Justice Department watchdog details role in sharing anti-Trump texts

The FBI seal is pictured. | Getty Images

FBI agents are permitted to hold political views, Democrats argue, and there’s no evidence that either agent Peter Strzok or attorney Lisa Page took action to affect the investigation. | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

IG says he agreed sending messages to Hill wouldn’t affect bias probe, but denies signing off on disclosure to press.

The federal official overseeing a probe of the FBI’s handling of last year’s Hillary Clinton email investigation confirmed Friday that he had no objection to the Justice Department giving Congress controversial anti-Trump text messages turned up during the investigation, but says officials didn’t consult him before sharing those texts with the press.

In a letter to lawmakers sent late Friday and obtained by POLITICO, Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz noted that he’d told a House committee last month that his office had no concern about giving Congress information gathered during his review of potential election-related bias. The inspector general also acknowledged he’d “conveyed” that stance directly to Justice officials.

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However, the inspector general said his office did not perform an analysis of what was permissible to share with lawmakers.

“The Department did not consult with the [Office of the Inspector General] in order to determine whether releasing the text messages met applicable ethical and legal standards before providing them to Congress,” Horowitz said.

Justice officials “did not consult with the OIG before sharing the text messages with the press,” Horowitz said, respond to a letter Democratic House members sent him Thursday.

Testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the IG had signed off on turning over the 375 text messages exchanged by top FBI counterintelligence agent Peter Strzok and FBI attorney Lisa Page.

“When this inquiry came in from the Congress, we did consult with the Inspector General to determine that he had no objection to the release of the material,” Rosenstein told the House Judiciary Committee. “If he had, I can assure you we would not have authorized the release.”

Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said there was no daylight between Horowitz’s letter and Rosenstein’s claims.

“The letter released by the IG tonight is entirely consistent w my earlier tweets & DAG’s testimony,” Flores wrote on Twitter. “IG had no objection to release to Congress. We then consulted senior career legal/ethics experts to determine there were no issues w releasing texts to either Congress or press.”

Horowitz highlighted testimony he gave last month — reported at the time by POLITICO — that DOJ could share records from his investigation with lawmakers, but only after officials there were able to “determine whether there were any restrictions, such as those affecting grand jury information, that limited its ability to produce certain records to Congress.”

The messages are now at the center of an intensifying argument by Republicans in Congress that members of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe are biased against President Donald Trump.

Strzok was removed from Mueller’s team over the summer after Horowitz unearthed the text messages. Page had already left the probe. The texts reveal that the two agents viewed Trump with disdain, along with other prominent political figures on both sides of the aisle. Strzok was also a key figure in the Clinton probe and was detailed to Mueller’s investigation after he was appointed to lead the criminal probe in May.

The release of the text messages by DOJ poured fuel onto already escalating claims by Republicans that Mueller’s probe of Trump associates’ ties to Russia could be tainted. They’ve called for a new special counsel to be appointed to examine the potential that bias has affected the Russia inquiry.

Democrats have rejected those claims as a pretense to discredit Mueller as his probe reaches further into Trump’s inner circle. FBI agents are permitted to hold political views, they argue, and there’s no evidence that either Strzok or Page took action to affect the investigation.

Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.