Maybe, just maybe, there’s no Deep State plot to get Donald Trump after all.
For more than a year, Trump’s backers have held out hope that a long-running investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general would blow the lid off of a government-wide conspiracy. Everyone from Fox News to QAnon has speculated that the IG report would—in some undefined manner—expose the corrupt intentions of former FBI director James Comey, deputy Andrew McCabe, director of national intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton, Christopher Steele, and the whole cast of “Deep State” characters who had it out for Trump in 2016.
It does nothing of the sort. On Monday, inspector general Michael Horowitz released the nearly 500-page “Review of Four FISA Applications and Other Aspects of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane Investigation,” referring to the agency’s probe of potential links between Russia and the Trump campaign. The report summarizes an investigation that encompassed more than 170 interviews with more than 100 witnesses, as well as the review of a million documents.
Shocking precisely no one who has been paying attention to the facts, the IG report finds in broad strokes that the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s campaign in 2016 was properly predicated, opened under correct evidentiary procedures, and conducted lawfully. Horowitz did find at least 17 violations of various Justice Department procedures—relating to FISA surveillance applications for Trump campaign adviser Carter Page—but nothing that would give credence to the Trump’s long-running grievance that the entirety of the US government was out to get him in 2016.
Instead, Horowitz concludes, the FBI was rightly troubled by the signals it picked up in 2016 that Russia had nefarious designs on that year’s presidential election. The FBI had an “authorized purpose” to launch the investigation, Horowitz says, which was briefed to bureau leaders and designated a “sensitive investigative matter.” The FBI’s use of confidential sources was appropriate, and there is no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” played a role in the case. One by one, Horowitz undermines the key conspiracy talking points of Trumpland—including that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos was approached by a CIA plant.
That said, Horowitz does find the numerous failures in the Page surveillance applications troubling enough to merit a review of the FBI’s FISA procedures more broadly. “Although some of the factual misstatements and omissions we found in this review were arguably more significant than others, we believe that all of them taken together resulted in FISA applications that made it appear that the information supporting probable cause was stronger than was actually the case,” the report states.
Perhaps more than anything, the IG report concludes that the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation was beset by the normal problems of government, large bureaucracies, and team projects, more incompetence and rushed work than conspiracy. At multiple junctures, Horowitz’s report stresses that the errors it found were accidental rather than malicious—although, he argues, that should be no excuse.
“That so many basic and fundamental errors were made by three separate, hand-picked teams on one of the most sensitive FBI investigations that was briefed to the highest levels within the FBI, and that FBI officials expected would eventually be subjected to close scrutiny, raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process,” the report says.
But the IG report also paints a picture of an agency that stopped short of investigative steps that, in hindsight, would seem necessarily and obvious. The FBI did not ultimately pursue FISA surveillance on three Trump aides—Papadopoulos, campaign chair Paul Manafort, and retired general Michael Flynn—all of whom would later become key figures in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. If anything, it seems the FBI should have investigated harder than it did.
In response to the report, FBI director Christopher Wray announced Monday that he’d ordered “more than 40 corrective steps” to address shortcomings highlighted by Horowitz.
The report was greeted with relief by those long thought to be most squarely in its crosshairs. Strzok’s attorney, Aitan Goelman, said in a statement that Horowitz “confirms what everyone who has worked with Pete Strzok already knew—in 25 years of protecting our country, his personal opinions never impacted his work as an official of the FBI. Those who recklessly deny this truth for political gain do a grave disservice.”
It’s unclear, though, what if any impact Horowitz’s report will have on the *other* pending Justice Department inquiry into its own actions in 2016, an investigation led by Connecticut US attorney John Durham that apparently has at least some component that is an active criminal probe. Attorney general Bill Barr has been deeply invested as well, conducting in-person reconnaissance on Durham’s behalf.
There’s still reason to worry that the country isn’t yet out of the GOP’s fever swamp. Barr’s own legwork on the Durham probe has left US allies dismayed. As one British official who saw what Barr wanted from that country told the UK’s Independent, “It is like nothing we have come across before, they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services.”
In a bizarre breach of protocol, Durham himself commented on the Horowitz report even as his own investigation is ongoing, saying he does “not agree with of the report’s conclusions.” In his own statement, Barr ignored the IG’s conclusion that investigation was justified. “The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a US presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken,” Barr wrote. “It is also clear that, from its inception, the evidence produced by the investigation was consistently exculpatory.”
And then there’s Trump himself, whose assessment of the report feels entirely disconnected from reality. “It’s incredible, far worse than what I ever thought possible,” Trump said at the White House Monday. “This was an attempted overthrow and a lot of people were in on it, and they got caught.”
Which is to say, who knows where Barr’s theories may yet take us in the coming weeks? The GOP has been increasingly willing to embrace unhinged conspiracies, including the idea that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election rather than Russia. Given that level of disconnect from ground truth, don’t expect the inspector general’s report to put an end to Deep State delusions. It appears set to simply add more fuel to the fire.
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Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of THE DAWN OF THE CODE WAR: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. His latest book, THE ONLY PLANE IN THE SKY: An Oral History of 9/11, was published in September. He can be reached at email@example.com.