President Obama rebuked on Wednesday FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce a new review of thousands of emails that may—or may not—be relevant to the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private server.
It was the first time that Obama has weighed in on a roiling controversy over whether Comey should have disclosed the inquiry just days before the presidential election. And it immediately raised the question of whether the president still has confidence in the FBI director, who holds a ten-year term.
“Were you yourself upset with the timing at all?” Obama was asked in an interview with NowThis News, referring to Comey’s decision to notify Congress last Friday of the new email probe.
Stressing that he wanted to avoid the appearance of himself becoming involved in the political process, Obama said, “There is a norm that when we are investigating, we don’t operate on innuendo. We don’t operate on incomplete information. We don’t operate on leaks.”
Obama didn’t mention Comey by name, but the question he answered was clearly about the FBI director’s decision, which he has said he made independently.
Current and former officials from both parties have criticized Comey’s decision to notify Congress of the new inquiry, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other senior Justice Department officials opposed it, saying Comey was going against longstanding policy that law enforcement officials should take actions that might influence an election.
In addition to the timing, Comey has been lambasted for not giving Congress, and by extension the public, a fuller picture of what the emails may or may not say. In part that’s been difficult because until last Sunday, the FBI didn’t have a warrant to review the content of the emails. So when Comey alerted Congress two days earlier, he wasn’t privy to all the facts of the case, something he acknowledged. He wasn’t even clear whether the emails in question were duplicates of ones previous reviewed by the FBI.
But Obama’s remarks appeared immediately more significant given how unusual it is for a sitting president to question the decisions of an FBI director. Obama has weighed in on the Clinton email saga before, but never in a manner that suggested he thought Comey—whom Obama appointed—had made a mistake or broken with long-standing policies that are meant to insulate the FBI from allegations of political favoritism or bias.
Comey’s letter, sent to Republican and Democratic committee leaders, said the emails were discovered “in connection with an unrelated case.” He didn’t say it at the time, but officials later confirmed the emails were discovered during an investigation of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, who allegedly exchanged sextually explicit messages with a 15-year old girl. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, is a close aide to Clinton. When investigators were searching through a laptop shared by the now-estranged couple, they came upon emails that they thought might be “pertinent,” as Comey put it, to the Clinton investigation.
Comey had previously told lawmakers that the Clinton investigation was essentially wrapped up. But he had promised to alert them to any changes or new developments.
In the interview, Obama repeated Comey’s earlier findings that Clinton and her aides had erred in using a private email server for official business, but that they hadn’t committed a chargeable crime.
“When this was investigated thoroughly the last time, the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations, was that she had made some mistakes, but that there wasn’t athing there that was prosecutable.”