More dark clouds over 2016 election

Russian meddling, manipulation of social media, FBI investigations of both major party campaigns, imprudent if not improper conduct by a former FBI director and attorney general, and a result in which the winner received about 3 million less votes made the 2016 presidential election among the most controversial in U.S. history.

And the aftershocks continue. A new report from the Office of the Inspector General finds no evidence that the investigations during the election were influenced by political considerations. Yet it contains enough troubling findings to further undermine confidence in the democratic process and fuel conspiracy theories.

The flippant nature of texts sent by two FBI officials, one involved in investigations in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, is perhaps the most stunning and potentially damaging revelation.

FBI Agent Peter Strzok led the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private unsecured server for emails during her time as Secretary of State. At the time Strzok was romantically involved with then-FBI attorney Lisa Page. They exchanged texts, thousands of them. Among them, this:

“(Trump’s) not ever going to become president, right. Right?!” texted Page. “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it,” responded Strzok.

How could an FBI agent consider such a statement proper? It implied, as the inspector general notes, “A willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects.”

Strzok later joined Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Mueller dropped him from the investigatory team a year ago, however, upon learning of the text messages suggesting bias against President Trump.

A second major finding affirms what has been apparent from the start, that former FBI Director James Comey exceeded his authority and deviated from long-established policies in his handling of investigation results involving the Clinton emails.

The inspector general concluded the Justice Department decision not to prosecute Clinton or her senior aides was consistent with its approach in similar cases, noting the FBI found no intent to release classified information.

What happened next, however, was not consistent with past practice. Rather than simply noting the conclusion of the investigation and the decision not to prosecute, Comey went rogue. In a July 5 news conference, he revealed that the FBI was recommending no charges, but Comey added that Clinton and her advisors were guilty of extreme carelessness. There was no precedent, the inspector general found, for criticizing such “uncharged conduct.”

Comey compounded his error by sending a letter to Congress on Oct. 28, just before the election, saying that the FBI had reopened the Clinton email review, a decision that most certainly cost the Democrat votes, even though the brief reopening resulted in no charges. Again, Comey had acted in an ad hoc manner and outside traditional protocols.

The report by the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Justice calls Comey's actions "insubordinate," and we agree.

Criticism is also properly aimed at Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch for her impromptu meeting June 27, 2016 with former President Bill Clinton on her government jet, parked at an Arizona airport. Clinton's plane was parked there as well.

While investigators found no evidence that the pair discussed the email investigation, the report calls Lynch’s failure to recognize the appearance of conflict created by President Clinton’s visit “an error in judgment.”

Indeed. President Clinton should never have initiated the meeting and, once he did, Lynch should have politely declined. Only they know what was said. It leaves one more cloud forever hanging over the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference, potential collusion with the Trump campaign, and possible actions to obstruct justice continues. Mueller’s findings, when released, should be judged on their merits and not by prior missteps.

But bolstered by the disturbing findings of the inspector general, the prospects that Republicans in Congress will reject Mueller’s findings if negative toward the president have grown. As ugly as was the 2016 election, the aftermath could turn uglier.

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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