WASHINGTON — It was not, perhaps, the most somber moment in the history of the U.S. Senate. In the midst of reciting a list of complaints about FBI agents allegedly swayed by their own anti-Trump animus, Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., stopped speaking and looked up. He had been reading from some of the messages those agents privately exchanged, and which were later uncovered by investigators.
“Rhymes with ‘wangdoodle,’” a seemingly perturbed Kennedy said. That wasn’t the word or rhyme. But the point was made.
That was just one standout moment at Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. FBI Director Christopher Wray and Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, were present on Capitol Hill for the occasion.
Last week, Horowitz released a lengthy report that lambasted then FBI Director James Comey for his handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state. Horowitz’s report also found that high-ranking officials within the FBI bore animus toward Trump, though the report pointedly does not ascribe political motive to any actions the agency undertook in regard to Clinton or President Trump, who fired Comey last year.
Both sides of the political divide have found reason to celebrate the report. Trump falsely deemed himself “totally exonerated” last Friday, in a seeming conflation of Horowitz’s report and the work of special counsel Robert Mueller. The two investigations are unrelated. Clinton supporters, meanwhile, found evidence for their belief that Comey’s Oct. 28, 2016, letter, in which he declared a reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails, robbed the Democratic candidate of momentum in the election’s final lap.
Monday’s hearing also gave yet another endorsement to the idea that the U.S. is fated to relitigate the 2016 election until the end of days.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, seemed to indicate as much with his opening statement. “The details in this report confirm what American people have suspected for a long time,” he said. “Hillary Clinton got the kid glove treatment.”
Grassley went on to suggest that Mueller’s probe into the Trump campaign and Russian electoral meddling was similarly tainted by political bias. Mueller himself is a Republican, but Trump has taken to calling some of his investigators “13 Angry Democrats” because of their supposed affiliations.
“The Justice Department faces a serious credibility problem,” Grassley said, “because millions of Americans suspect that there is a double standard.”
Democrats had apparently read an entirely different report. Ranking member Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., focused her opening statement on Comey, who angered Democrats in 2016 for his statements about the Clinton emails. Horowitz said he found that Comey’s decision to publicize the decisions not to bring criminal charges and to subsequently reopen the investigation amount to an act of “insubordination.”
Frank Montoya Jr., a former high-ranking FBI official, told Yahoo News that the Horowitz report came in the context of a disagreement on autonomy between the Department of Justice and the FBI. “DOJ has never liked the fact the FBI sees itself as independent,” he said. Montoya added that while Horowitz “may have been critical about Comey’s actions after the email investigation, he was unequivocal that any bias (real or perceived) had zero impact on the decision of prosecutors not to charge Clinton. That says something for the integrity of the investigation itself. Despite all the outside drama, he’s saying it remained intact.”
Running nearly 600 pages, Horowitz’s report also gave both parties plenty of room for suspicion, accusation and recrimination. Feinstein wondered why there were “multiple leaks to the press” about the Clinton email investigation during the 2016 campaign, but none about the budding inquest into potential collusion between Trump and Russia. “This unquestionably harmed candidate Clinton and helped candidate Trump,” Feinstein said.
She and other Democrats tried on several occasions to focus the hearing on Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who proved a feisty Trump surrogate during the campaign — and now the public face of Trump’s legal team pushing back against Mueller. Three days before Comey announced the reopening of the Clinton investigation, Giuliani mused on Fox News about “a couple of surprises” that would prove “enormously effective” were coming. Horowitz declined to discuss how Giuliani came across this information, though he suggested that there was an “ongoing” investigation.
Republicans, for their part, kept the focus on the five FBI officials who’d exchanged anti-Trump messages, in particular top investigator Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page, who were romantically involved and have been pilloried by Trump’s Twitter feed. Wray said the agents in question would be referred for disciplinary action, while new guidelines and training would be instituted, including about proper relations with the media. (Horowitz’s report depicts some agents as too friendly with reporters).
“I can only imagine what else is out there,” remarked Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.
At the same time, Wray defended the fundamental integrity of his department, and drew a sharp line between Comey’s alleged errors and the department’s present-day work, specifically on the investigation of the Trump campaign. “I don’t believe special counsel Mueller is on a ‘witch hunt,’” he said during a later round of questioning. Trump’s preferred term for the investigation is “WITCH HUNT!”
Democrats tried to ask questions that forced the FBI officials to explain — in effect, to the president himself — that their report did not focus on Russia and thus in no way exonerated him on that matter, as the commander in chief has repeatedly claimed. “We did not look into collusion questions,” Horowitz said flatly in the middle of an exchange with Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Leahy crystallized Democratic sentiment when he posited: “[If] the FBI were trying to throw the election to Hillary Clinton, it could not have done a worse job. Every single misstep by the FBI damaged Hillary Clinton and helped Donald Trump.”
Republicans answered by returning to the anti-Trump messages sent by FBI officials, a powerful if inexact refutation of the Democratic point. Kennedy, the Louisiana senator, read several of these.
One, from Page to Strzok, was about a comment Trump made. It was here that the gentleman from Louisiana was forced, for propriety’s sake, to resort to “wangdoodle.”
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