The prosecutors have begun asking questions about news reporting in 2017 about a classified document — thought to be a Russian intelligence product — that described how then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had purportedly assured someone in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign that the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state would not push too deep, the people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.
The document was determined to be bad intelligence — possibly a fake meant to dupe the FBI — and those mentioned in it said they do not know each other and did not have any talks like those described. Both The Washington Post and the New York Times reported on the document.
Comey told the Justice Department inspector general he relied in part on the document when he elected in July 2016 not to tell Lynch that he was recommending the Clinton email case be closed without charges before announcing his decision publicly. He reasoned that if the classified material leaked, it could raise concerns about Lynch’s credibility, according to an inspector general report on the matter released in 2018.
Some former law enforcement officials say they worry Trump or officials at his Justice Department might be ginning up the investigation now because of the president’s hatred of the media — or of Comey. The probe was first reported by the New York Times.
Trump has frequently pushed for probes of his critics and political rivals, and he has been particularly spiteful toward Comey, whom he fired as FBI director in May 2017. Last month, for example, Trump suggested without evidence that Comey had broken the law.
“So what are the consequences for his unlawful conduct,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Could it be years in jail?”
Trump and Justice Department officials have vowed to crack down on leaks. Early in the administration, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions boasted of tripling the number of such probes.
That prosecutors are only now investigating leaks about the document is unusual; typically, such probes begin soon after the material is disclosed.
It was not immediately clear what might have sparked the opening of a case almost three years later. The people familiar with the matter declined to provide those and other details. Spokespeople for the Justice Department, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia declined to comment.
The document at issue has been the subject of some government-authorized reporting — which might raise questions about the need for its continued classification at all. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz offered some broad details about the document in his report on the FBI’s Clinton email investigation, noting, for example, that the same classified material “also included an allegation, equally lacking in credibility, that Comey planned to delay the . . . investigation to aid Republicans.”
But Horowitz included more details in a classified appendix. And when Comey referenced the material in his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership,” which was reviewed in advance by the FBI for sensitive information, he seemed to do so cryptically.
“They came from a classified source — the source and content of that material remains classified as I write this,” Comey wrote.
A lawyer for Comey declined to comment. Last year, the Justice Department considered whether Comey might face criminal culpability for the handling of memos he wrote documenting his conversations with Trump but ultimately determined he could not be charged. It was “not a close call,” said one person familiar with the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia is also investigating Comey’s former deputy, Andrew McCabe, on allegations of lying to investigators about a media disclosure. The U.S. attorney’s office has faced similar criticism in the McCabe case for pursuing a critic of Trump, and it has yet to bring any charges.
Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.