VIDEO - Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
Sen. Chris Coons of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned Michael Horowitz, Inspector General for the Department of Justice, and Christopher Wray, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, at a hearing examining the DOJ Inspector General’s report on the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation and various other issues.
Coons: I want to begin by thanking you, Inspector General Horowitz, and your staff, the director of the FBI, Mr. Wray, and the thousands of agents and DOJ professionals who are doing difficult, sometimes dangerous jobs to investigate and prosecute crimes all over the country.
The IG and the FBI have demonstrated something very important in this process -- that our country’s most senior leaders, our most senior law enforcement leaders, are subject to scrutiny for their conduct.
It bears repeating that for this review, senior IG staff conducted over 100 interviews and reviewed over 1.2 million documents, including with a former president, former Attorney General, former FBI Director. Frankly, that’s something that wouldn’t happen in many other countries, and it makes me proud to be an American and proud to continue to support the rule of law.
In the United States, even the most senior officials who make mistakes are held to account. In its review, the IG office found that the former FBI director made serious errors in judgment in deviating from policies and releasing information about the Clinton investigation just before the 2016 election. It’s important that the American people understand that there are 37,000 hardworking FBI employees, and the report takes issue with a few discrete decisions by just a handful of those employees.
Even then, it finds decisions in the Clinton investigation were not the result of bias. I am encouraged that the DOJ and FBI are prepared to learn lessons from this report.
One conclusion stood out to me: the IG found that FBI policies “are most important to follow when the stakes are the highest, and when the pressures to divert from them...are the greatest.” Those include policies to avoid interference with ongoing investigations and even the appearance of political bias.
Director Wray, I’ve expressed time and again that I am concerned that the Department of Justice is being pressured to release information to Congress that could compromise the Special Counsel’s ongoing investigation. I am all for oversight after the conclusion of an investigation, but I’d like to hear that you’re committed to ensuring that the Bureau will not risk interfering with the Special Counsel’s ongoing criminal investigations by providing midstream information to Congress that risks leaking to the very subjects to that investigation. Will you give that assurance?
Wray: Senator, while on the one hand, we are of course committed to cooperating with legitimate congressional oversight and that’s an important part of our responsibility, we are also committed and obligated to protect the integrity of ongoing criminal investigations, not just the one you mentioned, but others. We are also obligated to protect sources and methods. We are also obligated to do things like respect grand jury secrecy, which actually makes it illegal for us to share certain information. None of that is meant to suggest that we don’t want to do everything we can and in fact are doing everything we can to cooperate with the I think six different committees of Congress that are investigating different ways and related ways. We are providing mountains of information, briefings, interviews, reading room access, et cetera, and so we’re doing anything we can to be responsive while at the same time making sure that we don’t jeopardize ongoing criminal investigations, and that’s something I’m committed to.
Coons: Thank you. Our president has repeatedly described the FBI’s investigation into campaign activities in 2016, in fact, he did this earlier today, about 11:27 today, as a “witch hunt.”
You and I both know that the Justice Department has uncovered ongoing interference with our 2016 elections, has already charged 20 individuals and 3 companies with crimes. Trump campaign and administration officials have admitted to acting as undisclosed foreign agents for a pro-Russian political party and lying about conversations with the Russian ambassador, not to mention bank fraud, money laundering, and tax crimes. I just want to ask you a conclusory question if I might, do you believe the investigation into Russia’s interference with our 2016 election is important and should be completed without any political interference?
Wray: Senator, I believe that Special Counsel Mueller is conducting an important investigation. I believe that the question of Russian interference in our election is something that needs to be taken very seriously and the investigative work that’s being done on that regard needs to be completed.
Coons: Mr. Horowitz, I think you would agree with me that even the appearance of political bias within an FBI investigation is problematic. So, that’s why your investigation found fault in the political text messages you identified that demonstrated some political bias. Is that right?
Coons: So let me just point out, as I did, that our President routinely tweets about investigations in a way that criticizes them, critiques them, is an attempt to undermine them. In my view, these remarks are also inappropriate efforts to politicize an ongoing federal investigation.
The president’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, is now in jail, he’s been charged with 25 felonies, laundering tens of millions of dollars, committing tax fraud, encouraging witnesses to lie. President Trump has called this very unfair. Should the American people have faith that the Manafort investigation is being handled fairly?
Wray: Senator, I’m not going to speak for the special counsel’s office. What I would say is that I expect all of our employees to conduct themselves professionally and fairly.
Coons: Does the FBI take the political opinions of FBI agents into account when choosing how to staff an investigation, and have political beliefs ever influenced either your work at the FBI or which agents are chosen for a particular investigation?
Wray: I don’t use political litmus tests as a basis for choosing to work on investigations. I do think it is extremely important that all of our agents understand not just the importance of objectivity, but the appearance of objectivity. And to me that means that we need to be focused on making sure that we’re following our rules, following our processes, following what the Inspector General refers to as long-established norms. The safe place for us is in process and making sure we follow the process and that we do that independently and objectively, no matter who likes the result will be okay. But, the important thing is to make sure that our process is bulletproof.
Coons: I couldn’t agree more.
Mr. Horowitz, President Trump has claimed that FBI officials are biased against him and in favor of former Secretary Hillary Clinton. Let me just make sure I’ve understood this right, in your investigation, did you find that the FBI took any investigative step based on political bias against the current president?
Mr. Horowitz: The one area where we were concerned about bias was in the October time period and the weighing of Agent Strzok between focusing on the Russia investigation versus focusing on the Weiner laptop and our concern about his decision given the text messages.
Coons: But, did you conclude that we should have concern about either the initiation or the ongoing conduct of the special counsel’s investigation based on those texts?
Mr. Horowitz: We didn’t look at the special counsel investigation as part of this review.
Coons: Last question to you, Mr. Horowitz, this report seems to vindicate the wisdom of many long-established DOJ policies and practices, the chain of command, the need to strictly comply with recusal. The Department policies are in place for a reason and it was wrong to deviate from them and it would be wrong to deviate now. Do you agree that ad hoc deviations from an established policies and procedures should be avoided?
Horowitz: I do and I think that’s partly one of the most important takeaways of this report.
Coons: Well, I appreciate the hard work you’ve both done and are continuing to do and the confidence you are working to restore in the American people that these well-established, long-observed policies and procedures will be followed going forward. Today’s hearing is a good reminder why federal law enforcement and respect for the rule of law have been and should be the envy of the free world.
I know it can be frustrating that we don’t know what’s happening in the ongoing special counsel investigation, but today’s hearing reminds us that that’s exactly how sensitive, ongoing law enforcement investigations should work, and I’m grateful for your continued efforts to protect the integrity of the FBI, the Department of Justice, and their important work which makes us all safer.