The new report from the Justice Department’s watchdog covers a lot of ground. It runs more than 500 pages and evaluates investigations that touch both President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. As a result, some of the initial news coverage – which has to cram all of the big findings into a few paragraphs – can be a little difficult to follow.
If you’re trying to do so, I recommend keeping your focus on the big picture. The report addresses one question that’s more important than any other: Did the Justice Department and FBI use their power, as Trump has repeatedly claimed, to help Clinton’s campaign and hurt his?
In the lead-up to the report, Trump’s allies agreed that this was paramount. “The central question in my opinion,” David Bossie, Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, wrote this week on the Fox News website, “is did Hillary Clinton and her cronies get preferential treatment in her email server investigation for political reasons?”
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And the report’s answer is clear: No.
Federal investigators and prosecutors did not give preferential treatment to Clinton. They pursued the case on the merits. They were guided by, as the inspector general’s report puts it, “the prosecutor’s assessment of the facts, the law, and past Department practice.”
The most significant mistake in the investigation didn’t help Clinton. It hurt her, badly. It was James Comey’s decision to violate department policy and talk publicly about the investigation. If it weren’t for that decision, the polling data suggests Clinton would be president.
Now that the report has been released, Trump’s allies – and presumably, Trump himself, in the hours or days to come – are trying to confuse people about what it actually said. Trump’s defenders, including loyal media organizations like Fox News, are mixing the report’s subjects to make it sound much better for Trump than it really is. And more serious news coverage often struggles to find clear enough language to explain the bait and switch, without seeming to lose its objectivity.
For starters, Team Trump is using the report’s criticism of Comey (which I think is justified) to suggest Comey can’t be trusted on other matters – like the Russia investigation. But the report doesn’t question Comey’s honesty, ethical standards or motives. It questions his judgment in publicly discussing a different matter.
Even more, Trump’s allies are focusing on the report’s criticism of two FBI agents who were involved in both the Clinton email and Trump/Russia investigations. The text messages between the two, who were in a romantic relationship, suggest that they were deeply, and inappropriately, biased against Trump. But they did not have the authority to make major decisions about the Clinton investigation. And the one who was still involved in the Russia investigation was removed from the case once his supervisor learned of his attitude.
A banner headline on the Fox News website, not surprisingly, has a good example of Trumpworld’s effort at confusion: “DOJ IG report reveals FBI agent’s ‘stop’-Trump text, calls Comey ‘insubordinate.’” Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, offered another example: “It reaffirmed the president’s suspicions about Comey’s conduct and the political bias among some of the members of the FBI.”
The real story of the report is quite different. It finds that Trump’s claims of a “rigged system” to protect Clinton are outright fabrications. They are, as is so often the case with Trump, lies. And the report finds no reason to lose confidence in Robert Mueller’s continuing investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
That investigation appears to be rigorous, fair and nonpartisan – which is precisely why it scares Trump and his enablers so much.