With special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s criminal inquiry into Russian meddling in the 2016 election now well underway and at least four congressional probes ongoing, it may seem like every aspect of the controversy is already being closely scrutinized.
But there’s also a less-noticed investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, which has been exploring several issues key to the Russia saga since before President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
Inspector General Michael Horowitz has offered few public indications of the status of his probe, which some lawmakers said he initially told them was expected to be complete by early next year. On Wednesday, he’s likely to make his first public statements at a hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the status of his inquiry – and whether he’ll acquiesce to any of the many requests from Republicans and Democrats to expand his review to include the firing of former FBI director James Comey or other developments.
“I think he’ll find a way to engage with the committee on that, while still being a little bit cagey,” said Michael Bromwich, who served as Justice’s inspector general from 1994-1999.
About a week before Trump’s inauguration in January, Horowitz announced a multi-faceted probe, focused primarily on whether Comey acted properly in his handling of the FBI’s investigation into classified information found in Hillary Clinton’s private email account.
The inquiry has examined Comey’s decision to make a public statement about the closure of the investigation in JULY 2016 and to send politically explosive notices to Congress about developments in the case just before Election Day.
Horowitz also announced a determination to try to get to the bottom of election-season leaks from the FBI and the Justice Department, as well as claims that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s judgement in the email probe and other matters may have been tainted by financial support his wife received in a state senate race from Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.), a longtime Clinton backer.
Trump has raised that issue repeatedly in recent months, including in tweet on Tuesday morning.
“Problem is that the acting head of the FBI & the person in charge of the Hillary investigation, Andrew McCabe, got $700,000 from H for wife!” the president wrote.
In recent months, Horowitz—an Obama appointee who previously worked in top roles at the Justice Department under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—has been on the receiving end of a slew of letters from lawmakers and interest groups, asking him to expand the scope of the inspector general inquiry.
In February, the then-chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), asked Horowitz to look into leaks of classified intelligence intercepts about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
In March, several Senate Democrats led by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked the inspector general to explore Attorney General Jeff Sessions decision to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia inquiry.
Later that month, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) urged Horowitz to look at whether White House officials pressured the Justice Department to drop the FBI’s investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
In May, Chaffetz asked the inspector general to investigate Trump’s firing of Comey.
And last month, more than 30 House Democrats asked Horowitz to consider whether Sessions violated the terms of his recusal by taking part in Comey’s dismissal.
“One of the first things an IG has to do when lawmakers want you to jump is to figure out how high to jump,” said Bromwich, who runs the Bromwich Group consulting firm and is senior counsel at law firm Robbins Russell. “You’ve got to make careful discriminating judgements about what you do. I think Horowitz and his staff will make individual judgements about what is fairly included or can be fairly included without taking him down a rabbit trail.”
A spokesman for Horowitz declined to comment this week and has repeatedly rebuffed questions about the status of his inquiry. In a recent letter obtained by POLITICO, the inspector general alludes to the possibility that Mueller’s May 17 appointment as special counsel could impact and perhaps even limit what the Justice Department’s permanent internal watchdog office can do.
Horowitz’s letter, sent to Democratic senators more than four months after their request on Sessions’ recusal, notes that Justice has “appointed a Special Counsel to investigate allegations regarding the Russian government interference in the 2016 Presidential election and related matters.”
“We are continuing to assess what, if any, additional review would be appropriate for the OIG to undertake and will update you as appropriate,” Horowitz wrote on July 14, days before he was first scheduled to testify to Senate Judiciary.
The inspector general’s response raises the question of whether Mueller and Horowitz are coordinating and whether the inspector general may be asked to step back in certain areas while given the green light in others.
A spokesman for Mueller declined to comment for this story. Horowitz’s comments at the hearing may also give hints into what Mueller is up to.
For instance, it seems certain that Comey’s firing is now under examination by Mueller, but it’s less clear whether the special prosecutor will seek to explore in detail Comey’s explanations for his actions in the Clinton email probe.
“Some of the details of the probe now seem to overlap at least somewhat with what Mueller is doing,” Bromwich said. “I’m sure they’ve talked and Mueller’s criminal investigation would take preeminence and I’m sure Michael will defer to some extent to him.”
At a hearing just days before he was fired, Comey said he welcomed the inspector general investigation into his decisions.
“Yes, I’ve been interviewed. The Inspector General’s inspecting me look and looking at my conduct in the course of the e-mail investigation, which—I know this sounds like a crazy thing to say—I encourage,” Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 3.
Comey also pointed to one key feature of an inspector general inquiry: unlike a criminal investigation, it traditionally culminates in a public report.
“I want that inspection because…I want my story told because some of its classified but, also, if I did something wrong, I want to hear that. I don’t think I did, but, yes, I’ve been interviewed and I’m sure I’ll be interviewed again,” the then-FBI chief said.
At a committee meeting in May, Sen. Chuck Grassley said Horowitz had assured his staff that the investigation would move forward, despite the fact that Comey’s dismissal obviated the possibility of any punishment for violating department policies or regulations.
“Through my staff, I had conversations because we had heard that because of Comey going that he might not continue that investigation,” the Iowa senator told colleagues. “He’s informed me that he was going to continue the investigation and, if there was any attempt to stop him from continuing that investigation, he’s going to let the whole world know.”