The Justice Department's internal watchdog confirmed late Friday that it did not object to the department's decision to release to Congress earlier this week a set of controversial text messages exchanged between two FBI officials.
The text messages, from a once top FBI counterintelligence official, Peter Strzok, included insults flung toward then-candidate Donald Trump and were used as bullet points in arguments by Republicans at Wednesday's House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing to suggest that the FBI and the special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe were tainted. Strzok led the FBI's Hillary Clinton email investigation and briefly served on Mueller's team investigating interference by Russia in the 2016 election.
He was removed from the team over the summer after the messages were discovered as a part of an ongoing investigation by the DOJ's inspector general into the FBI's actions leading up to the election.
Top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee have been pressing the Justice Department's press shop since Wednesday's hearing to explain how members of the press obtained the messages on the eve of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's appearance in front of the committee.
Rosenstein said Wednesday's hearing that "one of my concerns about this issue is -- what is the status of these messages and is it appropriate to release them?"
"The determination was made that it is so we gave notice to their attorneys, we notified the committee and our goal, congressman, is to make sure that it's clear to you and the American people we are not concealing anything that's embarrassing to the FBI," he added.
In a letter Thursday, committee ranking member Rep. Jerry Nadler, along with vice ranking member Rep. Jamie Raskin and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, asked the DOJ's director of the office of public affairs, Sarah Flores, for "further clarification about this unusual move." The letter goes on to ask Flores to identify "who at the Department of Justice approved your decision to invite the press to view these text messages" and the names of the individuals who attended any "media briefing."
In a statement to CNN Thursday, Flores rejected the accusation that the DOJ did anything improper, explaining that members of Congress received the texts "before any member of the media was given access to view the same copy of the texts."
"When the initial inquiries came from committees and members of Congress, the deputy attorney general consulted with the inspector general, and the inspector general determined that he had no objection to the Department's providing the material to the Congressional committees that had requested it," Flores said. "After that consultation, senior career ethics advisers determined that there were no legal or ethical concerns, including under the Privacy Act, that prohibited the release of the information to the public either by members of Congress or by the Department."
Flores later posted a series of tweets Friday reaffirming that the Inspector General "determined that he had no objection to the Department providing the material to the Congressional committees that had requested it."
The DOJ has, in the past, allowed reporters access to material that's part of an ongoing inspector general investigation. In 2011 and 2012, as the DOJ's inspector general was investigating the failed "Fast and Furious" gun-running operation, the department allowed reporters to review emails sent between agency employees after they were first released to Congress.
But lawmakers also wrote to DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz directly, asking if the department consulted with his office before the release of the messages to Congress and the media.
First, Horowitz responded in a letter to the lawmakers on Friday, saying the department "did not consult with the OIG in order to determine whether releasing the text messages met applicable ethical and legal standards before providing them to Congress" and "did not consult with the OIG before sharing the text messages with the press."
In response to a number of media inquiries, Horowitz then later clarified that his office had, in fact, told the department that it did not object to the release of the text messages to Congress.
"Prior to the Justice Department's decision to release certain text messages this week, the OIG told the Department that we did not object to the Department releasing to Congress records that it had previously produced to us in the course of our ongoing review, which included the text messages," the Inspector General's office said in a statement. "In conveying this position to the Department, we noted that, as with any such release, the Department was responsible for making its own determination about whether any restrictions, such as those affecting grand jury information, limited what records it may provide to Congress."
"At no time prior to the release of the text messages did the Department consult with the OIG about providing records to the media," it added.
Democrats blasted the Justice Department in another statement late Friday evening, accusing the department of misleading the committee "about whether or not officials had obtained the approval of the Inspector General before releasing the text messages of Department employees to Congress and the press."
But Flores said nothing had changed, and the inspector general's statement was consistent with her earlier statements and Rosenstein's testimony before the House panel.
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