Justice Department officials are taking a fresh look at Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of State, The Daily Beast has learned.
An ally of Attorney General Jeff Sessions who is familiar with the thinking at the Justice Department’s Washington headquarters described it as an effort to gather new details on how Clinton and her aides handled classified material. Officials’ questions include how much classified information was sent over Clinton’s server; who put that information into an unclassified environment, and how; and which investigators knew about these matters and when. The Sessions ally also said officials have questions about immunity agreements that Clinton aides may have made.
A former senior DOJ official familiar with department leadership’s thinking said officials there are acutely aware of demands from President Donald Trump that they look into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State—and that they lock up her top aide, Huma Abedin.
For instance, Trump tweeted on Dec. 2, “Many people in our Country are asking what the ‘Justice’ Department is going to do about the fact that totally Crooked Hillary, AFTER receiving a subpoena from the United States Congress, deleted and ‘acid washed’ 33,000 Emails? No justice!”
The former official said tweets like this present two challenges for department leadership: looking into the matter in a way consistent with normal Justice Department approaches, and trying to avoid the appearance that they are trying “to put Huma in jail.”
A spokesperson for the Justice Department declined to comment for this story.
It’s an open question as to whether Justice Department officials would have the same level of interest in Clinton’s server without a political directive from the White House, the former official said.
Last week, the State Department released emails, in response to a lawsuit from the conservative group Judicial Watch, showing that classified material was on the computer of Abedin’s then-husband Anthony Weiner. Sources told The Daily Beast that Justice Department officials were looking into the Clinton emails before those documents were released.
Stephen Boyd, who heads the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Affairs, appeared to hint at the department’s interest in Clinton’s emails in a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte on Nov. 13. In the letter, Boyd wrote that that Sessions “directed senior federal prosecutors to evaluate certain issues” the chairman was concerned about. He also wrote that those prosecutors would “make recommendations as to whether any matters not currently under investigation should be opened,” and that they would send those recommendations directly to the attorney general and his top deputy, Rod Rosenstein.
Brian Fallon, formerly a spokesperson for the Justice Department and Clinton’s presidential campaign, said he suspects DOJ officials are engaging in perfunctory steps “to give Trump and his allies something to talk about and point to, and something to give Fox News to devote segments to.”
“I think that even that is extremely dangerous, and that the Justice Department should not be opening itself up to the perception that it is bending to political pressures from the White House,” Fallon continued. “The Justice Department is supposed to operate independently of the White House, and even if this is just a perfunctory step that they’re taking to try to appease the president, that in and of itself is an abuse of the DOJ authority.”
Nick Merrill, Secretary Clinton’s communications director, had this to say:
“As Trump begins the new year with Steve Bannon calling his campaign treasonous and indictments and guilty pleas piling up, he resorts to diversion and distraction like clockwork, with the help of his attorney general. Few matters have been more scrutinized than emails, and it was determined that there was no wrongdoing. Trump’s behavior shows a profound disrespect for the rule of law and an unprecedented abuse of power—with his attorney general following suit at every turn. It tarnishes our justice system, and should be deeply troubling to all Americans.”
Clinton’s use of a private email server—which the FBI previously investigated, and declined to recommend for criminal prosecution—became a huge issue on the campaign trail. Trump mentioned it at just about every campaign rally, frequently followed by chants of “Lock her up!” from his supporters. On July 5, then-FBI Director James Comey made an unprecedented public statement blasting Clinton’s use of the server, but then explained why the bureau wouldn’t recommend she or any of her associates be prosecuted.
Over the summer, Trump made the email story a central campaign narrative. And at the Oct. 9 presidential debate, he threatened to incarcerate Clinton if he won the election.
“If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” he said, referring to her emails, “because there has never been so many lies, so much deception.”
“It’s just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” she replied.
“Because you’d be in jail,” he retorted.
In the weeks after that exchange, the email story dominated the news; on Oct. 28, Comey sent a letter to Capitol Hill—which promptly leaked—saying the investigation was reopened. Then, on Nov. 6, two days before the election, Comey followed up with another letter explaining that he actually hadn’t found new information in additional emails. Republicans were irate that Comey backtracked. Clinton’s camp was irate that he’d said anything at all. In less than two weeks, the FBI director had pulled off a vanishingly rare Washington feat: upsetting everyone.
And though Trump (obviously) became president, many conservatives still argue the Justice Department didn’t adequately investigate Clinton. The president himself, with lots of encouragement from the crew at Fox & Friends, has lobbed a host of critical tweets at the Justice Department on the issue.
“Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid [sic], Huma Abedin, has been accused of disregarding basic security protocols,” he wrote on Tuesday morning. “She put Classified Passwords into the hands of foreign agents. Remember sailors pictures on submarine? Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act? Also on Comey & others.”
Conservatives said the revelation that Justice Department officials are looking at Clinton’s email server comes as a relief.
“Clearly, that’s the least they can be doing, is asking some of these questions,” said Tom Fitton, who heads Judicial Watch. “I think there’s enough there to re-initiate an investigation.”
“It’s certainly a positive development,” added Fitton, whose organization sued for the release of thousands of Clinton emails and deposed her top aides. “It’s part of what we’ve been demanding.”
Mark Corallo—a former spokesperson for Trump’s legal team and the John Ashcroft-era Justice Department—also said it’s a good sign.
“People should be encouraged that the new leadership at the Justice Department is actually interested in a nonpartisan, above-board Justice Department that treats every citizen equally,” he said. “And we can hope that this means they are dedicating themselves to cleaning up the Justice Department and the FBI, sanctioning any FBI agents or DOJ lawyers who are found to have violated their ethical and legal responsibilities, and restoring the trust of the American people.”
“It’s about time they’re doing a review of this whole mess,” he added.
Matt Miller, a spokesperson for the department during Holder’s time there, vehemently disagreed. He said the news is evidence that Trump is undermining the independence of the Justice Department.
“The president’s ongoing campaign to tear down the wall between the Justice Department and the White House seems to be working,” he said.
“If the White House asks you to look into it, the answer is not to look into it for the sake of looking into it,” he continued. “The answer is to tell the White House to stay out of investigations and prosecutions, especially when it comes to your political opponents. You’re just encouraging a bully. If you encourage him to do that, he’ll just keep bullying you.”