President Trump on Tuesday appeared to suggest that Huma Abedin, a former top aide to Hillary Clinton, should face jail time, days after the State Department posted emails found on her estranged husband’s computer that included confidential government information.
In a tweet, Trump also urged the Justice Department to act in prosecuting Abedin and former FBI director James B. Comey, whom the president fired in May amid the mounting investigation into Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election and contacts between Moscow and Trump’s campaign.
The president’s tweet comes just days after the State Department posted online thousands of Abedin’s emails, which were captured on the computer of Anthony Weiner, her estranged husband.
Those emails — some of which contained classified information — spurred the FBI in October to reopen its investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, although the bureau would ultimately conclude that the messages gave them no reason to change their conclusion not to recommend charges against Clinton or any of her aides.
The tweet also follows a Daily Caller report that Abedin had “forwarded sensitive State Department emails, including passwords to government systems, to her personal Yahoo email account.”
Comey had said, even as he recommended they not be charged, that Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information, and the president’s tweet seizes on that theme. Comey has said, too, that while the FBI did not find evidence that Clinton’s personal email domain was hacked, it would not be likely to see such evidence, given those who might make such attacks, and that hostile actors had gained access to the private commercial email accounts of people with whom Clinton was in contact.
Asked if Trump was urging the Justice Department to investigate Abedin, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders replied: “The facts of that case are very disturbing. The president wants to make clear that he doesn’t feel that anyone should be above the law. In terms of any investigation, that would be something the Department of Justice would need to decide.”
A Clinton spokesman did not reply to a request for comment. Dan Schwerin, a former Clinton campaign speechwriter, defended Abedin on Twitter.
Trump has long suggested that Clinton be prosecuted for her use of the private server and, while he backed off that sentiment soon after his election, he has renewed the calls in recent months as he has repeatedly attacked his own Justice Department.
His comment on the “sailors pictures” seems to be a reference to 30-year-old Kristian Saucier, who was sentenced to a year in prison for taking photos in a classified area of a nuclear submarine. Trump has previously compared that case to the Clinton email probe, suggesting that Clinton was given leniency that others weren’t. Saucier, though, tried to destroy evidence — which is a critical indication of bad intent that investigators found lacking in the Clinton case.
Trump has previously accused Comey of leaking sensitive information after the former director testified that he had asked a friend to pass on notes he had taken of his interactions with Trump to a reporter for the New York Times in hopes of securing a special prosecutor to take over the Russia investigation. Ethics experts said Comey’s actions appeared to be legally protected, provided he did not disclose classified information.
In his tweet, Trump referred to the “Deep State Justice Dept,” an apparent reference to the president's contention that some elements of the U.S. intelligence apparatus have attempted to undermine his election. Trump has said there is no evidence that he colluded with Russian agents during the campaign.
Sanders said Trump “obviously” does not consider all members of the Justice Department to be among a “deep state” conspiracy to sabotage his presidency. She emphasized that Trump appointed Christopher A. Wray to run the FBI because the president “wants to change the culture of that agency and he thinks he’s the right person to do that.”
In a tweet, Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general whom Trump fired in January after she refused to defend his travel ban on immigrants from some Muslim-majority countries, accused the president of slandering Justice Department employees and called his pronouncements “dangerous.”
After Comey was ousted, the Justice Department appointed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, who is handling the ongoing Russia investigation and brought charges against former Trump aides, including former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
While leaders at the Justice Department answer to Trump, that institution has traditionally enjoyed a measure of independence from the president — especially when it comes to particular criminal investigations. A president meddling in such investigations and suggesting that someone working for a former political rival face “Jail!” is considered a serious breach of normal protocol; even former attorney general Michael Mukasey, a frequent Clinton critic, said Trump’s campaign-trail idea to have a special prosecutor reinvestigate and jail Clinton “would be like a banana republic.”
In an interview with the New York Times last week, Trump asserted that he has the “absolute right to do what I want with the Justice Department.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump criticized for recusing himself in the Russia probe given his own contact with Russian officials while serving as a surrogate for Trump during the campaign, has been somewhat sympathetic to GOP legislators who want matters they consider troubling to be investigated, including alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton Foundation and the controversial sale of a uranium company to Russia.
Late last year, Sessions directed senior federal prosecutors to explore at least some of the matters and report back to him and his top deputy. The Justice Department’s inspector general is also investigating the handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Asked to comment on the president’s tweet, Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores said she could not “confirm or deny the existence of any ongoing investigations.”