Email find puts FBI chief in a tough spot
Democrats and Republicans agree that James Comey is a man of integrity. But the FBI chief, in striving to live up to that reputation, now finds himself accused of interfering in the US presidential elections just days before the vote.
On Friday, Comey announced the discovery of a trove of emails with possible relevance to the FBI’s closed investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server while she was secretary state.
Comey, 55, acknowledged in a brief letter to congressional leaders that he did not know if anything of significance was in the emails, and would not until they had been reviewed by his agents.
In a separate message to FBI personnel, he explained that he felt “an obligation” to inform Congress “given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed.”
“In the middle of an election season,” he conceded, “there is significant risk of being misunderstood.”
And misunderstood he apparently has been, on all sides.
“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it’s everybody’s deepest hope that justice at last will be beautifully delivered,” crowed Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, without knowing what the latest batch of emails contain.
The emails were reportedly found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced congressman and estranged husband of one of Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin.
– ‘Pretty strange’ –
Clinton, who called for all the email to be made public, said it was “pretty strange” and “deeply troubling” that Comey would announce their existence with so little information right before an election.
Her aides hammered home the same message.
“It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election,” said John Podesta, her campaign chairman. “The director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining.”
Harry Reid, the top Democrat in the US Senate, sent Comey a letter on Sunday, warning him that he “may have broken the law” by using his influence to favor one side over another in an election.
“Your actions in recent months have demonstrated a disturbing double standard for the treatment of sensitive information, with what appears to be a clear intent to aid one political party over another,” he said.
Former attorney general Eric Holder called it “a serious error with potentially severe implications” by a man of “integrity and honor.”
In an op-ed piece published in the Washington Post, Holder noted that the Justice Department’s policy is to not comment on ongoing investigations — or take unnecessary actions close to elections that might influence the outcome.
– ‘An impossible spot’ –
Reacting to Comey’s bombshell, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he would “neither defend nor criticize” him.
Earnest said President Barack Obama — who appointed the Republican Comey in 2013 — to be “a man of integrity, a man of principle.”
But he also pointed to traditions that “limit public discussion of facts that are collected in the context” of ongoing investigations.
And he acknowledged the intensity of criticism facing Comey, from all quarters.
“He’s in a tough spot, and he’s the one who will be in a position to defend his actions in the face of significant criticism from a variety of legal experts, including individuals who served in senior Department of Justice positions in administrations led by presidents in both parties,” Earnest said.
Comey had told top Justice Department officials he had decided to tell Congress about the new emails. They tried to dissuade him, in vain.
Could he have done anything else?
Sources close to Comey told the Washington Post he thought the information would be leaked to the media, with the risk that his silence would be interpreted as an attempted cover-up.
“I think Comey was in an impossible spot,” Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said Monday, citing reports that others in the FBI had known for some time about the emails.
“He was compelled to come forward and say his testimony was no longer true,” she said.
Comey caused a stir in July when he announced at a surprise press conference that he would not bring charges against Clinton over her use of a private server, even though she had been “extremely careless” in her handling of classified material.
Two days later, in testimony before a Republican dominated Congress, he pledged to keep lawmakers apprised of any new developments.
Still unknown is what is in the latest emails and whether they contain classified information.
A judge on Sunday authorized the FBI to search them to find out.
Experts say it’s not certain that the FBI can conclude its review before the November 8 elections, even if it works quickly.
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