WASHINGTON - The Justice Department's internal watchdog is expected to find in a forthcoming report that political bias did not taint top officials running the FBI investigation into possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign in 2016, while at the same time criticizing the bureau for systemic failures in its handling of surveillance applications, according to two U.S. officials.
The much-anticipated report due out Dec. 9 from Inspector General Michael Horowitz will allege that a low-level FBI lawyer inappropriately altered a document that was used during the process to renew a controversial warrant for electronic surveillance of a former Trump campaign adviser, the officials said. The inspector general referred that finding to U.S. Attorney John Durham, and the lawyer involved is being investigated criminally for possibly making a false statement, they said.
But Horowitz will conclude that the application still had a proper legal and factual basis, and, more broadly, that FBI officials did not act improperly in opening the Russia investigation, according to the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive report.
The report generally rebuts accusations of a political conspiracy among senior law enforcement officials against the Trump campaign to favor Democrat Hillary Clinton while also knocking the bureau for procedural shortcomings in the FBI, the officials said. On balance, they said, it provides a mixed assessment of the FBI and Justice Department's undertaking of a probe that became highly politicized and divided the nation.
"You can see how the warring factions will seize on the various parts of this to advance their respective narratives," said a person familiar with the inspector general's investigation.
The FBI, Justice Department and the inspector general's office declined to comment.
President Donald Trump and his allies repeatedly criticized the FBI and its leaders during the Russia investigation - especially former FBI director James Comey, former deputy director Andrew McCabe and former deputy assistant director Peter Strzok. Strzok, in particular, faced allegations previously from the inspector general that anti-Trump text messages he exchanged with another FBI employee "created the appearance that investigative decisions they made were impacted by bias or improper considerations."
That report, though, was focused on the FBI's investigation of Clinton's use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, and the inspector general also found "no evidence that the conclusions by the prosecutors were affected by bias."
The inspector general is not expected to level accusations of bias against top-level FBI officials in the forthcoming report, people familiar with the matter said.
Instead, the most damaging findings seem directed at lower-level FBI employees, especially a lawyer who was part of the process to renew a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page.
As a part of the process to renew one of the later warrants, an FBI agent asked FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith whether Clinesmith could document a certain claim, people familiar with the matter said. Clinesmith, the people said, asserted that he could with an email from someone at another agency.
Before providing that email to the FBI agent, though, Clinesmith added text to it, the people familiar with the matter said. They said it was a serious error in judgment, though Horowitz's report is not expected to allege that Clinesmith's action was motivated by political animus. Clinesmith had previously provided a genuine copy of the email, without his addition, to a Justice Department lawyer, a person familiar with the matter said.
Clinesmith's name was first reported by the New York Times. He did not respond messages seeking comment.
Horowitz also is expected to criticize an agent - though not the one who sought the documentation from Clinesmith - for carelessness, people familiar with the matter said. The reasons for that conclusion were not immediately clear.
The Russia investigation turned up evidence that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election in "sweeping and systematic fashion." It was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller, who racked up criminal charges against 34 people, including 26 Russian nationals, and secured guilty pleas from seven - including some of the highest-ranking officials in Trump's presidential campaign.
Mueller ultimately found insufficient evidence to conclude that Trump or any of his associates had conspired with Russians, though his report alleged that the campaign was eager for such assistance and outlined episodes in which the president himself might have obstructed justice.
Clinesmith is a familiar name to Republicans critical of the FBI. In 2018, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., one of Trump's principal defenders in the House, publicly named Clinesmith as the lawyer referred to only as "FBI Attorney 2" in Horowitz's report that year documenting the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email server.
Horowitz found that the lawyer, who was the primary FBI attorney assigned to the Russia probe in its early days, sent multiple instant messages indicating a strong dislike of Trump, including one saying "Viva le resistance."
When questioned by the inspector general about such messages, Clinesmith insisted that many of them were jokes and that he did not let his political views affect his work.
