DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — With just days to go until the election, a fiercely defiant Hillary Clinton demanded answers Saturday about what she suggested is a politically motivated renewal of a previously shuttered federal inquiry into her use of a private email server at the State Department.
As her campaign scrambled Saturday to respond to FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision to notify Congress about renewing the email investigation, Clinton and her top aides characterized the action as inappropriate and irresponsible.
“It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election,” Clinton said as a supportive crowd cheered her on and booed when she referred to Comey. “In fact, it’s not just strange. It’s unprecedented, and it’s deeply troubling.”
Clinton’s Republican rival, Donald Trump, seized on Comey’s letter in an apparent effort to shift focus from his own controversies and score a last-minute surge in a race that even his staff has admitted he has been losing.
The Democratic nominee’s strongly worded response to the new inquiry signaled a decision to go fully on offense against Comey and confront the email issue and Republican attacks head-on. It signaled clearly the havoc wrought by Comey’s announcement — and Democrats’ strategy to head off game-changing political damage from a development that had left them sputtering inside and outside the campaign.
The campaign’s internal panic over the renewed FBI scrutiny was evident almost immediately after the news broke Friday. Clinton was in the air, flying from an airport in White Plains, N.Y., to campaign in Iowa. Upon landing in Cedar Rapids, she and her top aides remained cloistered in her cabin for more than 20 minutes before she emerged and ignored questions shouted at her by the press.
On Saturday morning, the campaign hastily arranged a telephone briefing with Clinton’s top two aides — campaign chairman John Podesta and campaign manager Robby Mook. The briefing took place on just over 20 minutes’ notice. In addition to the unusual firepower — Podesta does not brief the media regularly — the campaign took the additional step of providing a transcript after the fact, the better to reap any benefit from Podesta’s strong language.
Podesta, a longtime Clinton family confidant, sounded agitated and angry during the call with reporters early Saturday afternoon as he described Comey’s surprise announcement Friday as “long on innuendo and short on facts,” allowing Republicans to “distort and exaggerate” its message. Podesta also sent a strongly worded letter to supporters.
In her appearance Saturday, Clinton stopped just short of accusing Comey, once a registered Republican, of partisan interference in the Nov. 8 election. But she did not attempt to conceal her anger.
Other Democrats went much further, issuing scathing assessments of Comey’s motives and timing, as the potential for new legal jeopardy involving the Democratic nominee roiled an already tumultuous campaign.
On Saturday afternoon, the Clinton campaign sent an email with urgent talking points for its high-level surrogates about Comey’s “controversial action.”
Among them was to demand that Comey “immediately provide the American people with more information.”
The congressional black and Hispanic caucuses organized a news conference to denounce Comey, at least three Democratic senators drafted a letter of complaint Saturday, and the Democratic National Committee issued a sharply worded statement.
The approach was notable given the kid-glove treatment accorded Comey by Clinton and her campaign before now and the long silence that followed the initial news about Comey’s letter on Friday. Several hours passed before Clinton or anyone on her staff weighed in on the issue, at which point Podesta called on Comey to provide more information about what he was after.
Of chief concern to Democrats is whether the development, and the uncertainty surrounding it, will cause supporters to disengage or stay home. Meanwhile, the development has been a political gift to Trump, who drew huge applause Saturday when he called Clinton corrupt and untrustworthy.
Trump said he thinks that some of the thousands of emails that Clinton deleted “were captured yesterday,” even though officials do not yet know what is in the emails. He also suggested, without evidence, that there was “a revolt” in the FBI that led to the letter being sent.
Trump devoted most of a noontime rally in Golden, Colo., on Saturday to telling his supporters about the FBI letter and detailing the controversy.
“As you have heard, it was just announced yesterday that the FBI is reopening their investigation in the criminal and illegal conduct of Hillary Clinton,” Trump said about 10 minutes into the rally. He then walked away from his lectern and applauded the news along with his supporters, who began chanting: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it’s everybody’s deepest hope that justice, at last, can be properly delivered,” Trump said to more cheers. “Hillary has nobody to blame but herself for her mounting legal troubles. Her criminal action was willful, deliberate, intentional and purposeful.”
While Trump has repeatedly claimed that Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state was illegal, Comey earlier this year said that the FBI found nothing that would lead to a criminal charge.
Comey’s letter, sent to eight congressional committee chairmen and ranking Democrats, states that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the potential mishandling of classified information when Clinton was secretary of state.
That inquiry ended in July without criminal charges, which Clinton’s campaign hoped would sweep away some of the cloud of suspicion around the candidate over her decision to use a private communication system for her government work.
Voters continue to tell pollsters that they disapprove of her handling of the email issue, with many doubting that she has been fully truthful.
But until now, the issue seemed to be receding, and Clinton had sounded increasingly confident as she maintained a lead in most national polls over the past several weeks.
Polls had begun to tighten even before the FBI development, and it is unclear what effect it will have.
In his letter, Comey said, “The FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information.” Comey said it is unknown whether the information “may be significant.”
According to two people familiar with the matter, the newly discovered emails were found on a computer seized during an investigation of former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner is separated from his wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
In his remarks, Trump called Weiner a “major, major, major sleaze” and bragged about predicting that something like this might happen. “If you check out the tweets,” Trump said, supporters would find that he warned about this.
Trump also attacked Weiner’s estranged wife. “Huma’s been a problem. I wonder if Huma’s gonna stay there,” Trump said, repeatedly mispronouncing Abedin’s name.
During the Saturday morning call, Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, said the news has not dampened Democrats’ enthusiasm and would not interfere with Clinton’s priorities in the final days of campaigning.
Clinton appeared at several events Saturday, including a late-afternoon rally in Daytona Beach. She also appeared at an evening concert in Miami featuring pop superstar Jennifer Lopez, part of a series the Clinton campaign is staging in battleground states aimed at driving up turnout among different segments of the electorate, including Latinos.
Clinton is investing heavily in Florida, a state her aides say she doesn’t need to win but where a victory would almost certainly cut off Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes.
Several of Clinton’s highest-profile surrogates are also on the trail for her this weekend. Former president Bill Clinton made several stops in Ohio on Saturday, while Vice President Biden was scheduled to appear in Las Vegas and Reno. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, was scheduled to speak in Michigan.
Both Podesta and Mook cited news coverage of the development in which government officials and others have said Comey’s actions were unusual or inconsistent with Justice Department practice in an election year.
Podesta said that the emails now at issue may be duplicates of those already reviewed by the FBI as part of its inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email system or that they may be irrelevant to the investigation.
“The more information that comes out, the more overblown this entire situation seems to be,” Mook said.
Podesta and Mook did not confirm reports that the new emails were recovered from Abedin’s home computer. Podesta said Abedin had cooperated fully in the FBI inquiry “and, of course, we stand behind her.”
“There’s no evidence of wrongdoing, no charge of wrongdoing, no indication that this is even about Hillary,” Podesta said. “Even Director Comey said this may not be significant. If that’s all true, it’s hard to see how this amounts to anything, and we’re not going to be distracted and Hillary’s not going to be distracted in the final days of this election over nothing.”
In the call, Podesta also criticized House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) for characterizing the letter as the FBI reopening the investigation of Clinton’s private email server.
“This is someone who has already promised to launch years of new Hillary Clinton investigations when she’s president,” Podesta said.
Sullivan reported from Colorado. Gearan reported from Washington. Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.