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EDITORIAL

The Trump ‘witch hunt’ that never happened

A Justice Department report found mismanagement and low-level wrongdoing at the FBI, but no grand conspiracy.

The Justice Department Inspector General's report, issued on Monday, indicated that the FBI's inquiry into the 2016 election and Russian ties to the Trump campaign was not a conspiracy against the president or a witch hunt.
The Justice Department Inspector General's report, issued on Monday, indicated that the FBI's inquiry into the 2016 election and Russian ties to the Trump campaign was not a conspiracy against the president or a witch hunt.Samuel Corum/Getty

Another conspiracy theory bites the dust.

For more than two years, President Trump has been calling the FBI’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election and its links to his campaign a “witch hunt.” But there was no “deep state” trying to undermine the election result, no “spying,” and no complicated conspiracies hatched at the FBI, the Justice Department inspector general concluded this week in his 400-plus page report.

Garden variety mismanagement? Sure: One already well-reported instance of an ethical violation and one possible instance of low-level wrongdoing that was already the subject of a separate internal ethics probe.

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What the FBI called the “Crossfire Hurricane” operation, which became the basis of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, however, was not even close to a witch hunt.

After examining more than a million documents and interviewing more than 100 witnesses, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s team issued a report Monday, zeroing in on the heart of the case as presented to him by then-Counterintelligence Division assistant director E. W. “Bill” Priestap. The FBI’s investigation of the July 2016 hacks of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails, paired with the tip from an Australian diplomat that a Trump campaign aide “received some kind of suggestion from Russia” of possible dirt on Hillary Clinton, Priestap told the IG, created a counterintelligence concern that the FBI was “obligated” to investigate.

“We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision,” Horowitz wrote of Priestap’s decision to open the inquiry.

The truth may not go over so well in the fever swamps of right-wing conspiracy theorists: There were real patriots concerned with actual Russian intrusions in the US election who launched the investigation — weeks before anyone knew about the reports of former British spy Christopher Steele. What became known as the “Steele Dossier” was actually a collection of reports prepared for a firm that did opposition research for conservatives opposing Trump and then the Democratic Party.

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“Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening,” the IG concluded.

As for two of Trump’s favorite FBI targets in his numerous Twitter rants, special counsel Lisa Page and section chief Peter Strzok, whose e-mails indicated a certain hostility toward Trump, the IG found Page played no role in spurring the investigation or in obtaining information in cases involving Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page.

There were, of course, other instances in which the FBI did not conduct itself with glory.

FBI applications for warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) to monitor Carter Page were replete with inaccuracies and also omissions, such as the fact that though Page had made frequent trips to Russia, he had also reported back on those occasions to the Central Intelligence Agency. And Horowitz found that “so many basic and fundamental errors were made” that they “raise significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process.”

The IG also found the FBI’s use of an August 2016 national security briefing for the Trump campaign to basically check out future National Security director Flynn “could potentially interfere with the expectation of trust and good faith among participants in strategic intelligence briefings.”

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What emerges is a picture of a fully-warranted probe carried out by imperfect human beings. FBI Director Christopher Wray said the department has already taken more than “40 corrective steps,” and disciplinary reviews are expected to follow.

Meanwhile, eight Americans affiliated with Trump’s campaign or administration have been convicted as a result of the Mueller inquiry, including former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, as well as Trump confidantes Michael Cohen and Roger Stone.

Of course, none of that stopped Trump from claiming Monday, “This was an overthrow of government, this was an attempted overthrow — and a lot of people were in on it.” Truth has rarely if ever had an impact on this president, who wasn’t even president or president-elect at the time the investigation was launched. His Attorney General, William Barr, is now using the opportunity to further attack the probe.

Those who seek hard facts about what happened in the last election and the subsequent inquiry can learn them now from both the inspector general’s report and the Mueller report. Our democracy would be stronger if more Americans learned these truths.