WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton and James Comey will be back in the headlines Thursday as a watchdog official for the Justice Department releases a report on the Obama administration's handling of the Clinton email scandal in the runup to the 2016 election.
The report — by Inspector General Michael Horowitz — is widely expected to criticize Comey, the former FBI director, for his public statements in July 2016 and October 2016 about the federal investigation into Clinton's use of a private email while she was secretary of state.
Congress and the White House have anxiously awaited the report, which has taken about 18 months to complete and could affect Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 election.
President Trump is likely to seize on any criticisms of Comey in the report to argue he was right to fire the former FBI director who had been leading an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
On the other hand, any discussion in the report on the fallout of Comey’s actions on the Clinton campaign could undercut Trump’s accusations that FBI and Justice Department officials are biased against him.
Clinton has blamed her election defeat on Comey's public disclosure of a reopening of the email investigation 11 days before the 2016 election. Here is what to expect:
What will the report say about Comey?
The report is expected to blast Comey for straying from Justice Department guidelines when he held a July 5, 2016, news conference to announce that there would be no criminal charges brought against Clinton and also to accuse her of carelessness in her use of the private email server. Typically, the FBI’s role would be limited to referring its findings to the attorney general. It would then be up to prosecutors to decide whether to bring criminal charges. The Justice Department — not the FBI — would typically make any public announcements about the case.
"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey said at the news conference.
Comey himself acknowledged that he was breaking with protocol, telling reporters at the time that his decision to make a statement was “unusual.” He also said he not briefed his bosses beforehand on the findings.
Separately, Thursday's report is expected to rebuke Comey for sending a letter to Congress in late October 2016 telling lawmakers the FBI had re-opened its investigation of Clinton. The FBI had found evidence of previously undiscovered emails on the computer of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was then married to a top Clinton aide.
The FBI found no evidence to charge Clinton, and Comey announced — just two days before the election — that the case was closed.
Comey is not the only high-profile Obama administration official whose actions are expected to draw criticism Thursday. Comey has said he was prompted to take extraordinary action in the Clinton case, in part, because he believed then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch showed poor judgment when she met privately in June 2016 with former President Bill Clinton when their planes were parked on the tarmac in Phoenix.
Lynch rebuffed calls for her recusal from the investigation, choosing instead to assert that she would accept the recommendation of career prosecutors.
How could this affect the Russia probe?
Comey is a witness in the Russia investigation being led by Mueller. The special counsel is looking into whether Trump's firing of Comey in May 2017 was an effort by the president to obstruct justice by derailing the FBI's probe of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
The inspector general's report could seriously undercut Comey’s credibility as a witness in the Mueller investigation if it finds that he lied about his actions in the Clinton case. Less damaging to him would be a finding that he defied authority but told the truth.
Horowitz acknowledged in December that his inquiry into the Clinton case had unearthed text messages exchanged between two FBI officials on Mueller's staff who had disparaged Trump. One of the officials, Peter Strzok, helped oversee the Clinton inquiry.
Shortly after Mueller was alerted to the text messages, Strzok, a senior counterintelligence agent, was removed from the special counsel's staff. FBI lawyer Lisa Page, who was involved in a personal relationship with Strzok and participated in the text exchanges, left Mueller's staff before the communications were made public.
How will President Trump react?
The president is likely to applaud the report as evidence that he was right to fire Comey. The Republican National Committee previewed its response Wednesday, issuing a press release with these headlines: "Lyin' Comey Is About To Sink Even Lower. Ahead Of The Release Of The DOJ’s Inspector General Report, A Look At James Comey’s Long Pattern Of Misconduct And Bad Behavior."
Trump is likely to ramp up his attacks on FBI and Justice Department, which he has denounced as "corrupt."
The completed review by the inspector general will likely prompt a wave of fresh criticism of the FBI — which Trump has singled out in scathing rebukes as Mueller's inquiry has produced indictments against former members of the president's administration and campaign, including national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
The inspector general's report also comes just two months after the office issued a related review, concluding that former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe misled investigators about his role in providing information to the media about a separate FBI investigation of the Clinton Foundation before the 2016 election.
In McCabe's case, the inspector general determined that the former FBI official "lacked candor" when he was questioned multiple times under oath about sharing information about an inquiry into the Clinton Foundation with a Wall Street Journal reporter in October 2016.
The matter has been referred to federal prosecutors to determine whether McCabe should face criminal charges. McCabe's attorney, Michael Bromwich, has called the referral "unjustified."
How will Congress react?
Conservative House Republicans are likely to use the report to fuel their battle with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein over access to documents they are seeking about the Russia investigation.
Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Mueller probe, has allowed some lawmakers to view classified documents about an FBI informant used to gather information from a few Trump campaign advisers with ties to Russia but he has resisted turning over other documents, citing the ongoing investigation.
Some House conservatives have been calling on the Justice Department to appoint a second special counsel to investigate how the FBI and the DOJ handled the Clinton investigation. If Thursday's report doesn't go far enough to answer their questions on the matter, they will continue their push.
Even before the report was released Thursday, Republican Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona and Ron DeSantis and Matt Gaetz of Florida sent a letter to Horowitz expressing concern that it may have been watered-down from the original version during an internal review process. They asked Horowitz to provide them with his original drafts.
In contrast, Democrats are likely to emphasize the damage to Clinton's campaign from Comey's actions in the crucial final days before the 2016 election. And they will point out that Comey spoke publicly about Clinton's case but did not reveal Trump's campaign was under investigation until after the election.
Why, Democrats are poised to ask, is Trump complaining when it was Democrats who were hurt by Comey's actions?