Pressure mounts on FBI director James Comey to justify latest email bombshell so close to Election Day
Comey said he can’t say how long new review will take – raising the possibility Clinton could go into Election Day with questions unresolved
FBI director James Comey is facing extraordinary pressure to explain himself after dropping a bombshell on the campaign of Hillary Clinton just 11 days before the presidential election.
Comey revealed that he was reviving a previously completed investigation into Clinton’s email practices in a three-paragraph letter on Friday to congressional leaders that offered few specifics. Former prosecutors and lawmakers from both parties expressed shock and dismay at Comey’s highly unusual decision, which flouted decades of legal custom that call for avoiding taking actions that could affect the outcome of an election.
“It’s really hard to have confidence in the integrity and non-partisan nature of the FBI,” said Anne Weismann, a former Justice Department official who is executive director of the Washington-based Campaign for Accountability. “Unless you’re facing like a statute of limitations problem or something, you just don’t act [this close to an election].”
The actions also draw attention to Comey himself. The imposing, 55-year-old former Republican – he’s said to be six-feet, eight inches tall – came to the job as FBI director in 2013 with a reputation for fierce impartiality. But he has since taken a series of actions that have left him increasingly isolated and even his boosters puzzled.
Early this year he brought a court case seeking to compel Apple to hack into an iPhone used by a dead terrorist, saying that was law enforcement’s only option in the case. The bureau later managed to buy a tool to help it get access to the phone, and the case was dropped.
In July, when the FBI investigation of Clinton was winding down, Comey gave an unusual press conference where he said the former secretary of state and her aides had been “extremely careless” in handling classified information but added that “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case”. That statement went beyond what many observers expected because a final decision on whether to pursue a case is normally left to the attorney general.
Comey’s pattern of providing what the FBI called as much “transparency” as possible on its inquiry into Clinton may have locked him into disclosing the new development.
Comey said in an internal FBI memo obtained by Fox News that he wouldn’t normally tell congress about a continuing investigation. He wrote that he felt obligated because he had testified that the probe was complete, and also it “would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record”. Comey added that the bureau doesn’t know “the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails”.
The lack of specifics or time lines in Comey’s letter to lawmakers produced much of the bipartisan criticism on Friday from lawmakers, who demanded briefings from FBI officials. None of the details about the emails were publicly released by the FBI, which refused to comment beyond the letter, but surfaced through a series of leaks to the media over the course of the day.
Comey said he can’t say how long the review will take – raising the possibility that Clinton could go into Election Day with the new probe unresolved and still hanging over her campaign.
Comey “has no business” making this decision so close to the election while saying he doesn’t know if the emails are even relevant to the earlier Clinton investigation, said Nick Akerman, a former federal prosecutor who is now a partner at Dorsey & Whitney LLP.
“[This] is exactly the reason why we keep our investigations out of public view until they’re completed,“ Akerman said.
“I’ve never seen this before, not even J. Edgar Hoover,” he added, referring to the long-time FBI director criticised for wide-ranging investigations of Martin Luther King Jnr. and other civil rights activists.
A person familiar with the latest investigation said Comey made his decision after new emails were found during an unrelated probe of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s estranged husband, former Representative Anthony Weiner.
Republican Donald Trump cheered the move from the campaign trail, where most national polls have shown him lagging behind Clinton ahead of the November 8 vote.
“This is bigger than Watergate,” Trump said on Friday to a crowd of supporters in New Hampshire who began chanting “lock her up” after he told them about the probe.
“I have great respect that the FBI and Department of Justice have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made. This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood.”
Other Republicans, and Democrats, made clear that they had serious questions about Comey’s decision.
“The letter from director Comey was unsolicited and, quite honestly, surprising,” Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said in a statement. “But it’s left a lot more questions than answers for both the FBI and Secretary Clinton. Congress and the public deserve more context to properly assess what evidence the FBI has discovered and what it plans to do with it.”
California Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said she was “shocked” by Comey’s decision on Friday, which she said benefited Trump’s campaign.
“The FBI has a history of extreme caution near Election Day so as not to influence the results,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Today’s break from that tradition is appalling.”
Clinton, after not discussing the news during two campaign speeches in Iowa, told reporters Friday evening that she hadn’t been contacted by authorities and that she’s “confident” the investigation won’t change the bureau’s decision in July to end its investigation.
“We don’t know what to believe [about the FBI’s move],” she said, adding that it’s “incumbent on the FBI to tell us” what the investigation is about. “The American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately.”