The Slatest

What Is the “Highly Anticipated” FISA Report That Conservatives Keep Talking About?

Michael Horowitz speaks to a House committee.
U.S. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz testifies before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on Sept. 18. Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

On Monday morning, Fox News published a story asking where the FISA report was. “Anticipation builds as DOJ watchdog still hasn’t released review,” the headline proclaimed.

To those outside the conservative news bubble, “the FISA report” might not mean much—let alone be “highly anticipated,” as the story described it. But those who watch Fox News have been primed to think of this report as something that will show that the FBI and Justice Department were reckless, or even acted illegally, in their efforts to undermine Donald Trump. Sen. Lindsey Graham appeared on Fox News on Sunday to promise a public hearing as soon as the report is available. Lou Dobbs complained on Fox when he learned the report had been delayed. Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett promised viewers that the report would mean “harsh judgment” and a possible criminal referral for former FBI Director James Comey. And it’s not just Fox. The larger conservative media world has focused on the report. (The New York Times and the Washington Post, by contrast, have covered the report’s existence, but they haven’t hyped it as a possible game-changer.) The Daily Caller, for example, called the report “much-anticipated” and reminded its readers that “a lot is riding on the report.”

So what is this highly anticipated report? Here’s what you need to know.

It probes the early days of the Russia investigation.
When the Mueller report dropped in April, some conservatives argued that it exonerated the president. As a result, many of Trump’s defenders felt vindicated in thinking that the initial investigation was itself baseless—and therefore politically motivated.

The result: two probes into the origins of the investigations. The first, run by federal prosecutors led by U.S. Attorney John H. Durham, is looking into the possibility of “anti-Trump” bias in the early stages of the Russia investigation.

The second—the inspector general investigation that will produce the awaited FISA report—focuses mostly on the Steele dossier, the opposition research prepared by a former MI6 officer who claimed to have found evidence of Trump colluding with Russia. (It was also the origin of the pee tape.) The Justice Department inspector general, Michael Horowitz, is looking at the decision to include information from the Steele dossier in an application for Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants to monitor Trump adviser Carter Page’s phone calls and emails in 2016 and 2017.

The issue, as conservatives see it, is that the resulting surveillance was an abuse of power by the DOJ and FBI because the warrant was based on opposition research funded by Democrats. Republicans have also alleged that the FBI and DOJ misled the court about the nature of the Steele research by not emphasizing Christopher Steele’s source of funding. But one page of the application says the person who commissioned the research was “likely looking for information” to damage Trump. (It’s also unclear when the FBI ascertained that the DNC and the Clinton campaign had helped fund Steele’s research.) And, as the New York Times noted, the information from the Steele dossier only made up a small part of a lengthy application.

The report is likely coming soon.
Horowitz has completed his investigation, and it’s been reported that the FBI and DOJ are in the process of declassifying it. It is likely to be made public in the coming weeks. Some frustrated conservative pundits have speculated that the delay is a result of infighting, including some people resistant to the report’s publication. Others have pointed out that the scope of the investigation was large and likely will take a while to go through.

It is being covered as a promised rebuke of law enforcement—which it probably will be.
According to Fox News, the report “will likely spark new congressional investigations and deliver critical information to other federal reviews probing allegations of abuse by the Justice Department and the FBI.”

According to the Times, most signs point to the report being critical of the law enforcement agencies—though it’s not clear exactly how. It seems possible Horowitz will recommend new guidelines when it comes to investigations into foreign interference in campaigns, or that he will chide the FBI for relying too heavily on foreign experts, according to the Times. It can’t be known yet what the report says, but the predictions for severity and importance of the findings are falling along largely partisan lines.

It’s not as politically motivated as the other investigation.
Attorney General William Barr said in the spring that he would examine the beginning of the Russia investigation, likely influenced in large part by Trump’s own insistence that the probe was a “witch hunt” meant to defeat his election and, later, thwart his presidency. (Trump and his allies have maintained this allegation without evidence.) Barr is now closely overseeing the federal probe led by Durham, taking a notably active role. And according to the Times, the Durham investigation into anti-Trump bias has expanded to include interviews with international governments and characters. The larger image has convinced many critics that Durham and Barr are doing their very best to find evidence that might support Trump’s conspiracy theories.

But the inspector general’s investigation appears less partisan. Horowitz has more of a reputation for fairness, according to the Times. In the past, he has castigated Comey for publicly stating that he was investigating Hillary Clinton’s private email server, and he did not fault him for deciding not to charge her with anything. He criticized FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page for their texts critical of Trump, but he also said he had not found evidence they had acted in a way that was influenced by their biases when investigating Clinton. Horowitz may be at the center of several Trump-era controversies, but he has not shown himself to be a partisan hack.

Trump has, of course, been excited about the report .
While speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump answered a question about Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton by rambling about the unfairness and “corruption” of the 2016 election. Once in more comfortable territory, Trump brought up the FISA report:

I think people—I know nothing about it, in terms of the report. I’m waiting for the report like everybody else. But I predict you will see things that you don’t even believe, the level of corruption—whether it’s Comey; whether it’s [Peter] Strzok and his lover, [Lisa] Page; whether it’s so many other people—[Andrew] McCabe; whether it’s President Obama himself. Let’s see whether or not it’s President Obama. Let’s see whether or not they put that in.

It’s not totally clear what Trump meant, but it does seem clear that the president is excited about the report both as a potential knock to Democrats and as a potential distraction from the nonstop news related to Ukraine and the impeachment inquiry.

Ultimately, it won’t do much to undermine the real investigation it targets.
It’s possible the report will find some bureaucratic missteps in the handling of a warrant application, but it’s not likely to undo any of the thorough work by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team. Barr’s less impartial investigation—he has himself accused the FBI of “spying” on the Trump campaign—may be the one to really keep an eye out for, if only because it will almost certainly mean more emphatic Trump tweets.