Photo: J. Scott Applewhite
WASHINGTON — In early January, news that the Justice Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the government's disputed handling of the Hillary Clinton email inquiry was quickly overtaken by the chaotic run-up to President Trump’s inauguration.
Nearly a year later, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s wide-ranging review of the FBI and Justice’s work in the politically-charged Clinton case now looms as a potential landmine for Russia special counsel Robert Mueller.
For months, Horowitz’s investigation — which has amassed interviews with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former FBI Director James Comey and other key officials — had been grinding on in near anonymity. That is, until earlier this month when the inspector general acknowledged that Mueller was alerted to a cache of text messages exchanged between two FBI officials on his staff that disparaged Trump.
The communications, involving senior counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, were gathered in the course of Horowitz’s internal review of the Clinton case, which Strzok also helped oversee. Horowitz’s investigation is not examining Mueller’s operation. But the disclosures already have provided a hammer to Trump loyalists who are escalating their criticisms of the legitimacy of the special counsel’s inquiry.
Earlier this month, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein only highlighted the potential gravity of the inspector general's work when they repeatedly urged Republican House committee members during separate hearings to withhold judgment about allegations of bias within the FBI until the internal Justice probe is completed.
Justice officials have indicated that a report is likely in the next few months.
"The inspector general's investigation is very important," House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told Rosenstein at a Dec. 13 hearing. The deputy attorney general cited the probe multiple times as the reason for declining to respond to lawmakers' questions about how the texts might affect Mueller's probe.
"It is very encouraging to us that (Horowitz) is doing what I think is good, unbiased work," the chairman said.
Once it's completed, the inspector general’s review also threatens to give opponents fodder to unleash fresh criticism of the FBI – which Trump has singled out in scathing rebukes since Mueller's indictment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn earlier this month. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and pledged to cooperate with the special counsel, was the fourth Trump campaign official to be charged in the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director, said the text communications unearthed by Horowitz have handed leverage to attorneys representing current and possible future defendants in the Mueller investigation, either in possible plea negotiations or at trial.
"Two star witnesses have been created for the defense," Swecker said, referring to Strzok and Page whose communications could be introduced as evidence of an investigation biased against Trump.
Strzok was removed from the Russia investigation this summer immediately after Mueller was informed of the communications in which the agent described Trump as an "idiot" while expressing a clear preference for Clinton. Page, meanwhile, had completed her temporary assignment to the Russia inquiry and had returned to bureau headquarters when the texts were discovered.
Swecker said Mueller acted appropriately in dismissing Strzok, but fears that the damage has already been done.
"I never heard anything related to politics come out of (Mueller's) mouth," Swecker said, referring to his experience working closely with the special counsel when he served as FBI director.
"But none of this is good for Mueller or his reputation for fairness," Swecker said. "Who knows what else the IG (inspector general) has."
Mounting questions about the FBI's continuing credibility – including Trump's jab that the bureau's reputation was in "tatters" – have landed hard at the agency. The FBI was sent reeling in May when Trump abruptly dismissed Comey for his handling of the Russia inquiry.
Wray, who took over in September, has publicly defended the bureau's reputation in the wake of Trump's attacks. He was joined late Tuesday by the FBI Agents Association, whose members issued a rare, collective defense of their own.
"Attacks on our character and demeaning comments about the FBI will not deter agents from continuing to do what we have always done – dedicate our lives to protecting the American people," the group said in a written statement.
Pat Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, said the specter of Horowitz's inquiry should have "zero effect on how Mueller and his team do their jobs."
"But this is a political event, too," Cotter added. "To the extent that this (agents' conduct) will be used to discredit, distract or obfuscate the Mueller investigation, maybe it will work.''
For Horowitz, the Clinton email inquiry may be the most consequential investigation he has launched since his installment as Justice's watchdog in 2012. But the former public corruption unit chief in the Manhattan U.S. attorney's office has not shied from controversy in the past five years.
Months after taking office, Horowitz issued a scathing account of a botched gun-trafficking operation that allowed an estimated 2,000 firearms to fall into the hands of Mexican drug cartel enforcers.
The inspector general's review of the so-called "Fast and Furious" operation managed by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives recommended 14 federal law enforcement officials for discipline, resulting in a dramatic shakeup in leadership at the ATF. The operation was halted when two of the weapons were found at the scene of the 2010 slaying of border patrol agent Brian Terry.
A separate 2015 report authored by Horowitz's staff found that U.S. Drug Enforcement Agents posted in Colombia had engaged in sex parties involving prostitutes who were supplied by local drug cartels. The review concluded that some of the 10 agents involved admitted attending the parties where a local Colombian police offer often stood guard, protecting the agents' firearms and other property.
Less than a month after Horowitz's report, then-DEA chief Michele Leonhart announced her retirement from the agency.
In the review of the Clinton email investigation, authorities are examining whether the Justice Department and FBI followed established "policies and procedures'' when then-FBI Director Comey publicly announced that the bureau would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton related to her use of a private email server while she was secretary of State.
The inspector general is not evaluating the merits of the now-closed criminal inquiry or challenge the conclusions not to prosecute Clinton. Rather, it will focus on Justice and FBI policies that guided the probe.
Former Justice inspector general Michael Bromwich said that the office has a long established record as "a reliable and independent voice" that has held some of the most powerful institutions to account.
The disclosures of the agents' text messages, he said, "has certainly re-focused the spotlight on investigation that many people may have forgotten about but remains an important piece of work that needs to be completed."
More than once, Bromwich found himself at the center of a firestorm while inspector general. In 1997, Bromwich authored a damning review of the FBI's crime laboratory on the eve of the federal trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. While McVeigh was ultimately convicted and executed, the lab had been heavily involved in examining evidence in that case.
"Michael (Horowitz) is a very solid guy with exactly the right background for the job. It's a job that doesn't make you many friends," Bromwich said. "And I don't think a lot of people will be happy when it's over. But I think he is going to call it as he sees it."