If you believe the Trump campaign’s rhetoric, you should make note of what you were doing yesterday, because one day your grandkids are going to ask where you were on October 17, 2016.
On Monday, the FBI released 100 pages of documents from its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of State, revealing that a State Department official lobbied the FBI to declassify an email related to the 2012 Benghazi attack — and a “quid pro quo” was allegedly offered.
The Trump campaign responded with a statement from retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, which said: “These FBI documents provide undeniable proof that Hillary Clinton colluded with the FBI, DOJ and State Department to cover up criminal activity at the highest levels.”
Later in the day, Trump released a video in which he described the release as “one of the big breaking stories of our time” and expressed concern that the story would not be covered because the media is biased in favor of Clinton.
By that time, most mainstream outlets had already picked up the story, but they presented it in a much different light. The report is certainly bad for the Clinton campaign, if only because it draws more scrutiny to her unwise email practices 21 days before the election. However, the FBI did not actually release “undeniable proof” of an elaborate cover-up at the highest levels of government, or Clinton’s personal involvement in such a scheme.
The new FBI documents, which were released in response to public-records requests, are a summary of interview notes related to the FBI’s investigation into whether Clinton properly handled classified information while at the State Department. It’s common for agencies to squabble over classification; what’s at issue here is the discussion of a potential exchange between the State Department and the FBI to settle a disagreement regarding the Benghazi email.
In the interviews, anonymous FBI officials and agents describe a request from Patrick F. Kennedy, undersecretary for management at the State Department, to a now-retired official with the FBI’s International Operations Division (IOD) in May or June 2015. Kennedy reportedly asked for “assistance” from the FBI official in changing the Benghazi email’s classification. (In the message, State Department officials discussed the arrest of several suspects following the attack. It was forwarded to Clinton with the note “f.y.i.”)
The FBI wanted the email classified, and State wanted it marked unclassified — but as the L.A. Times explains, State wasn’t aiming for more transparency:
The goal, however, does not appear to have been to allow the information to be released, but instead to apply a separate Freedom of Information Act exemption “that would allow him to archive the document in the basement of [the Department of State] never to be seen again.”
During the exchange between Kennedy and the FBI official, someone allegedly offered a “quid pro quo,” but the accounts differ on that crucial point. The FBI official said he suggested the exchange, telling Kennedy “he would look into the email matter if Kennedy would provide authority concerning the FBI’s request to increase its personnel in Iraq.”
The FBI official said he checked with his agency’s counterterrorism division, then told Kennedy “there was no way” he could help declassify the email. Kennedy was referred to Michael Steinbach, who was the FBI’s top counterterrorism agent at the time, and he agreed that the email could not be declassified.
In the other version of events, it’s Kennedy who offers the quid pro quo — but as ABC News notes, that’s based on another FBI staffer’s “second-or-third-hand account” of the State Department’s request. This is the second FBI staffer’s account, per Politico:
In an exchange that included redacted names, the interview notes state that “[REDACTED] received a call from [REDACTED] of the International Operations Division (IOD) of the FBI, who ‘pressured’ him to change the classified email to unclassified. [REDACTED] indicated he had been contacted by PATRICK KENNEDY, Undersecretary of State, who had asked his assistance in altering the email’s classification in exchange for a ‘quid pro quo.’”
The notes go on to say, “[REDACTED] advised that, in exchange for marking the email unclassified, STATE would reciprocate by allowing the FBI to place more Agents in countries where they are presently forbidden.”
An unnamed official alleges that Kennedy followed up this request by asking during a private meeting whether the FBI could “see their way to marking the email unclassified?”
“According to [REDACTED], KENNEDY spent the next 15 minutes debating the classification of the email and attempting to influence the FBI to change its markings.”
The second FBI official also said he believed that the State Department “has an agenda which involves minimizing the classified nature of the Clinton emails in order to protect State interests and those of Clinton.”
On Monday, officials from both the FBI and the State Department insisted that no “quid pro quo” ever took place, nor was a deal even offered. State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner said the second FBI official was “expressing a personal opinion about what happened,” and suggested they might have misunderstood the exchange.
The FBI ultimately won the dispute, and the Benghazi email was released to the public with a sentence blocked out. No additional FBI agents were posted overseas.
Clinton maintains that she did not knowingly send or recieved classified emails on her private server, but about 100 were later deemed classified. FBI Director James Comey said in July that while Clinton was “extremely careless” in how she handled her emails, criminal charges were not warranted.
Though, the second FBI staffer believed that State Department officials were interested in helping Clinton, there is no evidence in the FBI documents that proves Clinton was aware of Kennedy’s call to the FBI’s IOD official, or that she directed former colleagues to pressure the agency.
Nevertheless, Republicans said the second FBI official’s claim raised serious concerns about how top agency officials examined Clinton’s emails. “It is deeply troubling that a top State Department official close to Hillary Clinton offered the FBI a ‘quid pro quo’ to hide the full extent to which she mishandled classified information,” said Republican National Committee chair Reince Priebus in a statement.
House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz and House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes put out a joint statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing,” and calling for Kennedy’s removal pending an investigation. Speaker Paul Ryan said the House’s “aggressive oversight work” must continue, adding that the incident “bears all the signs of a coverup.”
While Trump called for Kennedy’s removal as well, saying he’d committed “felony corruption,” he didn’t seem pleased to see other Republicans agreeing with him. Before calling the “quid pro quo” allegations “one of the great miscarriages of justice in the history of our country” at a rally in Wisconsin on Monday night, he complained that GOP lawmakers weren’t taking immediate action.
“It’s a crime, and I hear the Republicans are going to hold hearings after the election. Why would you hold them after the election? We want to hold those hearings before the election,” Trump told Fox News. “This is a criminal act and it’s incredible that they can do this and get away with it.”
“This is serious stuff,” he added. “This is big stuff. This is Watergate.”