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4 takeaways from the Horowitz report on the Russia investigation

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 12/9/2019 Aaron Blake
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Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s long-awaited report on the origins of the Russia investigation is out.

As The Washington Post previously reported, the report finds that an FBI lawyer altered an email, and it details other significant shortcomings in the surveillance of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. But it also finds that the launching of the investigation was warranted and that its focus on four Trump campaign officials, including Page, was legitimate.

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Below are some key points, with analysis. 

1. A triple rebuke to Trump’s conspiracy theories

There will be plenty of shouting in the hours and days ahead, especially given that Horowitz’s report found some alleged FBI misconduct and omissions. But proponents of the Russia investigation didn’t argue it was flawless. President Trump and his allies, on the other hand, argued it was an unfounded witch hunt and lodged conspiracy theories about how it was an effort to take him down — even a “coup.”

The Horowitz report, in its core findings, does not back up Trump’s and his allies’ conspiracy theories. In fact, it undercuts a number of them.

First, it says the information “reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.”

“For similar reasons … we concluded that the quantum of information articulated by the FBI to open the individual investigations on [George] 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,” the report says.

Michael Horowitz wearing a suit and tie: Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo) © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in June 2018. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo)

In perhaps an even more significant finding, the report also addresses the idea that the investigation was hopelessly biased. Trump and his allies have pointed to anti-Trump text messages between FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page to make that case. But Horowitz issues a broad statement finding there was no evidence that personal political agendas affected the probe.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations,” the report says. (As we’ll get to later, there is even compelling evidence to directly dispute this idea.)

Third, it addresses allegations that the FBI planted an informant in the Trump campaign, saying “we found no evidence that the FBI attempted to place any CHSs within the Trump campaign, recruit members of the Trump campaign as CHSs, or task CHSs to report on the Trump campaign.”

And lastly, it’s clear on another popular GOP conspiracy theory — that the investigation was founded based on a dossier full of dubious and unverified information put together by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

“These officials, though, did not become aware of Steele’s election reporting until weeks later, and we therefore determined that Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening,” the report reads, using the code name for the investigation.

And with that, the report dispatches with four overriding Trump narratives about the Russia probe’s origins. And it comes from a man whom Trump has called “honorable,” no less.

2. FISA reform lies ahead

Just because the investigations were legitimate, in Horowitz’s estimation, doesn’t mean there wasn’t something wrong — plenty wrong, indeed — with the FISA process.

We didn’t know much about what precisely the alleged misconduct was before today, except that it involved a low-level FBI lawyer who has since left the bureau. What’s newer is that there were other significant problems with how the process for obtaining a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Page was handled. The report lays out “17 significant inaccuracies and omissions,” including seven in the first FISA application and others later in the process.

“For example, the Crossfire Hurricane team obtained information from Steele’s Primary Sub-source in January 2017 that raised significant questions about the reliability of the Steele reporting that was used in the Carter Page FISA applications,” the report says. “But members of the Crossfire Hurricane team failed to share the information with the Department, and it was therefore omitted from the three renewal applications.”

The team also allegedly failed to note that it had learned from another government agency that it had a previous relationship with Page, who had provided information about his contacts with Russians.

And here’s the big section:

That so many basic and fundamental errors were made on four FISA applications by three separate, handpicked 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.

That’s a major statement, and even Democrats were saying these flaws need to be addressed. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said it was “a legitimate area of concern” and that he would continue his previous push for FISA reform.

The Russia investigation was legitimate but imperfect, according to Horowitz. Expect lawmakers to look hard at what they can do to make sure there is more trust in the future. There may even be some bipartisan consensus on this.

Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray is pledging accountability and reform of his own.

3. Durham’s major statement

Horowitz’s report will not be the final word on this, and it sounds like that final word will be harsher.

U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was appointed by Attorney General William P. Barr to conduct a parallel investigation into the Russia probe’s origins, issued a statement Monday indicating he disagreed with some of the report’s findings.

Durham said he respected Horowitz’s work. “However, our investigation is not limited to developing information from within component parts of the Justice Department,” Durham said, adding: “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 is significant enough; the fact that Durham released it might be even more significant. We knew based on Post reporting that Barr disagreed with Horowitz’s findings, but here we have Durham attaching his name to a statement that can’t be read as anything other than signaling he will reach significantly different conclusions.

It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t be surprising from Barr, whose heavy-handed handling of the Mueller report was hugely controversial and misleading. (And Barr, sure enough, disputed Horowitz’s findings on Monday.) But Durham is someone who rarely speaks publicly. It’s hard not to read that statement as him aligning with Barr’s approach to these matters.

Republicans who were disappointed with the Horowitz report will now probably play up Durham’s as the real report.

4. Meet the Trump supporters behind the probe

To hear Trump and his allies tell it, these investigations were spearheaded by a bunch of people who had it out for Trump from the beginning, like, in their view, Page and Strzok. But Horowitz’s report notes that key figures including agents and sources were actually supportive of Trump.

One supervisory special agent (SSA) describes believing a confidential human source’s (CHS) information because the source was a Trump backer:

He added that, because the CHS was a Trump supporter, he was “not worried about [the source] trying to provide information or getting dirty information on Trump.” He said any suggestion this CHS “was directed to damage or investigate the Trump Administration is just absurd.”

But it turns out that not only was the source a Trump supporter, so too were the agents involved in cultivating him. Here’s a key footnote:

We reviewed the text and instant messages sent and received by the Handling Agent, the co-case Handling Agent, and the SSA for this CHS, which reflect their support for Trump in the 2016 elections. On November 9, the day after the election, the SSA contacted another FBI employee via an instant messaging program to discuss some recent CHS reporting regarding the Clinton Foundation and offered that “if you hear talk of a special prosecutor … I will volunteer to work [on] the Clinton Foundation.” The SSA’s November 9, 2016 instant messages also stated that he “was so elated with the election” and compared the election coverage to “watching a Superbowl comeback.” The SSA explained this comment to the OIG by saying that he “fully expected Hillary Clinton to walk away with the election. But as the returns [came] in … it was just energizing to me to see … [because] I didn’t want a criminal to be in the White House.”
On November 9, 2016, the Handling Agent and co-case Handling Agent for this CHS also discussed the results of the election in an instant message exchange that reads:
Handling Agent: “Trump!”
Co-Case Handling Agent: “Hahaha. S--- just got real.”
Handling Agent: “Yes it did.”
Co-Case Handling Agent: “I saw a lot of scared MFers on ... [my way to work] this morning. Start looking for new jobs fellas. Haha.”
Handling Agent: “LOL”

(The report also indicates that none other than Steele himself wasn’t exactly a Trump hater. It said Steele “stated that if anything he was ‘favorably disposed’ toward the Trump family before he began his research because he had visited a Trump family member at Trump Tower and ‘been friendly’ with [the family member] for some years. He described their relationship as ‘personal’ and said that he once gifted a family tartan from Scotland to the family member.” Reports indicate the family member is Ivanka Trump.)

That’s remarkable, and it suggests that the kind of thing we saw in the Page and Strzok texts went the other way, too.

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