James Comey, the FBI director, has been facing intense criticism for days now following his Friday revelations that the bureau has started investigating newly discovered e-mails said to have passed through Hillary Clinton’s private server.
The Friday revelation sent heads spinning, from the left and the right, since there is less than two weeks before the presidential election. (Clinton, the Democratic nominee, faces Donald Trump on the GOP ticket on November 8.)
The development came three months after Comey publicly said Clinton or any member of her staff while she was secretary of state were cleared of any criminal wrongdoing in connection to Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server at her New York home. But on Friday, Comey wrote members of Congress that the bureau had recently discovered e-mail that might have passed through that server while conducting a separate investigation. The bureau was looking into Anthony Weiner, a politician and the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, in an unrelated sexting scandal.
The Internet, radio news, and broadcast and cable TV fiercely debated the timing, the nature, and the legality of the fresh inquiry announced by Comey, who was a deputy attorney general under President George W. Bush and who was appointed as bureau director by President Barack Obama.
The Senate’s minority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, suggested that Comey’s “partisan” action breached a federal law designed to prevent the bureau from influencing elections. “My office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act, which bars FBI officials from using their official authority to influence an election. Through your partisan action, you may have broken the law,” Reid wrote the director.
The Hatch Act, also known as An Act to Prevent Pernicious Political Activities, essentially is designed to limit political activities of federal employees. It prohibits them from using their powers to influence, interfere, or “affect the result of an election.” The first polls post the Comey announcement, however, showed Clinton ahead of Trump by three percentage points—46 percent to 43 percent. Polling before the e-mail news showed a similar margin.
Meanwhile, former Attorney General Eric Holder and other former federal prosecutors wrote a letter obtained by The Associated Press late Sunday. “We cannot recall a prior instance where a senior Justice Department official—Republican or Democrat—has, on the eve of a major election, issued a public statement where the mere disclosure of information may impact the election’s outcome yet the official acknowledges the information to be examined may not be significant or new,” the letter said.
Several Senate Democrats demanded a private briefing on the issue. One Democratic senator even demanded the director’s resignation. Unsurprisingly, the Clinton and Trump camps offered divergent statements over the issue. Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said that the FBI should have determined the relevance of the e-mail before going public. “He might have taken the first step of actually having looked at them before he did this in the middle of a presidential campaign, so close to the voting,” Podesta said. Podesta also called on the FBI to release more information. Trump said the latest e-mail flap underscored that Clinton was unfit for president because of a “criminal scheme.”
Comey told fellow staffers Friday that he was obligated to tell Congress about the renewed inquiry because he had publicly stated months ago that the inquiry was over.
This morning I sent a letter to Congress in connection with the Secretary Clinton email investigation. Yesterday, the investigative team briefed me on their recommendation with respect to seeking access to emails that have recently been found in an unrelated case. Because those e-mails appear to be pertinent to our investigation, I agreed that we should take appropriate steps to obtain and review them.
Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.
That brief letter to lawmakers said that the FBI “in connection with an unrelated case” has “learned of the existence of e-mails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” The bureau, Comey said, is taking “appropriate investigative steps to determine whether they contain classified information.” Comey said he did not know how long the investigation would take.
Comey also told lawmakers in the letter that the FBI “cannot yet assess” whether the newly discovered e-mail is “material” or “significant.”
The bureau is examining e-mails discovered after it seized electronic devices belonging to Abedin and her estranged husband. The agency is investigating Weiner over illicit text messages he sent to a 15-year-old girl. The Wall Street Journal said there are as many as 650,000 e-mails in all, and perhaps thousands of those have crossed Clinton’s server.
In July, Comey issued a harsh assessment of Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state. He said her handling of classified data was “extremely careless.” But Comey at the time closed the case, saying he would recommend no criminal charges. The director said there was a lack of evidence that Clinton had intended to expose or transmit classified data or that she mishandled information in a willful oversight of her responsibilities.