We are living in the era of endless investigations.
To paraphrase Yogi Berra, it ain’t over even when it’s over.
On a day when Republicans and Democrats were sniping at each other over impeachment at another House Judiciary hearing, the Justice Department’s inspector general issued a report on the Russia probe—only to be disputed by the attorney general and his handpicked prosecutor.
The dual developments yesterday underscore the increasingly common lament that we—officials, politicians, lawyers, journalists, social media denizens—can’t agree on a common set of facts. Even when a widely respected prosecutor completes his investigation, that’s just a starting point for heated debates that can drag on for months or years.
As some Republican lawmakers on the committee were literally yelling at the Democratic counsel in the witness chair, reporters were plowing through the much-anticipated report by IG Michael Horowitz.
Seized upon by those supporting President Trump, who has charged that his campaign was illegally spied upon, the IG said officials in the Obama Justice Department “failed to meet the basic obligation to ensure that the Carter Page FISA applications were ‘scrupulously accurate.’”
Seized upon by those opposing Trump was the finding that the FBI’s “exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation.” That included James Comey and Andrew McCabe.
On the pro-Trump side, Horowitz found “many basic and fundamental errors…significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the surveillance request for campaign aide Page, a “failure” that included “senior officials.” Also, the FBI did not advise Justice that British spy Christopher Steele, author of the infamous dossier used in part to justify the warrant, was not as reliable as originally thought.
On the side of Trump critics, the 434-page report said that FBI agent Lisa Page “did not play a role” in the decision to open the probe, and that her then-boyfriend, agent Peter Strzok, “was not the sole, or even the highest-level decision maker” on launching the investigation. Both famously exchanged texts disparaging Trump.
But even that split decision drew objections from the head of the Justice Department.
William Barr said in a statement the Russia probe was opened “on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken. It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory.”
And John Durham, the U.S. attorney chosen by Barr to lead a criminal investigation of the origins of the Russia probe, said in his own statement that “we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
So those who say the president and some conservatives have been fanning conspiracy theories can embrace Horowitz’s top-line finding. And Trump defenders who say the president was right all along can point to Barr and Durham is arguing that the report is badly flawed.
Trump himself chose to focus on the critical part of the report and ignore the finding that the probe was not tainted by political bias. He called what happened a “disgrace” and “an embarrassment” to the country, saying “they fabricated evidence” and that it was “far worse than anything I could ever even imagine.”
Accepting or rejecting the findings of prosecutors or internal watchdogs is hardly a new phenomenon. Lawrence Walsh had supporters and critics when he investigated Iran-contra, as did Ken Starr when he investigated the Clinton-Lewinsky mess. So did Comey when he declined to prosecute Hillary Clinton but trashed her at a news conference, and again when he reopened the probe at the end of the 2016 campaign.
And, of course, so did Robert Mueller when he declined to recommend criminal charges against the president or his top aides on Russian collusion or obstruction.
In a single day, the Hill, the executive branch and the media are furiously debating both the Russia investigation and the Ukraine probe, in the latter case with the impeachment of a president hanging in the balance.
It’s increasingly clear that these debates will go on roughly forever, even after Donald Trump leaves office.