prosecutors in some instances.

“In the days since you released your report, Mr. inspector general, I am struck by the total disconnect between the Republican party line and your actual findings,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “The report criticizes the FBI and its former leadership — but virtually every action criticized ultimately harmed the candidacy of Secretary Clinton and inured to the benefit of Donald Trump.”

On Tuesday, Republicans focused in particular on the text messages exchanged between Strzok and Page, including new texts that were revealed in the inspector general report in which Strzok said “we’ll stop” Trump.

They pressed Horowitz to explain what Strzok meant by several statements.

Horowitz called the texts “extremely serious” and antithetical to the “core values” of the Justice Department.

Asked about Strzok’s May 2017 text sent the day after Mueller was appointed special counsel — in which Strzok said, “Now I need to fix it and finish it” — Horowitz said he believed the “reasonable inference of that is that he believed he would use his official authority to take action.”

But Horowitz would not discuss the actions the FBI had taken in the Russia investigation, saying it was part of an ongoing inspector general probe.

The texts were also used as a jumping off point to criticize Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who has been fighting with House Republicans over documents for months. House Republicans say they are considering floor action to hold Rosenstein in contempt of Congress if he does not comply this week.

Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, asked Horowitz to explain how Rosenstein reacted when he provided the next batch of text messages that included Strzok’s “we’ll stop” Trump message, charging that “Mr. Rosenstein sat on it for a month.”

“This wouldn’t be the first time he hasn’t given us information, frankly, I think we’re entitled to,” Jordan said.

Horowitz said his office pointed out the “we’ll stop” text to the Rosenstein’s office in a June 8 communication. “When we found it I specified to the associate deputy attorney general on June 8 that he ought to look at this one,” Horowitz said.

The Justice Department official replied “thank you for telling me that,” Horowitz said.

Strzok’s attorney pushed back on the attacks against him, amid reports Tuesday that Strzok was escorted from the FBI building last week as part of the ongoing internal proceedings at the bureau on his conduct, according to a source familiar with the matter.

“Pete has steadfastly played by the rules and respected the process, and yet he continues to be the target of unfounded personal attacks, political games and inappropriate information leaks,” Strzok attorney Aitan Goelman said. “All of this seriously calls into question the impartiality of the disciplinary process, which now appears tainted by political influence.”

The inspector general report found three other FBI officials who were faulted for sending political messages, and several Republican lawmakers quizzed Horowitz on the identity of the unnamed officials.

“Who is attorney number two?” said Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the most vocal Republican critics of the Mueller probe. “What was the reason the FBI gave for not telling us who attorney number two is?”

“I feel as though sunshine, transparency will be the way to root out this bias that we seem to see reflected,” Gaetz said, emphasizing that he was a “lead” on the FBI’s Russia investigation.

However, the an unnamed attorney whose instant messages were detailed in the report, “did not work for the Special Counsel’s Office as a prosecutor or as an investigator,” according to Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office. According to the watchdog report, FBI Attorney 2 was assigned to the Clinton email investigation, and told investigators he was later the “primary FBI attorney assigned” to the FBI’s Russia investigation beginning in early 2017. He joined the Mueller team when it was convened, but returned to the FBI in late February 2018 after the OIG provided Mueller with some of the politically charged messages, the report says.

Gaetz was one of eight Republicans who sent a letter to Horowitz Monday asking for the officials’ names, writing “these individuals need to held accountable.”

When the Office of Inspector General asked the FBI if they objected to revealing the names, Horowitz said Tuesday at the hearing, the FBI raised concerns because they work on counterintelligence matters.

“The request has come in from the committee to give the names. We went to the FBI, the FBI raised a concern because they work on counterintelligence matters. And we are working with the committee to try and get the information you’ve asked for,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz added, “I don’t think it is a final decision at this point from the FBI or in my view a final decision. It’s something I’m looking forward to working with the committee to try and get the answers to because I completely understand what the interest is of the committee in getting that information.”

Horowitz later explained that the Strzok’s name and Page’s name were made public after their similarly controversial messages were uncovered after a review process.

“What we do is when we prepared the report we do an analysis under the privacy act, federal law, and our determination was that because of the level he was at at the agency, deputy assistant director, the Privacy Act balance weighed against him and we would make it public. As to the others, they’re lower down, the balance went the other way,” Horowitz said.

This story has been updated with additional developments throughout the hearing.