Democrats lurching toward potential impeachment and ramping up their probes of President Donald Trump are becoming increasingly worried that the Justice Department will subvert their efforts.
An internal DOJ watchdog report on the origins of the Russia probe is expected to spotlight potential political bias by FBI agents at the heart of the Russia probe. The report, due out as soon as this month and as late as October, could raise pointed questions about the FBI’s decision-making at the time — handing Trump a bludgeon in his long-running campaign to accuse the bureau of mounting a “coup” against him.
Story Continued Below
They fear the report, by DOJ Inspector General Michael Horowitz, who is respected by lawmakers from both parties, will diminish any momentum Democrats are seeking in their efforts to convince Americans that Trump obstructed the Russia investigation, later taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.
“Their whole point is to go on a wild goose chase and then to create a chain of implausible connections that show that the special counsel report — and what we’re doing — is somehow fruit of the poisonous tree. It’s absurd,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a member of the Judiciary and Oversight committees, said in an interview.
Members of both parties largely acknowledge that the results of the inspector general’s report are likely to bode poorly for the senior FBI officials who decided to launch the investigation into Trump’s presidential campaign — in turn, giving Trump and his allies much-needed political firepower against House Democrats who are seeking to highlight the evidence laid out in Mueller’s report.
Beginning next week, Democrats are pursuing an aggressive public-relations strategy aimed at illuminating the evidence, as laid out in Mueller’s report, that Trump sought to thwart or otherwise shut down the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That pursuit — part of an effort by Democratic leaders to make the case to the public that Trump should be impeached — could face significant roadblocks if Republicans get their way.
And it’s not just the IG report that could disrupt Democrats’ plans. Trump recently gave Attorney General William Barr broad authority to declassify information about how the Russia probe began — an order that prompted Democrats to warn of selective declassification that wouldn’t tell the full story.
“I don’t think it will throw us off track, but it will certainly give Republicans ammunition to try to divert attention away from the specifics of the Mueller investigation,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee. “It’s a profound breach of confidence that the legislative branch has in the executive branch, and a profound disruption in the intelligence apparatus worldwide.”
In particular, the inspector general’s report is likely to embolden Trump and give his allies new ammunition to discredit Democrats’ pursuit of Trump’s personal finances and additional evidence that he obstructed justice — probes that Republicans have long derided as politically motivated and an abuse of congressional authority.
“Because Inspector General Horowitz is known for calling balls and strikes, any validity that he offers in his report that substantiates some of the things that conservative members have been saying for some time … will change the narrative overnight,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a top Trump ally, said in an interview.
Trump is likely to latch on to any hint of evidence that would suggest that an anti-Trump bias permeated the upper echelons of the FBI. His allies on Capitol Hill have been parroting those claims of bias, in addition to allegations that senior officials leaked information to the media and inappropriately relied upon salacious and unverified claims about Trump that were outlined in a controversial dossier compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele.
“Just like [Democrats] waited for the Mueller report to come out, they should wait for the IG’s report to come out,” Meadows added. “Because the IG’s report will actually go at the root of improper motivations on the investigation.”
Democrats, wary of Republicans’ narrative becoming dominant, are preemptively trying to dispel those claims.
“If there’s really a ‘deep state’ within DOJ to tank Donald Trump, then they should’ve revealed in 2016 that they had a counterintelligence investigation ongoing with regard to the Trump campaign,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), who sits on the Intelligence and Oversight committees. “The fact that they reopened the Hillary Clinton investigation on the eve of the election is potent proof that there’s no deep state conspiracy at DOJ against Donald Trump.”
“There’s nothing there. It’s a big nothingburger,” Krishnamoorthi added.
The release of the IG report will mark the second time in two years that Horowitz’s work will have become a flashpoint in Congress’ efforts to get to the bottom of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. Last year, he issued a report on the FBI’s handling of the 2016 Hillary Clinton probe, concluding that he couldn’t find evidence that political bias affected any decisions in the investigation.
His bottom-line finding heartened Democrats, but Horowitz also revealed he was continuing to probe potential bias in the opening of the FBI’s Russia probe, launched just weeks after the Clinton investigation ended in July 2016. One of the agents involved in both investigations, Peter Strzok, has become a fixture for Republicans, who unearthed thousands of text messages last year in which Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page sharply criticized Trump.
“[W]e did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the [Clinton probe] was free from bias,” Horowitz concluded in that report.
Though Horowitz concluded that potential bias was unlikely to have affected the Clinton probe — in part because of multiple layers of decision-making at the FBI — he drew no conclusions on whether Strzok’s personal views infected his actions in the Russia probe, telling lawmakers last year that it was still under review.