Watchdog expected to find Russia probe valid, despite flaws

WASHINGTON (AP) – The United States (US) Justice Department’s internal watchdog will release a highly anticipated report today that is expected to reject US President Donald Trump’s claims that the Russia investigation was illegitimate and tainted by political bias from FBI leaders. But it is also expected to document errors during the investigation that may animate Trump supporters.

The report, as described by people familiar with its findings, is expected to conclude there was an adequate basis for opening one of the most politically sensitive investigations in FBI history and one that Trump has denounced as a witch hunt. It began in secret during Trump’s 2016 presidential run and was ultimately taken over by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The report comes as Trump faces an impeachment inquiry in Congress centered on his efforts to press Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Democrat Joe Biden. Trump also claims the impeachment investigation is politically biased.

The release of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s review is unlikely to quell the partisan battles that have surrounded the Russia investigation. It’s also not the last word on that investigation. A separate internal investigation continues, overseen by Trump’s attorney general, William Barr and led a US attorney, John Durham.

Trump told reporters last Saturday that he was waiting for the chance to see Horowitz’s report and that he looked forward “very much to seeing what happens with the Durham report, maybe even more importantly, because it’s a horrible thing that took place and it should never happen to another president.’’

United States Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz. PHOTO: AP

Horowitz’s report is expected to identify errors and misjudgments by some law enforcement officials, including by an FBI lawyer suspected of altering a document related to the surveillance of a former Trump campaign aide. Those findings probably will fuel arguments by Trump and his supporters that the investigation was flawed from the start.

But the report will not endorse some of the president’s theories on the investigation, including that it was a baseless “witch hunt” or that he was targetted by an Obama administration Justice Department desperate to see Republican Trump lose to Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

It also is not expected to undo Mueller’s findings or call into question his conclusion that Russia interfered in that election in order to benefit the Trump campaign and that Russians had repeated contacts with Trump associates.

Some of the findings were described to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity by people who were not authorised to discuss a draft of the report before its release. The AP has not viewed a copy of the document.

Trump said last week that he expected Horowitz’s report to be “devastating,” but said the “big report” would come from John Durham, the US attorney appointed by Barr to examine how intelligence was gathered in the early days of the Russia investigation. Durham’s investigation is criminal in nature, and Republicans may look to it to uncover wrongdoing that the inspector general wasn’t examining.

It is unclear how Barr, a strong defender of Trump, will respond to Horowitz’s findings. He has told Congress that he believed “spying” on the Trump campaign did occur and has raised public questions about whether the counterintelligence investigation was done correctly.

The FBI opened its investigation in July 2016 after receiving information from an Australian diplomat that a former Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told before it was publicly known that Russia had dirt on the Clinton campaign in the form of thousands of stolen emails. By that point, the Democratic National Committee had been hacked, an act that a private security firm – and ultimately US intelligence agencies – attributed to Russia.

Prosecutors allege that Papadopoulos learnt about the stolen emails during a conversation in London with a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud. Papadopoulous pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about that interaction. The investigation was taken over in May 2017 by Mueller, who charged six Trump associates with various crimes as well as 25 Russians accused of interfering in the election either through hacking or a social media disinformation campaign.

Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.