A running joke of this presidential election year has been to acknowledge the speed and proximity of big, head-spinning events—this happened, and that happened, and it’s only Wednesday—but memories have smoothed out the similar chaos of the last presidential election year.
On Oct. 7, 2016, at 3:30 p.m., the CIA released a bombshell statement that the Russian government had been behind numerous email-hacking incidents and was threatening to disrupt the upcoming election. An hour later, the Washington Post posted audio of Donald Trump telling Access Hollywood reporter Billy Bush, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Over the next month and right through the 2016 election, the hits would keep coming: Donald Trump pal Roger Stone’s revelation of “back-channel communication” with email leaker Julian Assange; the FBI’s continuing investigation of Trump foreign-policy adviser Carter Page (that would not become public until after the election); the revelation that the FBI had discovered tens of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s “missing” emails on former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop; the further revelation that those emails were essentially meaningless; and the Election Night stunner that Donald Trump would become the next president of the United States.
Washington Post reporter Devlin Barrett recounts those events from deep inside an embattled and politicized FBI in his new book October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. Barrett sat down with The Daily Beast to talk about how—and why—former FBI director James Comey unwittingly steered the 2016 election to Donald Trump and whether the still-reeling FBI will ever recover.
Did you conclude that the FBI changed the outcome of the 2016 election?
I did, and I put a lot of thought into that. After looking at the polling numbers and talking to people who were watching the polling numbers in real time, I was convinced that James Comey’s letter of Oct. 28 tipped the balance to Trump.
Why did Hillary Clinton have a private email server when she was Secretary of State?
She has said that she did it for the sake of convenience, and there’s probably some truth to that. She came to the State Department from the Senate, where her emails were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act the way they would be in the Executive Branch. She and her staff viewed the private server as a way to shield themselves from the FOIA laws, and they grossly misjudged what the consequences of that would be.
The discussion of Clinton’s email server during the 2016 campaign was that 33,000 of Clinton’s emails were “missing.” Where were they?
The FBI determined that Clinton sent 60,000 emails when she was Secretary of State. About half of those were turned over to the State Department in response to FOIA requests, and the other half were deleted as personal or not otherwise related to State Department work. An official responding to a FOIA request can determine whether certain emails are government records. You could argue whether that’s a good rule or not, but that’s the rule.
Clinton’s lawyers deleted the emails that they determined to be unrelated to official work, and that creates an obsession on the right about finding the 33,000 emails. The deleted emails became a Holy Grail that would supposedly prove corruption at the Clinton Foundation and supposed health problems if anyone could ever find them.
Was James Comey acting according to FBI and Justice Department rules when he had a press conference in the summer of 2016 to announce the end of the investigation?
That was definitely not in keeping with Justice Department policy, and he now essentially concedes that point. His argument was that the investigation was so important and so unusual that he had to go beyond the regular practice of not commenting publicly on investigations. He announced that the FBI would not recommend any criminal prosecution.
Does the FBI ordinarily make a recommendation about whether to charge someone?
They do, but that would ordinarily be a private process. That’s generally a conversation between the FBI and the Justice Department with the Justice Department making the final call as the prosecuting authority. Comey effectively made the decision himself, which is why people at the Justice Department were and still are furious with him about that.
So that happened during the summer of 2016, and then in the fall the FBI determined that Anthony Weiner, who was married to one of Clinton’s top aides, had tens of thousands of Clinton’s emails on his computer. What did you make of Comey disclosing that with a letter to Congress?
I think he sent the letter to Congress to give himself some cover that he was not making a press announcement, but that’s fairly disingenuous. Within a minute of that letter going up to the Hill, a member of Congress was tweeting it out.
He was commenting on an ongoing investigation, which was a bigger violation of FBI guidelines than commenting on the end of an investigation.
Right, absolutely. He was reopening a case that everyone thought was closed, and he made, essentially, a public announcement about the investigation of a presidential candidate 11 days before the 2016 election. He justified it because, one, he didn’t think Trump would win, and, two, he wanted to make sure that the Republicans wouldn’t come for him after the election.
When Comey sent another letter to Congress saying the FBI didn’t find anything of any significance on Anthony Weiner’s computer, that didn’t have the impact of a press conference.
No, and at that point he felt like saying anything about Clinton’s emails would be bad for her. Clinton’s own pollsters have said that any story about her emails was bad for Clinton. Even absolving her publicly for a second time was politically bad for Clinton.
That’s a pretty grim place for the director of the FBI to find himself. The fact that he ever talked publicly about the emails put him in an untenable position.
It’s unbelievable. The original sin was the press conference in July; once he says those things on the record—on television—he was beholden to updating it with facts as they happened. To this day, a lot of people at the Bureau do not understand how he thought that it would go any way other than awful.
