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Timeline: James Comey’s decision-making on the Clinton probe

Here's what we know about former FBI director James B. Comey's decisions about how to end the Clinton email probe. (Video: Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)
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“Wow, FBI confirms report that James Comey drafted letter exonerating Crooked Hillary Clinton long before investigation was complete. Many people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn’t do this-obviously a fix? Where is Justice Dept?”
— President Trump, in a series of tweets, Oct. 18, 2017

In a pair of tweets, President Trump essentially called for a Justice Department investigation of James B. Comey, the FBI director he fired in May. He suggested that Comey misled Congress under oath about his decision-making on whether to charge former secretary of state Hillary Clinton regarding her use of a private email server for official government communications.

As evidence for the president’s claim, a White House official pointed to a specific statement that Comey made during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee on Sept. 28, 2016.

As a reader service, here’s timeline of what we know about Comey’s decision-making. It clearly indicates that Comey had long contemplated making a public statement about the conclusion of the investigation. Whether it also shows that he had decided on the outcome before Clinton was interviewed is unclear. The various drafts of his statement have not been released.

We will continue to update this timeline as more information becomes available. (See all of our fact checks on the Clinton email controversy here.)

July 24, 2015: Investigation begins

The inspectors general of the intelligence community and State Department make a security referral for an investigation regarding the fact that “classified information may exist on at least one private server and thumb drive that are not in the government’s possession.”

Oct. 1, 2015: Comey swears probe will be ‘independent’

Then-FBI Director Comey tells reporters that he would make sure politics does not infect the investigation. “I am following this very closely, and I get briefed on it regularly,” he said. “I am confident we have the resources and the personnel assigned to the matter, as we do all our work, so that we are able to do it in a professional, prompt and independent way.”

Early March, 2016: An alleged Russian document spurs concern

FBI receives Russian intelligence document claiming a tacit understanding between the Clinton campaign and the Justice Department, citing an email in which then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch had privately assured someone in the Clinton campaign that the probe would not delve deeply. FBI later concluded the document was likely a fake, but current and former officials told The Washington Post that Comey relied on the document in making his July decision to announce on his own, without Justice Department involvement, that the investigation was over.

The FBI used an unreliable intelligence document to defend former FBI director James B. Comey’s handling of the Clinton email probe. (Video: Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Cliff Owen/The Washington Post)

May 2: Comey circulates a draft statement

Comey sends an email to Andrew McCabe, his deputy, James A. Baker, the FBI general counsel, and James Rybicki, his chief of staff, with a subject heading of “Midyear Exam.” This was internal FBI code for the Clinton investigation. The body of the email was redacted by the FBI, but it appears to have contained a draft of his statement on the conclusion of the Clinton case.

At that point, 17 interviews with potential witnesses had not taken place, including with Clinton and her chief of staff, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

May 3: A witness admits lying and gets immunity

Paul Combetta, a computer specialist who worked for a company that hosted Clinton’s private email system, admits in his interview that he had misled the FBI in an earlier interview about whether he was aware of a congressional request to preserve emails. Instead, he admitted he was aware of the order and yet he used a program called BleachBit to delete email messages. The FBI grants him immunity in exchange for his testimony.

Asked why Combetta was not charged, Comey tells Congress: “It depends on where you are trying to go with the investigation. It’s a low-level guy and you are trying to move up the chain, you might think about it differently.”

May 5: News media report ‘scant evidence’ of a crime

The Washington Post reports that “prosecutors and FBI agents investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server have so far found scant evidence that the leading Democratic presidential candidate intended to break classification rules.” The article noted that Clinton had yet to be interviewed.

May 16: Comey’s draft statement more widely circulated to FBI

Rybicki, the FBI chief of staff, forwards Comey’s May 2 email to a broader group of people. “Please send me any comments on this statement so we may roll into a master doc for discussion with the Director at a future date,” he writes.

At that point, Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, had not yet been interviewed. She is interviewed on May 28 and later receives a limited immunity agreement related to her laptop.

June 27: Bill Clinton and Lynch huddle privately 

Former president Bill Clinton meets for 30 minutes with Lynch as her plane is parked at Phoenix airport. Both later insist it was only a social call, related to grandchildren and travel. “There was no discussion of any matter pending for the department or any matter pending for any other body,” Lynch told reporters on June 29. “There was no discussion of Benghazi, no discussion of the State Department emails.”

Lynch refused calls to recuse herself but said she would accept whatever career prosecutors and the FBI recommended. The incident reinforced Comey’s desire to make his own statement on the case. “Her meeting with President Clinton on that airplane was the capper for me,” he later told Congress. “And I then said, you know what, the Department cannot by itself credibly end this.”

He also told lawmakers he had chafed at Lynch’s order that he not refer to the case as an investigation but as a “matter,” which he said “gave me a queasy feeling.”

Former FBI director James Comey described a request from Loretta Lynch to refer to the Clinton email probe as a "matter," not an "investigation" in 2017. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Reuters)

“At one point the attorney general had directed me not to call it an investigation, but instead to call it a matter, which confused me and concerned me, but that was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the Department if we’re to close this case credibly,” Comey testified.

July 2: Hillary Clinton is interviewed

Hillary Clinton is interviewed by the FBI for 3 ½ hours.

July 5: Comey announces Clinton is cleared

Just days later, in an unusual step, Comey announces that Clinton would not be charged with any criminal wrongdoing. But in what he later said was an effort to be transparent, he provides details about what the probe uncovered and blasts Clinton’s reliance on a private email system for government communications.

“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said. He added that “there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information.”

Comey said “we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts,” but he noted that generally, someone else in a similar situation would likely face security or administrative sanctions.

FBI Director James Comey made a statement on July 5 recommending Hillary Clinton not be charged for her use of a private email server. (Video: Reuters)

Sept. 28: Comey insists the decision was made after the Clinton interview

Comey tells the House Judiciary Committee that the decision not to charge Clinton was made after the interview, not before.

“I know in our political lives sometimes people casually accuse each other of being dishonest, but if colleagues of ours believe I am lying about when I made this decision, please urge them to contact me privately so we can have a conversation about this,” Comey said. “All I can do is to tell you again, the decision was made after that, because I didn’t know what was going to happen in that interview. She maybe lied in the interview in a way we could prove.”

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“Wow, FBI confirms report that James Comey drafted letter exonerating Crooked Hillary Clinton long before investigation was complete. Many people not interviewed, including Clinton herself. Comey stated under oath that he didn’t do this-obviously a fix?"
in a series of tweets
Tuesday, October 17, 2017