WASHINGTON - Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said Wednesday that the FBI was justified in opening its 2016 investigation into the Trump campaign, but he told sharply divided lawmakers that he could not vindicate the bureau's former leaders because of other major errors - effectively offering both political parties fresh ammunition in their feud over the Russia case.
In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Horowitz revealed that even a prosecutor handpicked by Attorney General William Barr to review the same issues had failed to convince him that the FBI lacked a valid reason to initiate the probe. But just as importantly, Horowitz emphasized what he saw as myriad failures by the FBI after opening the case and said officials had not adequately explained their actions.
Since his 434-page report was released Monday, Democrats have emphasized its conclusion that political bias did not drive the investigation into possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia; Barr and fellow Republicans have said the report found so many flaws that the investigation should have never happened.
After the report's release, former FBI director James Comey declared it showed the investigation was "just good people trying to protect America." Horowitz made clear, however, no one should claim victory from his report.
"Does your report vindicate Mr. Comey?" asked Sen. John Neely Kennedy, R-La.
"It doesn't vindicate anyone at the FBI who touched this, including the leadership," Horowitz responded. "Does it vindicate Mr. McCabe?" Kennedy asked, referring to Comey's deputy, Andrew McCabe. "Same answer," Horowitz responded.
The inspector general found 17 errors or omissions made by the FBI as it sought and received approvals to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Those applications were filed to the secret court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to oversee intelligence and terrorism cases.
Republicans pressed Horowitz to explain what, other than intentional animus or political bias, would explain so many errors.
"It's fair for someone to sit there and look at all of these 17 events and wonder how it could be purely incompetence," Horowitz conceded.
"This has got to be fixed," Kennedy replied. "At a minimum, someone's got to be fired."
The most-senior FBI leaders who oversaw the probe have since left the bureau.
Horowitz offered new details about his disagreement with the attorney general and Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham, who at Barr's direction is investigating the FBI's handling of the Russia probe.
When the report was released, Durham issued an unusual public statement saying he did not completely agree with Horowitz's conclusion that the opening of the investigation was justified. Asked by the panel's senior Democrat, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, if Durham offered anything to change Horowitz's view that the FBI had a valid reason to open the probe in July 2016, Horowitz replied: "No, we stand by our finding."
Durham and Horowitz met in November to discuss the inspector general's findings, Horowitz said. Horowitz told lawmakers that their disagreement centered around whether the FBI should have opened a preliminary investigation, which puts some limitations on the steps agents can take, or a full investigation.
Durhman's investigation is ongoing, and Barr indicated Tuesday it could be spring or summer before it reaches a "watershed."
In the Trump campaign case, the FBI opened a full investigation based on a tip from the Australian government. Durham "said during the meeting that the information from the friendly foreign government was in his view sufficient to support the preliminary investigation," Horowitz said.
The distinction is a narrow one that typically has little bearing on the early stages of an investigation. Horowitz said that even if agents had opened a preliminary investigation, rather than a full investigation, they still would have been authorized to use informants as they did in the first month of the case.
The key difference between a preliminary and full investigation is that preliminary investigations don't allow investigators to seek surveillance warrants. The bureau did not take that step in the Trump campaign case until October 2016, almost three months after the probe was opened.
Horowitz said he was "surprised" to see Durham issue a public statement disagreeing with that part of his report. Barr also disagrees with Horowitz on the issue, and in media interviews Tuesday said the FBI may have acted in "bad faith" by pursuing the case.
Horowitz's testimony marked his first public pushback to Barr and Durham, revealing the depth of disagreements among senior law enforcement officials about Horowitz's findings. Before the report was released publicly, The Washington Post reported that Barr disputed Horowitz's conclusion that the FBI had sufficient grounds to open the investigation.
Horowitz operates independently from Justice Department leadership and his office, by design, does not take directions from the department hierarchy. Spokespeople for Durham and the attorney general declined to comment on Horowitz's statements.
Republicans castigated the FBI over its investigation into the Trump campaign, declaring that such a shoddy case should never be pursued again.
