WASHINGTON — Former FBI director James Comey on Thursday largely defended his oversight of the bureau's inquiry into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server, in the face of often-searing criticism from a new report by the Justice Department's internal watchdog.
The 568-page review specifically faulted Comey for going public with an announcement to close the federal investigation in July 2016, only to reopen the probe three months later — just days before the presidential election.
In both cases, the Justice Department's inspector general concluded that Comey had flaunted long-standing DOJ policy by taking actions so close to an election and without consulting then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
"I do not agree with all of the inspector general’s conclusions," Comey said in an op-ed he authored for the New York Times. "But I respect the work of his office and salute its professionalism."
He continued: "All of our leaders need to understand that accountability and transparency are essential to the functioning of our democracy, even when it involves criticism. This is how the process is supposed to work."
The former director, abruptly dismissed by President Trump last year for his handling of the ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election, said he was most heartened by the inspector general's finding that political bias did not affect specific investigative decisions in the the Clinton case.
"The inspector general's team went through the F.B.I.’s work with a microscope and found no evidence that bias or improper motivation affected the investigation, which I know was done competently, honestly and independently," Comey wrote.
While the report largely tracked Comey's interpretation, Justice investigators did leave open the possibility that anti-Trump bias expressed in text messages that FBI counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok exchanged with a bureau colleague, may have indicated Strzok might "take official action to impact a presidential candidate's electoral prospects."
At the time, Strzok was helping to oversee the Clinton inquiry and was also assigned to the bureau's then-early inquiry into whether the Trump campaign had coordinated their operations with Russia.
The inspector general contends that when faced with competing demands, Strzok chose to make the Russia investigation a priority over resolving the Clinton case, a potential display of anti-Trump bias, after thousands of emails were discovered on a laptop used by top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her then-husband, former New York congressman Anthony Weiner.
"In 2016, my team faced an extraordinary situation — something I thought of as a 500-year flood — offering no good choices and presenting some of the hardest decisions I ever had to make," Comey wrote. "We knew that reasonable people might choose to do things differently and that a future independent reviewer might not see things the way we did. Yet I always believed that an inspector general report would be crucial to understanding and evaluating our actions."
Comey offered a similar defense of his actions in a book published earlier this year, Higher Loyalty.
After news broke of Lynch's now-infamous June 2016 meeting with former president Bill Clinton on the tarmac of Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, Comey wrote Thursday that "I chose to do something unprecedented:
"In July 2016, I separately and transparently announced to the American people what we had done, what we had found and our view that Mrs. Clinton should not be prosecuted. Before 2016, I could never have imagined doing such a thing, because the normal practice was always for the F.B.I. director to coordinate statements with the attorney general and for leaders of the Justice Department to report the details of the completed investigation."
Similarly, Comey said that he could not foresee the choice he faced in late October 2016: whether to inform Congress that the FBI was re-opening the case "or to conceal that fact."
"But to have concealed it would have meant to hide vital information: That what I and others had said publicly (closing the case) and under oath to Congress was no longer true. I chose to speak and tell the truth," he said.
"My team believed the damage of concealing the reopening of our investigation) would have been catastrophic to the institution. The inspector general weighs it differently, and that’s O.K., even though I respectfully disagree."