Parallel to the Hillary Clinton investigation, the FBI was investigating a Trump associate named Carter Page. What was that about?
The Trump campaign added him to its list of foreign-policy advisers at a time when it was desperate to find foreign-policy people willing to associate their names with Donald Trump. The FBI had long-running concerns about Page for reasons that involved Russia but had nothing to do with the Trump campaign; those concerns became more intense when he became involved with the Trump campaign.
Donald Trump has been saying during the 2020 campaign that Barack Obama “spied” on him during the 2016 campaign. What is Trump referring to?
He is referring to the use of informants to surreptitiously record and question Carter Page and a lower-level aide named George Papadopoulos. I think what Trump is trying to say is that the investigation of those aides was unfair and unfounded.
Has any of the Christopher Steele dirt—Trump’s financial ties to Russians, Russians providing information to the Trump campaign, etc.—been proven false?
A lot of it has been proven false. The easiest one to disprove was the allegation that [Trump lawyer] Michael Cohen had gone to Prague to meet with Russians. The Bureau is absolutely certain at this point, and was fairly certain in 2017, that it just never happened. Most of what was in the Steele dossier cannot be substantiated.
Is the Trump pee tape real?
I actually don’t know if there is a pee tape. The Steele dossier is full of a lot of unverified stuff, and much of it will likely never be verified.
There are text messages from the FBI’s Lisa Page and Peter Strzok that give the book a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern commentary about everything that was happening. How important was that to your reporting?
It was hugely important because these were personal conversations about work, and the work was the Clinton investigation and to a lesser degree the Trump investigation. Having two, frankly, humans talking about these things in very human ways in text was super useful in putting life and color and meaning into what was happening at the FBI. They were like Waldorf and Statler from The Muppets narrating this incredible moment in U.S. history.
The FBI announced it was investigating Hillary Clinton’s emails, announced two weeks before the election that it was reopening that case, and didn’t announce anything about investigations that would lead to federal convictions for several people close to Donald Trump. Has the FBI reckoned with what it did?
I think things have changed. The FBI is trying very hard this year to stay out of the election, and that’s with President Trump calling for the FBI to make investigations and arrests within a month of Election Day.
What do you think would be the focus of the Justice Department and FBI under a President Biden?
If Joe Biden wins, a big question is going to be how much house-cleaning to do. There’s generally a view that a new administration would need a fresh start because of how politicized the Justice Department and FBI have become in the Trump years, but you run the risk that you focus all of your energy on that.
There is the possibility that you can never stop the politicization of the FBI because it’s so valuable politically; it’s already made someone president. How will you ever get the two political parties to stand down from that?
Preet Bharara, who was formerly the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, told me in 2019 that he thinks Trump will eventually be prosecuted for the campaign violations that sent Michael Cohen to prison.
That will be probably the biggest decision that a Biden administration’s Justice Department would have to make.
That and potentially hundreds of counts of obstruction of justice against Donald Trump and members of his administration.
For sure. Those are huge choices, and there are huge constituencies on both sides of those choices that will make them difficult choices. I don’t know if Preet is right about that; there are huge political and institutional costs to prosecuting an ex-president. That would be the mother of all fights over politicization of the Justice Department, and it could make that politicization permanent.
Have you seen any reporting from the Biden transition that would indicate how they’re thinking about the Justice Department and the FBI?
There are personnel decisions in the Biden transition that I don’t think have been made yet, but I think an early contender for Attorney General is Sally Yates. You’ve seen a degree of caution in her public appearances and public statements that she knows she is a contender for that job if Biden wins. Among Democrats, there’s generally a view that she performed well during her brief stint as Acting Attorney General in early 2017.
Sally Yates potentially walks an incoming Biden administration into some conflicts that it wouldn’t have to face by appointing an outsider like Stacey Abrams.
A lot of this depends on the makeup of the Senate. If there’s a Democratic Senate, I think Biden would have the freedom to pick who he wants and not have to worry about losing a vote or two. If there is a Republican-controlled Senate, Biden would have to consider whether he wants a confirmation hearing that will be about what happened in 2016.
Regardless, Sally Yates has acquitted herself pretty well in the public relitigation of 2016. Of all the people who touched a horrible nightmare of a situation in 2016, she is one of the few whose image has actually been burnished in the years since.
CORRECTIONS: This article originally stated that Hillary Clinton did not have a State Department email address. She had two, which the inspector general found she did not use but staffers sometimes sent messages on her behalf. Also, the article stated that the Peter Strzok-Lisa Page texts were discovered in the course of an Inspector General investigation about leaks to the press. The leak investigation was only part of a broader investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Clinton email investigation, and the texts were released by the Justice Department before the inspector general offered his findings.