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The Truth Is No Match for Trumpworld’s Conspiratorial Frothing

The president and his defenders are ignoring the inspector general's findings and substituting their own.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President Donald Trump and his allies spent almost three years denouncing the Russia investigation as a sham. They claimed it was part of a political vendetta by angry Democrats and disaffected bureaucrats. They accused the FBI agents who conducted the initial inquiry of committing treason and organizing a coup. Fox News and other Trump-aligned outlets hyped nefarious allegations night after night after night, and top Republican lawmakers devoted untold amounts of energy to investigating them.

Some in Trumpworld hoped that Michael Horowitz, the Justice Department’s inspector general, would lend credibility to their conspiracy theories on Monday, when he released his review of how the FBI became involved in investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. Those hopes were somewhat misplaced. In the 473-page report, Horowitz found evidence of serious flaws in the process to obtain foreign-surveillance warrants targeting former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page in 2016 and 2017. He also faulted FBI officials for giving too much credence to British ex-spy Christopher Steele’s dossier of allegations against Trump.

But Horowitz, who had sweeping access to Justice Department and FBI records and personnel, also demolished one conspiracy theory after another about the inquiry. He concluded that the investigation was justified, that there was no evidence that political bias had affected its course, and that the FBI did not embed spies in Trump’s presidential election campaign. None of this will deter Trump and his allies from claiming there was a plot against him all along. If anything, it will strengthen their resolve to prove it.

Trump ignited a firestorm way back in March 2017 when he accused the Obama administration of wiretapping Trump Tower during the campaign. Since then, he’s often claimed that Democrats spied on him and his campaign—an assertion echoed earlier this year by Attorney General Bill Barr. Reports that the FBI used confidential informants to interact with campaign officials also led some of Trump’s allies to accuse the bureau of planting moles with a domestic political campaign—an awkward and disturbing allegation, given the bureau’s troubled track record on that front.

Horowitz found no basis for those claims. “We found no evidence that the FBI used [informants] or [undercover agents] to interact with members of the Trump campaign prior to the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” he wrote. “After the opening of the investigation, we found no evidence that the FBI placed any [informants or undercover agents] within the Trump campaign or tasked any [informants or undercover agents] to report on the Trump campaign. Finally, we also found no documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivations influenced the FBI’s decision to use [informants or undercover agents] to interact with Trump campaign officials in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.” That just about covers all the bases.

Last spring, House Republicans released a memo on purported Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act abuses that claimed the FBI used Steele’s dossier to open the Russia investigation itself. But it wasn’t the predicate. Horowitz found that FBI investigators did “not become aware of Steele’s election reporting until weeks later,” and that it therefore “played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.” The investigation itself, Horowitz concluded, met the standards required to be opened under Justice Department policy. “We concluded that the quantum of information articulated by the FBI to open the individual investigations on Papadopoulos, [Carter] Page, [Michael] Flynn, and [Paul] Manafort in August 2016 was sufficient to satisfy the low threshold established by the Department and the FBI,” he wrote.

Was the investigation into claims of Russian interference a “hoax,” as Trump and his allies have long claimed? No, Horowitz found. By the summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies already knew that Russian hackers had breached Democratic Party servers with cyberattacks. FBI agents also received word from an Australian diplomat that George Papadopoulos, a low-ranking Trump campaign aide, claimed he had been approached by a purported Russian intermediary with offers of political dirt on Clinton. Those factors and others gave agents the minimal basis they needed under FBI policy to open an investigation.

Did FBI lawyer Lisa Page and counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok use the investigation as a partisan weapon to sabotage Trump? The president and his allies have often singled them out for criticism, using their text conversations during the election as proof of their political motives. But Horowitz found no evidence to support accusations of wrongdoing. Page, he noted, “did not play a role in the decision to open Crossfire Hurricane or the four individual cases.” Strzok played a more central part in that process, Horowitz said, but he “was not the sole, or even the highest-level, decision maker as to any of those matters.”

Indeed, Horowitz concluded that there was no support for the theory that the Russia investigation had been wrongly opened. “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations,” he wrote. Horowitz also said he found no evidence of “political bias or improper motivation [that] influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page,” disproving claims that Page had been singled out for surveillance for partisan reasons.

That said, it would be wrong to describe Horowitz’s report as a total exoneration of the Russia investigation’s early days. Horowitz sharply criticized FBI officials and their supervisors for misleading the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court about the extent to which they relied upon the Steele dossier in their initial warrant application against Page and its three subsequent renewals. Horowitz identified 17 errors of varying gravity that investigators made in the applications.

“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process,” Horowitz wrote. The findings troubled him so much that he said he would conduct a wider audit of the FISA process, a move long supported by civil libertarians who fear that the FISA court serves as a rubber stamp for unconstitutional surveillance.

Congressional Republicans ignored most of Horowitz’s report on Monday, instead citing those errors as proof that civil servants were trying to undermine the Trump administration from the beginning. Trump himself responded, as he often does, by claiming that the report actually vindicated him, when it didn’t. “It is incredible,” he told reporters at the White House on Monday afternoon. “Far worse than I ever would’ve thought possible. It’s an embarrassment to our country, it’s dishonest, it’s everything that a lot of people thought it would be, except far worse.”

Criticism of the FBI’s tactics also came from Attorney General Bill Barr, who has largely abandoned the Justice Department’s post-Watergate independence and firmly aligned himself with Trump’s political interests. “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that 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,” he said in a statement after the report became public. That view is at odds with Horowitz’s report, of course. But Barr has a troubling habit of trying to frame damaging reports released by the department in the best possible way for the president.

Even more troubling was the oblique statement issued by John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut. Durham spent most of the year conducting an administrative review of the Russia investigation at Barr’s request; Barr reportedly upgraded it to a criminal investigation in recent months. Durham enjoyed a reputation for both seriousness and secrecy in federal law enforcement circles. Hopes that he would take the same approach in this inquiry despite Barr’s heavy-handed oversight were dashed by his decision to push back against Horowitz’s conclusions with secret evidence that hasn’t been presented in court.

“Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside the U.S.,” Durham said. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.” The statement served no legitimate law enforcement purpose; it instead read like a teaser promo urging Sean Hannity’s audience to stay tuned and not get discouraged.

There’s a grim familiarity to all of this. After all, Trumpworld’s core allegation is that the Justice Department abused its powers before the last election to harm Barack Obama’s political adversaries and further his party’s political interests. It would be quite the turn of events if, in an attempt to cure the nation’s law enforcement apparatus of perceived political bias, conservatives committed the abuses that they claimed to oppose. That would risk the conclusion that the goal wasn’t to root out abuses at all but to justify the ones they hoped to commit.