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Justice Department inspector general draft report finds FBI lawyer altered document

A highly anticipated report by the Justice Department’s inspector general is expected to sharply criticize lower-level FBI officials as well as bureau leaders involved in the early stages of the Trump-Russia investigation, but to absolve the top ranks of abusing their powers out of bias against President Trump, according to people briefed on a draft.

Investigators for the inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, uncovered errors and omissions in documents related to the wiretapping of a former Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page — including that a low-level lawyer, Kevin Clinesmith, altered an e-mail that officials used to prepare to seek court approval to renew the wiretap, the people said.

Horowitz referred his findings about Clinesmith to prosecutors for a potential criminal charge. Clinesmith left the Russia investigation in February 2018 after the inspector general identified him as one of a handful of FBI officials who expressed animus toward Trump in text messages and resigned about two months ago, after the inspector general’s team interviewed him.

Though Trump’s allies have seized on the messages from Clinesmith and his colleagues as proof of anti-Trump bias, Clinesmith has not been a prominent figure in the partisan firefight over the investigation. His lawyer declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Horowitz.

More broadly, Horowitz’s report, to be made public on Dec. 9, portrays the overall effort to seek the wiretap order and its renewals as sloppy and unprofessional, according to the people familiar with it. He will also sharply criticize as careless one of the FBI case agents in New York handling the matter and say that the bureau and the Justice Department displayed poor coordination during the investigation, they said.

At the same time, however, the report debunks a series of conspiracy theories and insinuations about the FBI that Trump and his allies have put forward over the past two years, the people said, though they cautioned that the report is not complete. The New York Times has not reviewed the draft, which could contain other significant findings.

In particular, although Horowitz criticizes FBI leadership for its handling of the highly fraught Russia investigation in some ways, he made no finding of politically biased actions by top officials that Trump has vilified like the former FBI director James B. Comey; Andrew G. McCabe, the former deputy who temporarily ran the bureau after the president fired Mr. Comey in 2017; and Peter Strzok, a former top counterintelligence agent.

The early accounts of the report suggest that it is likely to stoke the debate over the investigation without definitively resolving it, by offering both sides different conclusions they can point to as vindication for their rival world views.

The wiretap of Page emerged as a political flash point in early 2018, though it was one relatively narrow aspect of the sprawling inquiry that found that Moscow sought to help Trump win election and that his campaign expected to benefit, but found insufficient evidence to charge any conspiracy with the Trump campaign.

Rod J. Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general who oversaw legal matters related to the 2016 election, asked Horowitz to scrutinize the wiretap and broader issues related to the investigation, absorbing pressure from Trump and his allies.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court first approved wiretapping Page, who had close ties to Russia, as a suspected unregistered agent of a foreign power in October 2016, after he had left the campaign.
The Justice Department obtained three renewal orders. The paperwork associated with the renewal applications contained information that should have been left out, and vice versa, the people briefed on the draft report said.

The e-mail that Clinesmith handled was a factor during the wiretap renewal process, according to the people. Clinesmith took an e-mail from an official at another federal agency that contained several factual assertions, then added material to the bottom that looked like another assertion from the e-mail’s author, when it was instead his own understanding.

Clinesmith included this altered e-mail in a package that he compiled for another FBI official to read in preparation for signing an affidavit that would be submitted to the court attesting to the facts and analysis in the wiretap application.

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