(David Zalubowski/AP)

“The system is rigged. General Petraeus got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment.”

— Donald Trump, on Twitter, July 5

Trump repeated a Three-Pinocchio claim comparing the Hillary Clinton private email case with that of Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director who pleaded guilty last year to mishandling classified information he gave to Paula Broadwell, his mistress and biographer. His tweet was in response to FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that his agency will not recommend criminal charges against Clinton for her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

Comparing Clinton’s case to Petraeus’s is a common talking point among conservatives. It’s easy to say that they are alike, because they both involve how a high-level government official handled information that was, or potentially was, classified. One can also argue it’s a question of judgment or transparency.

But there are fundamental differences between the two cases that make it an illogical comparison. Petraeus pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information; there was evidence he knowingly provided highly classified material to his biographer and then lied to the FBI about it.

In the Clinton case, it’s less clear-cut. The majority of her emails were not marked classified, though there was sensitive and classified information in there. She never provided it to a journalist, as Petraeus did with Broadwell. And there’s no evidence she lied to the FBI, like Petraeus did.

To be sure, Comey said Clinton and her aides “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” and sharply criticized their email practice. But he also noted that in Clinton’s case, investigators did not find the combination of actions that would result in prosecution of mishandling or removing classified information:

“Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case. Prosecutors necessarily weigh a number of factors before bringing charges. There are obvious considerations, like the strength of the evidence, especially regarding intent. Responsible decisions also consider the context of a person’s actions, and how similar situations have been handled in the past.

In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts. All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of: clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information; or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct; or indications of disloyalty to the United States; or efforts to obstruct justice. We do not see those things here.”

[Update: In a July 7, 2016, House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing, Comey was asked whether he agreed with the claim that Petraeus “got in trouble for far less” than Clinton. “No, it’s the reverse,” Comey said.

The Petraeus “illustrates perfectly the kind of cases the Department of Justice is willing to prosecute,” he said: A combination of obstruction of justice, intentional misconduct and a vast quantity of classified information. Petraeus admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do, Comey said.

In light of Comey’s statement, we updated the original Two Pinocchio rating of this comparison to Three Pinocchios.]

The Fact Checker Recidivism Watch tracks politicians who repeat claims that we have previously found to be incorrect or false. These posts are short summaries of previous findings, with links to the original fact-check. We welcome reader suggestions.

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