By announcing on Friday that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server may not be over, James Comey made himself the most controversial FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover. Officials from both sides of the aisle have focused their ire on Comey, but the consequences aren’t just personal. In the fallout from Comey’s reveal, the FBI has been dragged deeper and deeper into the nastiest election in recent memory — and it appears the bureau had actually been taking pains to avoid accusations of partisanship ahead of November 8.
As news outlets dug into the inner workings of the FBI in recent days, we learned for the first time that the bureau is investigating both the Democratic and the Republican presidential nominees. The bureau has been looking into allegations that Donald Trump has inappropriate ties to Russia, and part of the investigation focused on his former campaign manager Paul Manafort, who previously worked for Ukraine’s pro-Russian president. In addition to Hillary Clinton’s emails, the FBI was examining claims that the Clinton Foundation provided illegal political access to donors. Both investigations were in their preliminary stages, and on Tuesday the New York Times reported that much of the evidence in the Clinton Foundation case was pulled from news reports and Clinton Cash, the controversial book by former George W. Bush speechwriter Peter Schweizer.
The Justice Department successfully urged the FBI to put a hold on those probes to avoid accusations of influencing the election. While lawmakers were clamoring for investigations into the opposing party, during meetings in August the Justice Department and FBI decided not to take any major steps, like issuing subpoenas, until after the election. The probes were to be kept open, but officials would wait to determine if any further action was warranted.
The Justice Department has a longstanding policy of not taking any action that could interfere in elections, and it reportedly reminded Comey of this before he sent his letter to Congress on Friday. Comey said he felt an obligation to tell Congress his testimony was no longer accurate, and thought it “would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record.” His allies tell the Times that he also felt he was the only official people trusted on the Clinton case because Bill Clinton had an ill-advised private chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch this summer at a Phoenix airport.
Comey and Lynch talked after a meeting on Tuesday, and supposedly they still have a good working relationship. But at the same time, a new FBI controversy emerged when a relatively obscure FBI Twitter account announced the release of new documents from a 2001 investigation into Bill Clinton’s pardon of a Democratic donor:
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said the release was suspicious:
The FBI released a statement saying it was just a coincidence that the Marc Rich files were made public a week before the election:
The FBI’s Records Management Division receives thousands of FOIA requests annually which are processed on a first in, first out (FIFO) basis. By law, FOIA materials that have been requested three or more times are posted electronically to the FBI’s public reading room shortly after they are processed. Per the standard procedure for FOIA, these materials became available for release and were posted automatically and electronically to the FBI’s public reading room in accordance with the law and established procedures.
The release might have gone unnoticed were it not for the intense political controversy surrounding the FBI. Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have released statements blasting Comey and demanding that he release more information. As the Washington Post notes, they won’t actually call Comey to testify anytime soon because Congress is in recess and many members are busy campaigning in their home districts.
Some of the attacks on Comey may be for the benefit of the lawmakers’ constituents, and the latest twist in the Clinton email investigation has already made its way into political advertising. As the Huffington Post reports, National Republican Senatorial Committee points to the FBI investigation in its latest ad, saying, “It’s time to start asking why are Democrat Senate candidates still standing with Hillary Clinton.”
It’s unclear if more information about the Huma Abedin emails will be released in the next week, but the consequences of Comey’s decision will likely be felt well beyond the election. “Americans now look at the FBI and see a political entity, not a nonpartisan entity — and that has huge ramifications for the FBI and for all of us,” Matt Miller, former chief spokesman for the Justice Department, told the Post. “It sows disbelief in our system of government and is hugely toxic.”