Comey made ‘error of judgment’ on Clinton inquiry, watchdog finds

Former FBI boss’s actions ahead of 2016 election were not due to political bias, review concludes

Former FBI director James Comey made a "serious error of judgment" when he announced shortly before the 2016 US presidential election that he was reopening an investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail server, the US Justice Department's internal watchdog said on Thursday.

But inspector general Michael Horowitz also concluded in a long-awaited, 500-page report that Mr Comey did not exhibit any political bias in his actions or try to influence the election, and does not contest the decision not to prosecute Ms Clinton for the email affair.

A long-serving law enforcement official, Mr Comey became a controversial figure in the 2016 election, drawing accusations from both Republicans and Democrats that his handling of an investigation into Clinton’s emails influenced the campaign.

Mr Comey later headed a separate investigation into alleged ties between US president Donald Trump's campaign and Russia. Mr Trump fired him as head of the FBI in 2017 and has frequently criticised him since.

Both sides of the partisan divide in US politics are expected to use the Horowitz report to press their cases against Mr Comey.

The inspector general's inquiry has focused on public statements made by Mr Comey about Ms Clinton's use of a private email server, instead of a State Department server, while she was secretary of state.

In October 2016, less than two weeks before election day, Mr Comey sent members of Congress a letter disclosing that a probe into Ms Clinton's emails was being reopened after new emails were found.

Ms Clinton has said that Mr Comey’s letter contributed to her unexpected defeat by Mr Trump. Two days before the November 8th election, Mr Comey said the FBI had found no additional evidence in the new emails.

‘Unfair to Clinton’

In an opinion article published in the New York Times, Mr Comey said the report confirmed the call there was "no prosecutable case" against Ms Clinton, and stood by his decision to inform Congress that the case had been reopened days before the election.

“I chose to speak and tell the truth,” Mr Comey wrote.

John Podesta, who ran the Clinton campaign, said "the report demonstrates beyond doubt" that Mr Comey was unfair to Ms Clinton by announcing developments of the email investigation during the campaign while not revealing the presence of the separate probe beginning in July 2016 into the Trump campaign and Russia.

“This report confirms what we have known for a long time – that the FBI inappropriately applied a double standard to the Clinton and Trump investigations which hurt her and helped elect him,” Mr Podesta said.

The report sharply criticised Mr Comey for violating Justice Department policies and accused him of usurping the authority of then attorney general Loretta Lynch when in July 2016 he announced there would be no charges against Ms Clinton for her email use as secretary of state.

Mr Trump and his allies have accused a clique of FBI and Justice Department officials of working against Mr Trump.

The Horowitz report was highly critical of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, two FBI staff members who exchanged highly charged political messages, finding their texts cast a cloud over the FBI and created the appearance of bias.

In one newly-released email from August 2016, Ms Page wrote to Mr Strzok asking “(Trump’s) not ever going to become president, right? Right!?”

Mr Strzok replied: “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.”

Russia investigation

In July 2016, Mr Comey held an unusual news conference to explain why the FBI would not be recommending criminal charges against Ms Clinton over her use of the private server for some official business.

He chastised Ms Clinton for being “extremely careless” but said there was insufficient evidence to charge her with a federal crime. That upset Republicans who said Mr Comey’s statement could have helped Ms Clinton’s election campaign.

Mr Trump’s allies have signalled they will use the Horowitz report to press their argument that Mr Comey did not act properly while overseeing the Russia investigation.

While some of the messages between Mr Strzok and Ms Page were anti-Trump, others took aim at lawmakers such as US senator Bernie Sanders, whom Ms Clinton defeated for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Ms Page and Mr Strzok were involved in both the Clinton and Russia investigations. Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, removed Mr Strzok from his team after Mr Horowitz disclosed the texts to him.

Mr Comey was fired by Mr Trump in May 2017 while leading the investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, an allegation the president has denied. – Reuters