World·Analysis

How Trump and his 'deep state' theorists are weaponizing the report that cleared Comey of bias

A watchdog report that found former FBI director James Comey was "insubordinate" in his handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation may allow Trump loyalists to sow doubt in established institutions and undermine the integrity of Robert Mueller's probe into possible Trump-Russian collusion.

Justice watchdog's findings could be used to undermine Trump-Russia investigation

A report by the inspector general of the Justice Department that is critical of former FBI director James Comey will give U.S. President Donald Trump new ammunition against what he calls the 'witch hunt.' (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, James Comey erred — but it was never in bad faith.

So says a massive report by the inspector general at the U.S. Department of Justice, effectively faulting the former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for breaking protocol in his handling of the investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.

Comey was "insubordinate" when he plunged the traditionally non-partisan, apolitical FBI into the midst of the 2016 election with a news conference chastising Clinton for using the personal server while she was secretary of state.

In the same report, Horowitz, who is widely respected across the political aisle for his impartiality, also concluded there was no evidence that Comey's conduct was politically motivated. Nor did he find anything criminal in Comey's actions.

U.S. President Donald Trump did not seem willing to accept those conclusions. In a bid to cast doubt on the report, Trump on Friday alleged "total bias" from the former FBI director and insinuated the agency had targeted him "at the top level" when he was campaigning for president  — statements that pundits assert are deliberately misleading and part of an effort to discredit the Justice Department and the FBI's neutrality.

The danger, political analysts say, is that Trump is successfully conflating an investigation about Clinton's emails with a separate probe into Trump's alleged collusion with Russia. His faithful might just buy it, pundits say.

Nothing in the inspector general's report read as particularly shocking to Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

"That Comey was insubordinate is hardly a bombshell. That he did not break the law is hardly a bombshell. That his conduct was inappropriate was hardly a bombshell," he said.

"But what it does do is it gives some credence to some of the things the president has said."

Michael Horowitz, the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Justice, testifies during a Senate hearing in Washington on July 26, 2017. In a report released Thursday, Horowitz found fault with Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation, but said he found 'no evidence' of political bias or preference. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

That may be just enough for Trump and his loyalists to sow distrust in established institutions and undermine the integrity of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. The administration has for months tried to convince Americans the Mueller investigation is little but a biased "witch hunt."

"Mueller should suspend his investigation," Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, told Fox News presenter Sean Hannity Thursday night, citing the Justice Department report as his rationale.

That was the kind of mixed messaging that disturbs former White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter.

"They're trying to confuse things. I mean, this is stupid," he said. "This has absolutely nothing to do with Bob Mueller." 

Complaining last week on Twitter of "numerous delays" in the report's publication, Trump insinuated something nefarious could be happening behind the scenes.

"Hope Report is not being changed and made weaker!" Trump tweeted.

'Attacks are already working'

Despite the report finding no evidence of bias, it didn't take much to conjure ideas of anti-Trump malfeasance in its 568 pages. Some administration loyalists already subscribe to the belief that shadowy influencers — whom they collectively label "deep state" — are secretly thwarting the president from within government institutions.

"The attacks are already working" when it comes to eroding public faith in Mueller's work, Sheinkopf said.

He pointed to a new poll suggesting that the special counsel's public image has been tanking, with 36 per cent of all registered voters viewing Mueller unfavourably, up from 23 per cent last year.

"It's a general disregard for law enforcement that the president is fostering, and in the FBI in particular. And he'll segue that into the Mueller investigation, saying Comey is really behind it, and so is the rest of the Justice Department," Sheinkopf said.

Although the report slammed Comey's handling of the Clinton email investigation, it also cleared him of political motivation or bias. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

The report's publication on Thursday was auspicious timing for the president, who turned 72 that day.

"That'll maybe be a nice birthday present," he told reporters last week.

Conservative political commentator Charlie Sykes expects Trump will "weaponize" the inspector general's report, politically spinning the most critical parts of the report to undermine the FBI and, more broadly, the investigation into his campaign's alleged ties with Russia.

"All he needs is one weapon … and he has a few," Sykes said.

Mixing it up with Mueller

The most explosive finding in Horowitz's report appears to be a text-message exchange between two key FBI officials. It has already been seized upon by pro-Trump congressman Pete King for his case that the Mueller investigation is tainted.

In the exchange, FBI agent Peter Strzok tries to allay FBI attorney Lisa Page's concerns that Trump might be the next president.

"No, he won't. We'll stop it," Strzok writes.

To King, a conservative representative from New York, the texts smacked of anti-Trump bias that he sees as present throughout the entire FBI system. It also put "an indelible cloud over [the] Trump Russia investigation," King tweeted.

While highly inappropriate, political analysts say the texts are hardly evidence of widespread systemic political bias having corrupted the entire Justice Department. And while Thursday's report found no evidence Strzok ever used his position to go after Trump, Mueller fired him upon discovering the text messages.

Robert Mueller, seen here on June 21, 2017, has not spoken publicly since a one-line statement upon taking on the investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

It's in the Trump administration's best interests to discredit the Mueller probe. One way to do that, Sykes said, is to connect it to a report that discredits Comey over his conduct during the Clinton investigation.

"Of course, this is not about the Mueller investigation," Sykes said. "But Trump will try to confuse the Mueller investigation with this Clinton email investigation in the public's mind."

(Comey's much-maligned decision to hold a news conference in July 2016 in which he recommended against criminal charges for Clinton is, in fact, widely seen as having hurt her presidential chances.)

Alabama Republican strategist Jonathan Gray, meanwhile, perceives systemic corruption at the top of the Justice Department. He has connected the dots, he said: If at least two FBI employees are politically compromised, and if Comey was found to have violated bureau protocol, one could reasonably say Mueller's investigation is crooked, he reasoned.

"Who works for Mr. Mueller? Where does he get his lawyers? The Department of Justice. Where do all his investigators come from?" Gray said. "My point is, just because we change the president from Obama doesn't mean we change the culture of the people doing the work. There's a culture of impropriety at the FBI and the Department of Justice, and this is who's overseeing the investigation of the president."

The 568-page report by U.S. Department of Justice watchdog Horowitz was released Thursday. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

Asked if this amounted to the "deep state" theory that institutions were conspiring against Trump, Gray didn't demur. The "rats" from the Obama era, he said, may still be steering the ship.

"It's a problem of culture. It's going to take time to find these people and get them out. In the end, they will be revealed for who they are — obstructionists, impropriators, or maybe we'll find a deep state conspiracy."

Even before Horowitz's report became public on Thursday, three staunchly pro-Trump congressmen suggested the final version was watered down. The lawmakers, who have stoked fears about a "deep state" demanded to see drafts of the report to ensure it was not "compromised in any way."

Most worrying for Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist in New York, is how many Americans might end up making a mental leap from the Horowitz findings to conclude the Mueller probe is somehow tainted. Enough repetition of any dubious "deep state" claim will eventually work to seep into the public consciousness, he said.

"The Mueller investigation has been above board," Siegfried said. "But this is a very, very complex and nuanced investigation. And the Trump White House has been focusing on people not understanding the nuance. If they repeat something enough, people will buy it. And at the end of the day, this is a PR war."

About the Author

Matt Kwong

Reporter

Matt Kwong is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong

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