President Trump suggested Wednesday that former FBI director James B. Comey had intended to spare Democrat Hillary Clinton from prosecution “long before investigation was complete” into her government email practices.
In a pair of early-morning Twitter messages, Trump referred to a recently released FBI email that indicates a draft of a Comey statement about the investigation was circulating among aides in May last year, two months before Comey announced the end of the investigation and his decision not to seek charges.
The FBI posted the document to its “Vault” Freedom of Information Act reading room on Monday. The unclassified document titled “Drafts of Director Comey's July 5, 2016 Statement Regarding Email Server Investigation Part 01 of 01" includes part of an email message from Comey's chief of staff James Rybicki, who forwarded an email from Comey asking for “any comments on this statement so we may roll it into a master doc for discussion with the Director at a future date.”
The draft statement itself is redacted, as is nearly everything else in the five-page document.
The draft statement was written before investigators had interviewed several witnesses, including Clinton. But it was reported at the time by The Washington Post and other news outlets that by early May, investigators had done the bulk of their investigative work and did not expect to file criminal charges in connection with the email server investigation.
Comey announced the closure of the investigation in July, days after Clinton's FBI interview. At issue was the security and handling of classified material on Clinton's home-based email server, which she used during her tenure as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013.
Trump's tweets revive his feud with Comey, whom he fired in May, and the Democratic opponent he defeated last year. He has twice this week referred to Clinton as “Crooked Hillary,” his campaign trail nickname for her.
Republicans have seized on the internal FBI emails as evidence that Comey and FBI leadership made a premature decision to not pursue criminal charges, because they discussed how they would explain not charging her before they'd interviewed her. Law enforcement officials have said that is a misreading of how investigations typically work -- that an interview with a principal like Clinton is in many cases the last investigative step, after agents have established many or most of the facts in a case.
By May of 2016, FBI investigators felt that there was not sufficient evidence to show that Clinton or others intended to violate laws on the handling of sensitive government information, according to people familiar with the matter. Even though they felt criminal charges were unlikely, FBI officials were still frustrated by what they felt was a carelessness at the State Department in handling classified information.
For those reasons, law enforcement officials have said, Comey and his aides began preparing a statement describing their findings, to be released after her interview.
Trump said Comey had “stated under oath that he didn't do this,” in apparent reference to Comey's Senate testimony in which he said there was no criminal case to bring. In his tweet Wednesday, Trump asked, “Where is Justice Dept?” apparently inviting an investigation into the existence of the 2016 email chain.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) have said the FBI email chain shows that Comey began drafting an “exoneration statement” long before the Clinton probe ended. In September, Graham told Fox News that although he does not think Comey perjured himself, he wants Comey to return to testify.
“This doesn’t add up, and I smell a rat here,” Graham said.