While Horowitz was testifying, Trump tweeted: "They spied on my campaign!" And at a campaign event Tuesday night in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the president used some of his strongest language yet to attack the FBI.
"The FBI also sent multiple undercover human spies to surveil and record people associated with our campaign," he said. "They've destroyed the lives of people that were great people, that are still great people. Their lives have been destroyed by scum, OK, by scum."
Asked about that accusation, Horowitz responded, "I would not call people names like that." He also said that inspector general investigators found no evidence to support the president's long-standing claims that the FBI wiretapped his phones.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., the committee chairman and a frequent defender of the president, said politicians of both parties should be alarmed to see how the FBI launched an investigation into a political campaign, told no one inside the campaign of their concerns, and kept pursuing that investigation even after gathering a significant amount of exculpatory evidence.
"We can't write this off as being just about one man or one event. We've got to understand how off-the-rails the system got," Graham said. "I think Democrats and Republicans are willing to make sure this never happens again."
He also said the FISA court would have to undergo significant changes in order to continue operating.
Graham said that he would assume, "for the sake of argument," the FBI had an adequate basis to open a counterintelligence investigation - though he noted the standard for doing so is low. But the other failures, he said, were more than a few modest mistakes.
"What happened here is not a few irregularities," Graham said. "What happened here is the system failed. The people at the highest levels of our government took the law into their own hands."
Feinstein defended the FBI as doing critical work to pursue disturbing allegations of election-year wrongdoing.
"This was not a politically motivated investigation. There is no 'Deep State'," she said, referencing a pejorative term used by Trump and his allies to describe career civil servants they perceive to be biased against the president. "The FBI's motivation was motivated by facts, not bias."
In contrast, Graham invoked J. Edgar Hoover, a former FBI director whose name has become synonymous with abuses of law enforcement powers. He criticized the FBI for deciding to investigate, rather than warn, the Trump campaign about possible Russian involvement with the election. He read a series of anti-Trump texts from two officials involved in the case - agent Peter Strzok and lawyer Lisa Page - which the inspector general had addressed in a previous report.
Among the texts Graham pointed to was an August 2016 message in which Strzok told Page he was at a Walmart in southern Virginia and could "smell the Trump support." The text, Graham said, showed those with key roles at the FBI did not want Trump to win. "These are a few bad people that couldn't believe Trump won, didn't want him to win, and when he won, couldn't tolerate the fact that he won," Graham said. "And all these smelly people elected him. This is bad stuff."
In the fall of 2016, FBI officials sought and received court approval to conduct electronic surveillance on Carter Page after he had left the campaign, suspecting he might be an agent of the Russian government. The inspector general concluded FBI agents "failed to meet the basic obligation" to ensure the applications for surveillance on Page were "scrupulously accurate."
Central to the FBI's surveillance application for Page was a now-infamous dossier - a collection of shocking and occasionally lurid allegations against Trump, prepared by a former British intelligence officer hired by an opposition research firm working for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Barr, the attorney general, said Horowitz's criticisms did not go far enough, telling The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that the FBI's handling of one of the most sensitive political investigations it has ever conducted was "a travesty," and that Durham continues to pursue the matter.
Addressing Barr's comments about the probe being opened on the "thinnest" of suspicions, Horowitz said: "He's free to have his opinion. We have our finding."
Horowitz declined to say whether drafts of his report ever contained an assertion about Durham's investigation. People who had seen drafts of Horowitz's report said a footnote in the document explained that the inspector general asked Durham whether he had evidence to support a right-wing theory that the investigation began as a setup by U.S. intelligence using a Maltese professor to entrap the Trump campaign, and that Durham had responded he had not.
Such a footnote about Durham and the origins of the probe was not in Horowitz's final public report, and the people familiar with earlier drafts said it had apparently been removed or redacted.
"I'd rather not get into what our draft reports might or might not have said," Horowitz said. He added, though, that Durham "told us what he disagreed with, and we considered his comments and again, what you see here is our final report that we stand by."
This article was written by Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian, reporters for The Washington Post.