The Justice Department’s internal watchdog will issue a wide-ranging report Thursday afternoon on how top federal officials handled the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Over 17 months in the making, the report – anticipated to be released at 2 p.m. ET, according to a source familiar with the plan – is expected to walk through a sequence of key events leading up to the 2016 election.
Its intent was to provide a non-partisan examination of how the Justice Department and FBI operated during one of the most closely scrutinized investigations in decades. But the practical effect of Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s findings will likely now pour lighter fluid on an already heated debate about the actions and motivations of law enforcement that has continued to simmer throughout the Trump administration.
Here’s what to know:
Why does this report matter?
President Donald Trump has repeatedly asserted that the FBI botched the Clinton email investigation. He’s suggested – without any factual support – that the investigation was “rigged” in her favor.
Horowitz has said that he’s looking into whether investigative decisions were based on “improper considerations,” but it’s unclear how deeply he will explore the underlying motives of the top decisionmakers at the Justice Department and FBI.
Horowitz is also expected to provide a frank assessment of how former FBI Director James Comey ignored longstanding departmental norms at key moments in the Clinton probe.
From a practical standpoint, Comey’s “punishment” for any claims of insubordination came over a year ago, when Trump summarily fired him. However, Trump’s original justification for axing Comey – failing to follow Justice Department protocols – quickly fell by the wayside when Trump said he did it with the “Russia thing” on this mind.
More recently, the President has signaled a hope that the inspector general’s report will vindicate his instincts on Comey.
“When will people start saying, ‘thank you, Mr. President, for firing James Comey?’” Trump tweeted last week, later telling reporters that when the inspector general’s report is released on Thursday, it may be “a nice birthday present.”
Comey’s actions and motivations
The report will review the series of events leading up to Comey’s decision in July 2016 to announce publicly, without Justice Department approval, that while he found Clinton’s actions “extremely careless,” he would not recommend charges against her.
The Justice Department also advised Comey that his intent – to reveal to Capitol Hill just days before the November 2016 election that FBI agents had recovered additional emails possibly relevant to the Clinton probe – would run counter to department policy, and yet he did it anyway. Comey has defended himself at length in his book and during interviews, but look for how the inspector general treats his admission that a belief Clinton would win the election subconsciously influenced his actions.
What about Loretta Lynch’s meeting with President Bill Clinton?
To be sure, Horowitz will confront a broader set of actions taken by former senior officials at the Justice Department as well.
In the midst of the Clinton email probe, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch privately met with former President Bill Clinton for roughly 30 minutes on a tarmac in Arizona.
As time has passed, Lynch has said she regretted the encounter, but she never formally recused herself from the investigation – instead saying she would accept the recommendations of career Justice Department staff and the FBI.
Andrew McCabe, text messages, and leaks
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe will also face scrutiny for the apparent month-long delay between the time that agents discovered possible Clinton investigation-related emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop and when the FBI finally obtained a search warrant.
Trump regularly claims McCabe had a conflict of interest in overseeing the FBI’s investigation into Clinton, given that his wife received campaign donations from a Clinton ally. But Jill McCabe received those donations from a PAC affiliated with then-Democratic Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe before McCabe oversaw the Clinton probe. An open question is whether McCabe should have recused himself from the investigation earlier.
And two other senior-level FBI officials, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, have come under fire for regularly trading barbs about Trump on their work phones, making Horowitz’s judgment on their conduct another issue to watch. The pair, who were engaged in a romantic relationship for a period of time, have come under scrutiny by Trump and his allies on Capitol Hill given their brief stints on the special counsel’s team. Page left the FBI in May but Strzok, once the No. 2 in the counterintelligence division, remains at the bureau, now stationed in human resources.
And while leaks from the FBI to the news media are expected to be under review, so too are allegations of improper disclosures from the Justice Department to the Clinton campaign. When Horowitz announced the review in January 2017, he said it would address accusations that Peter Kadzik, the former head of legislative affairs at DOJ, gave “non-public information” to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, after reports on stolen emails from WikiLeaks revealed Kadzik sent a “heads up” about a congressional hearing where another Justice official was likely to be questioned about Clinton’s email use.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.