As Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 presidential contest wound to a close, opponents of President Donald Trump had high hopes. This conclusive account of the events that involved a Russian attack on American interests and an improbable election result would finally be explained. Some presumed that the report would expose the sordid associations and parochial personal interests that led Trump to rush to Vladimir Putin’s defense at every opportunity. But when the report was released, it did not deliver.
Though the special counsel concluded that Russia had brazenly intervened in the American political process, there was no grand scheme to conspire with a foreign power involving the president or his closest associates. At most, the president was implicated in the effort to obstruct that investigation, though his actions were thwarted by the subordinates that disregarded Trump’s directives. Proponents of the conspiracy theory were left to contend that Trump had violated his oath of office by attempting and failing to obstruct justice. No matter how passionately these advocates made their case, the expectations that had been set for the Mueller report went unmet, and the public responded with a yawn.
That story is repeating itself on Monday, but with the players’ roles reversed. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz had spent months leading up to this week studying the origins and propriety of the 2016 probe of the Donald Trump campaign, and expectations were once again high. Horowitz had developed a reputation for impartiality following his finding that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, a fierce opponent of the president, should face criminal prosecution for authorizing leaks to reporters and misleading investigators. “He knew all about the lies and corruption going on at the highest levels of the FBI!” read the president’s celebratory tweet in the wake of McCabe’s dismissal. Horowitz was going to get to the bottom of that “corruption,” and the president’s defenders awaited a bombshell.
Trump’s allies long suspected that the Justice Department under Barack Obama had manipulated intelligence to justify the federal investigation into the Trump campaign, but, like the Mueller report, Horowitz failed to deliver the incendiary revelations they’d anticipated. His investigation into 2016 found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decision to open the four individual investigations” of Trump campaign operatives. Indeed, Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the counterintelligence probe that begat those investigations, “was opened for an authorized investigative purpose and with sufficient factual predication.” The FBI’s use of confidential informants complied with standard operating procedures, and the infamous Steele Dossier did not factor into the Bureau’s decision making. “These officials,” Horowitz noted, “did not become aware of Steele’s election reporting until weeks later and we, therefore, determined that Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.”
But like the special counsel’s findings, Horowitz does not completely exonerate the targets of his inquiry. The inspector general discovered that one FBI attorney assigned to the case manipulated the contents of an email for the purposes of misleading a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in pursuit of a warrant to surveil Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Steele’s dubious reporting did inform the renewal of that warrant, and the FBI failed to inform the Court about its suspect nature. “We do not speculate whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omissions, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome,” the report maintains. Still, the manipulation of evidence surely taints the original FISA warrant against Page. As Horowitz notes and Rep. Devin Nunes confessed, though, that has no bearing on the origins of the investigation into the Trump campaign. It was, after all, the conduct of another Trump associate, George Papadopoulos, that “triggered the opening of an FBI counterintelligence investigation in late July 2016.”
The president’s allies will now find themselves in the unenviable position their adversaries have occupied for several months. Having ramped up the expectation that President Trump was a victim of a plot from within the nation’s unelected bureaucracies, this theory’s advocates are now reduced to asserting that the “deep-state conspiracy” consists of a sloppy warrant application in pursuit of a minor figure briefly in Trump’s orbit. Improper? Certainly. A massive intrigue retroactively invalidating all the investigations into Donald Trump’s conduct? Hardly.
Of course, the purgatorial torment to which we have all been consigned compels us to relive the events of the last presidential election cycle for the foreseeable future. No one investigation will redeem us. Attorney General William Barr has tasked U.S. Attorney John Durham with conducting an overlapping investigation into the origins of the Trump probe, and both figures have signaled they disagree with Horowitz’s underwhelming conclusions. Perhaps Durham’s inquiry will produce a more satisfying product for those who allege that the president was victimized by a cabal of political operators within law enforcement, but their once straightforward corruption narrative is now indelibly muddied. They will soon learn what Trump’s opponents discovered when Robert Mueller debunked the “collusion” theory: When you play the expectations game poorly, you lose.