Internal Justice watchdog finds that Russia probe was justified, not biased against Trump

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By Ken Dilanian and Pete Williams and Julia Ainsley  with NBC News Politics
President Trump Hosts Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov At The White
President Donald Trump at the White House on Nov. 25, 2019.   -  Copyright  Andrew Harrer Bloomberg via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — The FBI mishandled parts of its application to monitor a Trump campaign aide as it was probing possible Russian interference in the 2016 election, but the overall investigation was justified, according to a long-awaited report by the Justice Department's watchdog that rebuts the president's depiction of a politically biased plot against him.

The report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz concluded that the FBI and the Justice Department launched their investigation into the 2016 campaign not for political reasons, but because of evidence the Russian government was using cutouts to reach out to the Trump campaign as part of its efforts to influence the election.

Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump\'s 2016 presidential campaign, speaks with reporters following a day of questions from the House Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Nov. 2, 2017.
Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump\'s 2016 presidential campaign, speaks with reporters following a day of questions from the House Intelligence Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Nov. 2, 2017.J. Scott Applewhite

Horowitz found that political bias did not taint the actions of former FBI leaders who have frequently been the subject of presidential attacks on Twitter, including former Director James Comey, former Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and former Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok.

At the same time, the report found enough errors — and in at least one case, alleged document tampering by a low-level FBI lawyer — to provide Trump and his allies grist to continue to claim that the investigation was tainted.

In fact, the Justice Department's watchdog found so many problems with the FBI's applications to a national security court to conduct secret surveillance on a Trump aide that the inspector general is launching a separate inquiry into how the FBI obtains national security warrants to eavesdrop on American citizens, the report says.

The report also recommends that new guidelines be established for investigations into presidential campaigns. The report says a confidential human source had a conversation with unnamed senior Trump campaign aide who was not a subject of the investigation in September 2016, but nothing came of it.

Horowitz and his team spent nearly two years on an investigation that was intended to scrutinize the FBI's surveillance of Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign who had traveled to Russia and had previously been the target of recruitment by Russian intelligence officers.

The report said the surveillance of Page, which began in October 2016, did not spark the FBI's Russia investigation, which began in July 2016 after an Australian diplomat reported that a different Trump aide had learned from a Russian agent that the Russian government possessed thousands of Democrat emails.

The report found that some of the information the FBI put in its warrant application for Page was based on reporting by Christopher Steele, a former British spy who authored a controversial so-called dossier accusing Trump of conspiring with the Russians. Much of that information was never corroborated, the report says.

Still, the report found no evidence that political bias influenced the decision to pursue the warrant on Page. Officials felt that they had to get to the bottom of a potentially serious threat to national security, the report says.

The IG's examination of the Page case was anticipated as an important marker in the longstanding political debate over whether the Russia investigation into the Trump campaign was on the level. Trump and his allies have convinced millions of Americans it was not, despite a report by special counsel Robert Mueller that something of a win for Trump, given that despite criticism of obstruction and contacts between the campaign and Russians it could not establish a conspiracy and did not recommend charges.

The Horowitz report may not be the last word, however. Attorney General William Barr has appointed a federal prosecutor, John Durham, to conduct a special investigation into the larger question of whether any of the U.S. government efforts to investigate Russian election interference involved improper surveillance of the Trump campaign.

That investigation has become a criminal probe, people familiar with the matter have said, though it is unclear what possible crimes are being examined.

Barr, who has shown himself to be a close political ally of the president, is reported to have disagreed with the conclusion of his own inspector general that the Russia investigation was justified.