Political News

As Clinton Camp Denied Reports of Criminal Inquiry, FBI Was Investigating, Comey Says

Posted April 13, 2018 10:46 p.m. EDT
Updated April 13, 2018 10:48 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — James Comey, the former FBI director, confirms in his new book that the bureau had already begun a criminal investigation focused on Hillary Clinton’s handling of her email in 2015 when her campaign and its allies excoriated journalists for reporting that such an inquiry was being contemplated.

The New York Times reported in July 2015 that two inspectors general had made a criminal referral to the Justice Department recommending an investigation into whether Clinton had mishandled sensitive information by using a private email server as secretary of state. Clinton’s campaign, relying on a statement from President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, complained vigorously to The Times, resulting in two corrections to the article.

The corrections said that the inspectors general had made a “security referral” rather than a “criminal referral” and that the referral did not request that Clinton specifically be investigated. Clinton’s campaign called the article an “erroneous story” with “egregious” errors that misled voters into thinking that she was at risk of being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal violations when the referral was a more routine security matter not focused on her in particular. Critics of the news media, including the public editor of The Times, agreed.

But in “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” his memoir that is scheduled for release next week, Comey said the word-parsing by Clinton’s campaign and the Justice Department was actually misleading because the FBI was already conducting a criminal investigation focused on Clinton by that point.

“Though The Times may have thought those clarifications were necessary, their original story was much closer to the mark,” Comey wrote. “It was true that the transmission to the FBI from the inspector general did not use the word ‘criminal,’ but by the time of the news story, we had a full criminal investigation open, focused on the secretary’s conduct.”

Comey said the FBI did not contradict the Clinton campaign at the time because it was not yet appropriate to confirm an investigation. “Still, the bitterly fought episode, parsing word choices, was only a small taste of what was to come, and many within the FBI knew it,” he wrote.

For the Clinton campaign, minimizing the significance of the inquiry was important to prevent it from becoming a bigger political liability as she headed into the Democratic primary season. Indeed, when Comey was ready in October 2015 to publicly confirm the investigation, Loretta E. Lynch, Obama’s attorney general, instructed him to call it a “matter” instead. Lynch, he wrote, “seemed to be directing me to align with that Clinton campaign strategy.”

Jennifer Palmieri, who was Clinton’s communications director and signed the campaign’s nearly 2,000-word criticism of the Times report, said Friday that she and the other advisers did not know at the time of the July 2015 article that their candidate was under criminal investigation.

Pushing back against the Times report was a politically smart — and, she noted, effective — move by the campaign. She said she was “surprised” when the criminal investigation was later made public that The Times did not make a bigger deal of the fact that the paper had been right.

Asked to comment Friday, Dean Baquet, executive editor of The Times, said, “Mr. Comey’s account speaks for itself.”

Comey’s handling of the email inquiry has long been controversial. After a year of investigating, Comey concluded that no criminal charges were warranted against Clinton, but he publicly criticized her for being “extremely careless” in handling sensitive information.

Three months later, shortly before the 2016 election, Comey announced that thousands of messages relevant to the inquiry had been discovered on the laptop of the estranged husband of one of Clinton’s closest advisers. A week later, just two days before the election, Comey announced that a review of the emails had turned up no evidence to change his original conclusion.

Clinton and her allies have long blamed Comey’s public announcement for shifting the momentum of the campaign in its final days, leading to the election of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate. In a book of her own last year, Clinton said that Comey had “shivved” her.

Trump fired Comey as FBI director in May 2017 while Comey was overseeing an investigation into Russia’s interference in the campaign and whether there was collaboration with Trump’s campaign.

Trump originally cited a memo faulting Comey’s handling of Clinton’s case in terms similar to criticisms lodged by Democrats, but later acknowledged that he was thinking about the Russia inquiry when he made the decision. He has since accused Comey of going too easy on Clinton and has pressed the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into her emails.