"I maintained impartiality and just tried to work through the issues individually as they came through," Clinesmith is quoted as saying in the report about the Clinton investigation. After those messages were discovered in early 2018, Clinesmith was reassigned away from the Russia probe. He resigned from the FBI as it started to become known internally that he had altered an email, people familiar with the matter said.
Trump is now the focus of an even more politically perilous investigation. This time it's an impeachment inquiry into whether he abused his office by pressing the president of Russia's neighbor Ukraine to launch an investigation that would hurt a political rival of Trump's in 2020. Swept up in that inquiry is the president's apparent belief that Ukraine - not Russia - was behind the 2016 election interference.
Horowitz's several-hundred page report will land amid the frenzy of the impeachment inquiry, and Republicans, analysts say, are likely to seek to use it to frame the Justice Department and the FBI as tainted by political bias in 2016.
The inspector general began his work in March 2018, focusing on the application for a surveillance warrant on Page. Horowitz wanted to determine whether the application and renewal requests complied with the law and with FBI and Justice Department policies. Such requests are made through the department to a federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that meets in secret to vet such requests.
As part of his review, Horowitz also scrutinized material used in the application that was provided by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, an FBI informant who compiled a now-infamous series of memos that included dubious and sensational allegations of Trump hiring the services of call girls in Moscow. Steele was hired by an opposition research firm working for Clinton's campaign to investigate Trump, leading Republicans to accuse the FBI of bias for relying even if only in part on the "Steele Dossier" for its application to conduct surveillance of Page.
In May 2018, after news reports that a retired American professor who was a longtime U.S. intelligence source had approached Page and another campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, to aid the Russia investigation, Trump demanded on Twitter that the Department of Justice "look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes."
The department quickly announced that Horowitz's investigation would expand to assess whether the FBI showed any political motivation in its counterintelligence probe of Trump associates suspected of involvement with Russian agents during the 2016 presidential campaign. That included a look at whether the FBI acted appropriately in opening an investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, in late July that year of Papadopoulos and whether Russian agents were seeking to use him as a conduit to the Trump campaign.
"If anyone did infiltrate or surveil participants in a presidential campaign for inappropriate purposes, we need to know about it and take appropriate action," then-Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement in May 2018.
The inspector general report, the officials said, is divided into three parts. One focuses on the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane probe of Papadopoulos. Another reviews the surveillance order on Page. A third assesses the bureau's handling of Steele and his information.
According to the two officials, Horowitz is expected to conclude that the opening of Crossfire Hurricane was legally and factually justified. His report will not provide fodder for several conservative conspiracy theories surrounding the case - particularly the notion that Papadopoulos was set up as part of a nefarious Western intelligence operation.
Inspector general investigators scrutinized that allegation aggressively, looking particularly at the record on Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor who was critical to the opening of the case. Mifsud boasted to Papadopoulos about having "dirt" on Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails" - before Russia's hacking of Democrats was publicly known. When the FBI learned of that conversation some months later, it felt it had to open an investigation.
Papadopoulos claimed Friday on Twitter that Clinesmith once "interviewed me in such a bizarre manner" and suggested others could also be in trouble.
Justice Department and FBI officials have long defended their decision to initiate the investigation. Rosenstein said in remarks that he posted online this year that "Based on what I knew in May 2017, the investigation of Russian election interference was justified."
The investigation regarding the 2016 campaign "fundamentally was not about Donald Trump but was about Russia - full stop," former FBI general counsel James A. Baker said at a Brookings Institution event in May. "It was always about Russia. It was about what Russia was, and is, doing and planning. "
The inspector general also is expected to find that the application and subsequent renewals to monitor Page's communications were proper and observed relevant guidelines, the officials said.
Nonetheless, in looking closely at the Page surveillance application, the inspector general has identified a number of problems in the bureau's process for handling FISA applications, including in how it forwards material to the National Security Division of the Justice Department for review, the officials said.
Horowitz will recommend reforms, such as strengthening the internal oversight process.
This article was written by Ellen Nakashima, Matt Zapotosky and Devlin Barrett, reporters for The Washington Post.