By MATT APUZZO, MICHAEL S. SCHMIDT and ADAM GOLDMAN
New York Times News Service
WASHINGTON – FBI director James Comey told Congress on Sunday that he had seen no evidence in a recently discovered trove of emails to change his conclusion that Hillary Clinton should face no charges over her handling of classified information.
Comey’s announcement, just two days before the election, was an effort to clear the cloud of suspicion he had publicly placed over her presidential campaign late last month when he alerted Congress that the FBI would examine the emails.
“Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton,” Comey wrote in a letter to the leaders of several congressional committees. He said agents had reviewed all communications to and from Clinton in the new trove from when she was secretary of state.
The letter was a dramatic final twist in a tumultuous nine days for both Clinton and Comey, who drew widespread criticism for announcing that the FBI had discovered new emails that might be relevant to its investigation of Clinton, which ended in July with no charges. That criticism of Comey from both parties is likely to persist after the election.
While the new letter was clear as it related to Clinton, Comey’s message was otherwise vague. He did not say that agents had completed their review of the emails or that they were abandoning the matter in regard to her aides. But federal law enforcement officials said they considered the review of emails related to Clinton’s server complete and that Comey’s letter was intended to convey that.
One senior law enforcement official said that as recently as Friday, it was not clear whether the review would be completed by Election Day. But after days of working in shifts around the clock, teams of counterintelligence agents and technology specialists at the bureau’s headquarters in Washington finished their examination of the thousands of emails. Officials had decided to make their decision public as soon as they had reached it, to avoid any suggestion they were suppressing information.
According to the law enforcement official, many of the emails were personal messages or duplicates of ones that the bureau had previously examined during the original inquiry.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton, said in a post on Twitter that the campaign had always believed she would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
“We were always confident nothing would cause the July decision to be revisited,” Fallon said. “Now Director Comey has confirmed it.”
Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s campaign manager, lamented the fact that Comey had again inserted himself into the election, but she predicted that his conclusion would have no effect on the outcome.
“The investigation has been mishandled from the beginning,” Conway said on MSNBC, arguing that Clinton had wasted taxpayer money and federal resources because of her email practices. “She was reckless, she was careless, she was selfish.”
The new review began after agents discovered a cache of emails in early October in an unrelated investigation into disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of one of Clinton’s closest aides. When searching Weiner’s laptop for evidence of whether he had exchanged illicit messages with a teenage girl, they discovered emails belonging to the aide, Huma Abedin.
That announcement renewed talk of an investigation that had shadowed Clinton for much of the Democratic primary campaign. She and her aides had been under investigation for improperly storing classified information on Clinton’s private email server. The discovery of new emails raised the prospect that the laptop might have new information that would renew the FBI inquiry.
Federal law enforcement officials had said for the past week that only something astounding would change their conclusion that nobody should be charged. But the mere potential for legal trouble was enough to make Republicans gleeful. Trump highlighted the FBI’s actions in campaign ads.
At the end of a rocky week for Clinton that included wild false speculation about looming indictments and shocking discoveries in the emails, Comey’s letter swept away her largest and most immediate problem.
Republicans immediately accused Comey of making his announcement prematurely. “Comey must be under enormous political pressure to cave like this and announce something he can’t possibly know,” Newt Gingrich, a Trump adviser, wrote on Twitter.
Comey’s move is also sure to prompt questions from Democrats. Most important among them: Why did Comey raise the specter of wrongdoing before agents had even read the emails, especially since it took only days to determine that they were not significant.
Just hours before Comey sent the letter to Capitol Hill, Senate Democrats said hearings should be held to examine how Comey had handled the matter. After the letter’s release, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said the Justice Department “needs to take a look at its procedures to prevent similar actions that could influence future elections.”
“There’s no doubt that it created a false impression about the nature of the agency’s inquiry,” she added.
The FBI director’s vague, brief announcement Oct. 28 left Clinton with few details to rebut and little time to do it. Many current and former FBI agents and Justice Department officials said Comey had needlessly plunged the FBI into the politics of a presidential election, with no clear way out.
A long list of former Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder, chided Comey. Despite the fact that the bureau did not find anything that changed its original conclusion about Clinton, Comey has insisted that he had no choice but to inform Congress about the new emails because the investigation had been completed and he had pledged transparency, according to senior FBI officials.
Because of Comey’s Oct. 28 letter, Attorney General Loretta Lynch made completing a review of the emails a top priority. Late last month, Comey ordered agents to work around the clock to sift through the messages. That process, senior FBI officials said, was painstaking, because each message that had been sent to Clinton had to be reviewed to determine whether it had sensitive national security materials.
In Comey’s short letter to Congress on Sunday, he said that he was “very grateful to the professionals at the FBI for doing an extraordinary amount of high-quality work in a short period of time.”