Despite Justice Department warnings, FBI's Comey throws last-minute wrench into presidential election

Los Angeles Times (TNS)


Ever since federal agents concluded this summer that they had no case against Hillary Clinton over mishandling classified information, FBI Director James Comey has been in a bind.

He could either take the traditional approach of keeping quiet, or publicly explain his reasoning. A man unafraid of the spotlight, Comey decided to address the matter head-on, as he did again Friday in telling lawmakers that agents were reviewing newly discovered emails that may be pertinent to the investigation.

Comey, confidants say, wanted to maintain transparency in the face of multiple pressures: from both political parties and from agents, former agents and his bosses at the Justice Department. But by making such a move just 11 days before the election, he also has thrown the FBI under a harsh glare and influenced a presidential race more deeply than the bureau ever has.

“He has been trying to thread this needle between keeping things close to the vest, like we typically do, and explaining matters to the public because this is such an unusual and public case,” said a colleague who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It is a really narrow window. And he would acknowledge it hasn’t always worked out the way he hoped. He was going to be damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t.”

And damned he was.

Democrats reacted Friday with frustration and anger, issuing statements criticizing Comey for releasing a vague letter so close to Election Day. Even some Republicans condemned Comey for stepping into the race. Most, though, expressed glee that Clinton’s emails were suddenly a dominant topic again at this late stage.

Comey, who had Justice Department jobs in the George W. Bush administration, learned of the new developments in the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server on Thursday from agents, law enforcement officials said.

He was told that investigators found emails related to Clinton’s server during their investigation into whether Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman and estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, had violated federal law while sexting a teenage girl in another state. The emails were on a laptop jointly used by Abedin and Weiner.

So far, agents have found no emails that were directly to or from Clinton. Many are forwards from Abedin to herself, a law enforcement official said.

No evidence has been uncovered that the emails had been withheld by Clinton or her aides, law enforcement officials said.

In briefing Comey, agents said they felt they needed to investigate further to determine whether classified information had ended up on Weiner’s device, a law enforcement official said.

Comey consulted with senior Justice Department officials and was urged not to disclose any developments in light of long-standing guidelines, according to two officials briefed on the matter. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was not involved in the discussions, they said.

The FBI and Justice Department rarely discuss details of ongoing investigations, and they are urged to avoid even the appearance of politically motivated investigations.

“Law enforcement officers and prosecutors may never select the timing of investigative steps or criminal charges for the purpose of affecting any election, or for the purpose of giving an advantage or disadvantage to any candidate or political party,” former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a 2012 memo.

But Comey concluded that he had to go public because he had told the world in July that the investigation was over. He echoed those comments in congressional testimony and was concerned that if the bureau waited until after the election, it would be accused of playing politics and withholding information from the electorate.

“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,” Comey wrote in an email to bureau employees Friday. “I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.”

Comey’s step was set in motion months ago, some close to him suggested, when Lynch drew sharp criticism over allowing former President Bill Clinton to come aboard her plane on an Arizona tarmac for a chat. The attorney general conceded the meeting “cast a shadow” over the department and announced she would accept the recommendations of career agents and prosecutors investigating the case, as well as the FBI director.

“That was the tipping point,” said a second Comey colleague. “He didn’t have a choice after that. . He kind of had to take a bullet for her if the government had any chance to prove the case was not shaped or altered by politics.”

Though most agents, especially those investigating the Clinton case, agreed with Comey’s decision not to recommend criminal charges, they continue to grapple with him stepping so boldly into the public fray, according to interviews with current and former agents.

“I was shocked by it,” Ronald Hosko, a former agent, said in describing Comey’s public approach to the case. “But I understand why he did it. In his mind, he had no choice. It was such an unusual and public case, and he had to be transparent. But by going public like that, being transparent, now he can’t stop doing that. He has to keep talking about it. I struggle with the decision he made. Was it the right call? I think so. But it wasn’t an easy one.”