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Comey violated policies in handling memos on interactions with Trump, inspector general finds

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2018, file photo, former FBI Director James Comey speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill Washington. The Justice Department’s inspector general says former FBI Director James Comey violated FBI policies in his handling of memos documenting private conversations with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2018, file photo, former FBI Director James Comey speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill Washington. The Justice Department’s inspector general says former FBI Director James Comey violated FBI policies in his handling of memos documenting private conversations with President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)AP/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Former FBI director James Comey violated FBI policies in how he handled memos that detailed his controversial interactions with President Trump, setting a ‘‘dangerous example’’ for bureau employees about substituting personal righteousness for established rules, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog found in a report released Thursday.

The inspector general criticized Comey for keeping the government documents at his home, engineering the release of some of their contents to the news media, and not telling the bureau to whom he had given them — even after he was aware that some contained classified information.

Comey told investigators that he felt the memos were personal and that he was acting in the best interests of the country. But the inspector general rejected that defense, writing that Comey’s senior FBI leaders all agreed that the memos were government documents, and that the former director’s ‘‘own, personal conception of what was necessary was not an appropriate basis for ignoring the policies and agreements governing the use of FBI records.’’

‘‘The responsibility to protect sensitive law enforcement information falls in large part to the employees of the FBI who have access to it through their daily duties,’’ the inspector general wrote. ‘‘Former Director Comey failed to live up to this responsibility.’’

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By now, Comey’s memos are well-known. They described, among other things, how Trump had pressed Comey for loyalty and had asked him about letting go of an investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.

The New York Times first made some of the contents of Comey’s memos public on May 11, 2017, publishing a story about how, at a private dinner, Trump asked him for the loyalty pledge. Later, it published another story detailing Comey and Trump’s conversation about Flynn.

Comey’s orchestration of the release of their contents helped spark special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to affect the 2016 election. Mueller would go on to focus intently on the episodes Comey described as possible obstruction of justice by the president.

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Trump on Thursday seized on the findings to lash out at Comey.

‘‘Perhaps never in the history of our Country has someone been more thoroughly disgraced and excoriated than James Comey in the just released Inspector General’s Report,’’ he tweeted. ‘‘He should be ashamed of himself!’’

In total, the inspector general wrote, Comey wrote seven memos, documenting most of the nine one-on-one conversations he had with Trump in early 2017, just before he was fired.

Comey left three memos at the FBI, the inspector general wrote. But he gave one — which included information the inspector general called ‘‘sensitive,’’ but unclassified — to a friend and authorized him to share its contents. He also stored four of the documents in a safe in his home and provided copies to his personal attorneys, the inspector general found.

One of those memos shared with the attorneys was later determined to contain information that was classified as confidential, the lowest level of secrecy, after a review that included Comey’s FBI general counsel, the inspector general wrote.

The confidential material in that memo entailed six words ‘‘from a statement by President Trump comparing the relative importance of returning telephone calls from three countries,’’ the inspector general wrote. Another memo Comey kept contained a classified ‘‘assessment of a foreign leader by President Trump,’’ though Comey redacted that before providing it to his attorneys, the inspector general wrote.

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On Twitter, Comey noted that the inspector general found ‘‘no evidence’’ that he or his attorneys released any classified information to the media.

‘‘I don’t need a public apology from those who defamed me, but a quick message with a ‘sorry we lied about you’ would be nice,’’ he wrote. ‘‘And to all those who’ve spent two years talking about me ‘going to jail’ or being a ‘liar and a leaker’ — ask yourselves why you still trust people who gave you bad info for so long, including the president.’’

Trump has attacked Comey over the memos and called him a ‘‘proven liar and leaker.’’

The report is the second time Inspector General Michael Horowitz has criticized Comey for how he handled FBI business during his abbreviated tenure in charge of the bureau. Last summer, Horowitz lambasted Comey for his leadership of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, accusing him of insubordination and flouting Justice Department policies in deciding that only he had the authority and credibility to make key decisions on the case and speak about it publicly.

The inspector general wrote that his office gave its findings to the Justice Department to determine whether Comey had committed a crime and that officials declined to prosecute the case. Conservatives, though, used the finding to attack Comey.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, said in a statement that it was a ‘‘stunning and unprecedented rebuke of a former Director of the FBI.’’

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George Terwilliger, a former deputy attorney general and acting attorney general under President George H.W. Bush, said the inspector general had described ‘‘a gross abuse of institutional power and authority.’’

‘‘And for someone who claims on a regular basis the mantle of righteousness, Comey should be ashamed of what he did,’’ Terwilliger said.