Washington – The FBI’s Hillary Clinton email investigation that ended last year without charges remains a lingering grievance for President Donald Trump, who for months has held it up as an example of a “rigged” criminal justice system that shielded his Democratic opponent from punishment for her private server.
The latest flare-up came Friday morning, when Trump tweeted that FBI Director James Comey exonerated Clinton months before the investigation was actually over.
Trump’s tweet was prompted by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s release Thursday of excerpts from interview transcripts involving top FBI officials, including people close to Comey. The interviews were done by investigators from the independent Office of Special Counsel, who were trying to determine if Comey’s actions had violated a federal law that bars government officials from using their positions to influence an election. That investigation was closed following Comey’s firing by Trump in May.
A look at Trump’s claim and the facts:
TRUMP: “Wow, looks like James Comey exonerated Hillary Clinton long before the investigation was over…and so much more. A rigged system!”
THE FACTS: There is some support for Trump’s contention that Comey expected to close out the investigation well before he actually did. Transcripts released by the Senate Judiciary Committee show that Comey, who had been receiving regular briefings on the investigation, had determined that charges were not warranted months before Clinton and other key witnesses had been interviewed.
The FBI has said it found no evidence that anyone intended to violate laws governing classified materials, which it considered a prerequisite for bringing a case.
But the reality is more complicated, and the Republican committee chairman, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, released only portions of the transcript in support of his assertion that the investigation had been closed prematurely.
In one excerpt, Comey’s chief of staff, Jim Rybicki, told investigators that the FBI director in the spring of 2016 had “emailed a couple folks” with a draft statement he could make about the case. At that point, Rybicki said, Comey knew “the direction the investigation is headed” and proposed a statement he would make at the conclusion of the case.
Drafts of the statement began circulating began well before certain key witnesses were interviewed, including Clinton herself. Clinton was interviewed at FBI headquarters on July 2. The investigation was closed three days later.
Some Republicans seized on the transcripts as proof that the investigation was not sufficiently thorough. Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush, tweeted, “Comey has some explaining to do — otherwise people will conclude his investigation was a sham.”
The FBI confirmed it had received a letter from Grassley asking for records about its internal discussions, but declined to comment further.
But Trump’s tweet overlooks the fact that the FBI never actually closed out the investigation until all of the witnesses were interviewed, which means Comey and his agents could have changed their assessment at any time, if Clinton or anyone else said something incriminating or that invited further scrutiny. The investigation had also been open for about nine months by the time Comey, who had been receiving frequent briefings on it, had begun proposing a statement to wrap it up.
It’s also rather simplistic to say that Comey “exonerated” Clinton. Though he declined to recommend criminal charges, he delivered a public rebuke of her during an unusual news conference in which he chastised her and her aides as “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information.
And Comey did effectively reopen the investigation months later, when the FBI discovered an additional batch of emails tied to the case on a laptop belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, whose wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, has filed for divorce. The public revelation of the emails, coming days before the Nov. 8 election, led to bipartisan criticism that the FBI was inappropriately commenting on an open investigation.