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Analysis: The quiet probe into Clinton email investigation could be a landmine for Robert Mueller

 

(USA Today)  WASHINGTON — In early January, news that the Justice Department’s inspector general launched an investigation into the government’s disputed handling of the Hillary Clinton email inquiry was quickly overtaken by the chaotic run-up to President Trump’s inauguration.

Nearly a year later, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s wide-ranging review of the FBI and Justice’s work in the politically-charged Clinton case now looms as a potential landmine for Russia special counsel Robert Mueller.

For months, Horowitz’s investigation — which has amassed interviews with former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, former FBI Director James Comey and other key officials — had been grinding on in near anonymity. That is, until earlier this month when the inspector general acknowledged that Mueller was alerted to a cache of text messages exchanged between two FBI officials on his staff that disparaged Trump.

The communications, involving senior counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page, were gathered in the course of Horowitz’s internal review of the Clinton case, which Strzok also helped oversee. Horowitz’s investigation is not examining Mueller’s operation. But the disclosures already have provided a hammer to Trump loyalists who are escalating their criticisms of the legitimacy of the special counsel’s inquiry.

Justice officials have indicated that a report is likely in the next few months.

“The inspector general’s investigation is very important,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told Rosenstein at a Dec. 13 hearing. The deputy attorney general cited the probe multiple times as the reason for declining to respond to lawmakers’ questions about how the texts might affect Mueller’s probe.

“It is very encouraging to us that (Horowitz) is doing what I think is good, unbiased work,” the chairman said.

Once it’s completed, the inspector general’s review also threatens to give opponents fodder to unleash fresh criticism of the FBI – which Trump has singled out in scathing rebukes since Mueller’s indictment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn earlier this month. Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and pledged to cooperate with the special counsel, was the fourth Trump campaign official to be charged in the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Chris Swecker, a former FBI assistant director, said the text communications unearthed by Horowitz have handed leverage to attorneys representing current and possible future defendants in the Mueller investigation, either in possible plea negotiations or at trial.

“Two star witnesses have been created for the defense,” Swecker said, referring to Strzok and Page whose communications could be introduced as evidence of an investigation biased against Trump.

Strzok was removed from the Russia investigation this summer immediately after Mueller was informed of the communications in which the agent described Trump as an “idiot” while expressing a clear preference for Clinton. Page, meanwhile, had completed her temporary assignment to the Russia inquiry and had returned to bureau headquarters when the texts were discovered.

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