But the charges for now are a war of words, and they are likely to remain that way through Election Day next Tuesday.
For one thing, Republicans and Democrats want very different things from Comey. For the GOP, Comey’s Friday disclosure is too vague, simply revealing a new trove of emails related to its probe of the Democratic presidential nominee without detailing how many emails were found and what they contain.
Democrats also want more information about the emails, believing they will ease suspicions of their candidate. But they also believe that Comey’s Friday communique to Congress is the latest sign the FBI director — who was once a registered Republican — is biased against Clinton and practicing a nefarious double standard. That standard has to do with the fact that the FBI chief isn’t disclosing what he knows about the bureau’s alleged efforts to investigate GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and his aides ties to Russia, which the administration publicly accused earlier this month of trying to tamper with U.S. elections.
The simple truth is this: it’s unlikely lawmakers will do anything more than vent, rant and beg for Comey to release new information about either Clinton or Trump.
Congressional aides from both parties say it’s improbable the FBI chief will be hauled before Congress to testify on the matter before next Tuesday.
And it is notable that the lawmakers calling for Comey to publicize FBI files are demanding nothing of the sort.
For one thing, lawmakers are on recess, campaigning for their own reelection in far-flung districts across the country.
If Congress were in town, Comey might be invited — even compelled — to testify before a variety of congressional committees about the status of the FBI’s investigations. Comey testified in July before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee about the Clinton email investigation; answered the House Judiciary Committee’s questions in September; and elaborated his prior public statements with responses to pointed questions from political partisans.
For now, lawmakers actions have been limited to a politically charged flurry of letters to the FBI director, outlining their competing demands that he disclose more — and more politically convenient — information.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) sent Comey a two-page letter on Monday demanding he provide answers to several questions about Clinton’s handling of classified documents in light of the Weiner development. But while telling Comey to respond by Wednesday, Nunes did not threaten to drag FBI personnel before the committee if they missed the deadline.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley has also demanded that Comey answer 10 questions pertaining to the Clinton emails by Friday. But the Iowa Republican — who is fighting for his own reelection this year — also did not threaten to haul Comey before the committee if he misses the deadline.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) said Tuesday on MSNBC that Comey erred by sending Congress a letter about Clinton but recusing the FBI from the administration’s official condemnation of Russia for hacking Democratic campaign groups. Schiff said the dichotomy “does open the director up to legitimate criticism that he is picking sides, that he’s talking about some investigations and may not be talking about others.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) went the furthest, alleging that Comey may have violated the Hatch Act by disclosing the new emails related to the Clinton probe. And he charged that the FBI chief followed a political “double standard” because he was withholding information from the public about the bureau’s alleged probe into Trump’s ties to Russia.
But Reid did not call for questioning Comey under oath before Election Day.
To call for a hearing on such a high-profile issue in the final week before an election would be without modern precedent, and would have uncertain political impact, congressional aides said.
Congress is in recess, and while committees have wide latitude to hold hearings even when lawmakers aren’t in Washington, members of key panels are scattered across the country — many of them campaigning in their own close races. Embattled incumbent lawmakers would hardly be eager to return to Washington to spar over the presidential race when they are scrambling to secure every last vote of their own.
Meanwhile, Democrats who have accused Comey of breaching protocol by interfering in a pending election might be wary of contradicting that message by encouraging a hearing. And for both sides, a potentially circus-like hearing might also invite a deluge of news coverage that may or may not be positive.
For his part, Comey hasn’t responded to the epistolary assault from Capitol Hill, save for a letter he sent internally to FBI employees, explaining he felt “an obligation” to tell lawmakers about the Clinton-related emails from the Weiner inquiry, “given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed.”
It won’t be clear whether lawmakers intend to follow up on their charges against Comey until after the election, or whether this is purely pre-election rhetoric.
Then again, Congress could be significantly reshaped next Tuesday, and this issue could fade away.