The FBI interviewed top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin around the holidays last winter — more than a month and a half after the politically charged investigation into Clinton’s email practices had seemed to conclude for a second time, according to people familiar with the probe.
Agents were focused on how Abedin’s and Clinton’s messages ended up on a laptop used by former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), Abedin’s estranged husband, these people said. They considered their look at Clinton complete but still had questions about whether Abedin should have told them about the messages sooner, the people said.
Prosecutors had told Abedin throughout the case that she was a witness, a person familiar with the matter said, and after talking with her for a final time, they would conclude they had no reason to charge her with any crimes. Typically, witnesses are not viewed suspiciously by investigators, unlike those categorized as subjects or targets of an investigation.
The interview is important, though, because it shows that even after the bureau had intimated publicly that its probe into Clinton was over, the FBI knew it still had work to do with one of her close aides. It is also notable for one of the people advocating it: FBI Agent Peter Strzok, a key figure in both the Clinton probe and the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, whose anti-Trump texts have come under scrutiny .
Karen Dunn, Abedin’s lawyer, said, “There was never any suggestion by the government that Huma had done anything wrong. To the contrary, she was told that her full and voluntary cooperation as a witness in their investigation was appreciated. Having done her part to assist the government, Huma is a private citizen now and should be left to live her life in peace.”
A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment. The people familiar with the case spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The interview was hinted at in a cryptic text from Strzok made public in recent weeks. The text and others were discovered by the Justice Department’s inspector general, who has been probing how the FBI handled the Clinton email investigation. President Trump and congressional Republicans have seized on the messages — which they say show anti-Trump, pro-Clinton bias from Strzok and FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
The two were, for a time, assigned to both the Clinton email case and the investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia — though Page left the Russia investigation, and Strzok was later removed from it after the texts were discovered.
“Talked with DoJ about HA interview,” Strzok wrote on Dec. 13, 2016. “Told them we had to interview, no immunity. They said they thought that would get counsel to the point of saying she’s either taking the 5th in the Gj or you need to give her immunity. I said that’s fine, please have discussions to get the decision to that point and I would run up the chain.”
DoJ refers to the Department of Justice, the “5th” refers to the Fifth Amendment right of people not to incriminate themselves, and “Gj” refers to the grand jury, which can compel testimony.
People familiar with the Clinton email investigation said HA refers to Abedin. The people said Abedin ultimately sat for an interview without a promise of immunity in the weeks that followed, and agents believed her when she said that she had been previously unaware of how her emails could have ended up on Weiner’s computer — some of which had been forwarded to her husband and others which ended up there because of an automated backup process.
Strzok’s text about Abedin appears to rebut the notion that he was pulling punches for Clinton or her associates, as it shows him advocating for aggressive steps if Abedin’s lawyer were to push for immunity.
The Clinton email case has wound a tortured path through the FBI and Justice Department, and it had drawn significant congressional and other scrutiny by the time Abedin was interviewed. In early July 2016, then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced he was recommending the case be closed without charges, though he slammed Clinton and her aides for their “extremely careless” handling of classified information. He did so without notifying his bosses at the Justice Department.
The move bucked long-standing Justice Department policies. FBI recommendations are supposed to go to prosecutors, not the public, and law enforcement is not supposed to reveal damaging information about people they do not charge. Comey has said he felt compelled to reveal details of the high-profile case to maintain public trust.
Although Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch would later concur with Comey’s recommendation and close the case, the matter was not over. As summer turned to fall, FBI agents investigating Weiner’s explicit messages with a teenager discovered Abedin’s emails on a laptop her husband used. They eventually shared their discovery with the Clinton email team, and on Oct. 28, 2016, Comey wrote to Congress saying the FBI agents had resumed their work.
Comey has testified publicly that he believed it was possible the newly discovered material could be “the golden missing emails that would change this case,” and the team — which had to review hundreds of thousands of messages — initially told him they could not finish their work before the election.
But Comey said custom software allowed them to sift through duplicates, and on Nov. 6 — just two days before the election, he again wrote to Congress to say the FBI hadn’t found anything to change its mind.
“Since my letter, the FBI investigative team has been working around the clock to process and review a large volume of emails from a device obtained in connection with an unrelated criminal investigation. During that process, we reviewed all of the communications that were to or from Hillary Clinton while she was Secretary of State,” Comey wrote. “Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton.”
The missive left the impression that the Clinton probe was again finished — though people familiar with the case noted that Comey was careful to add “with respect to Secretary Clinton.” Agents knew they had to do more work, including interviewing Abedin to pin down how precisely her emails ended up on her husband’s computer.
A lawyer for Comey declined to comment.
Soon after the emails were discovered, Abedin had told people she was unsure how her emails could have ended up on the laptop, which she viewed as her husband’s computer. Comey testified in May that Abedin forwarded hundreds of thousands of emails to her husband, though the FBI later corrected that testimony and said most of the emails ended up on Weiner’s laptop as a result of an automated backup, rather than manual forwarding.
The FBI said that two email chains containing classified information were forwarded to Weiner, while 10 more got on his computer because of the backup process.
The FBI had previously interviewed Abedin in April 2016, asking her about the computer systems, email accounts and devices she and Clinton used. They confronted her with forwarded messages, and she said she would often send things from her government account to her other accounts so she could print them.
Investigators also asked about the process by which Abedin turned over her emails to the State Department as it was attempting to obtain records from Clinton’s tenure. Abedin told agents she turned over her laptop and Blackberry to her attorneys and relied on their judgment, according to the FBI’s report on her interview.
Even more than a year later, the Clinton email case remains of intense public interest. On Thursday, Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) sent a letter to the deputy attorney general asking about the FBI’s actions after it discovered the emails on Weiner’s laptop, including what the FBI’s interest was in Abedin in December 2016 and whether she had been given immunity or sat for an interview.
The inspector general is expected to complete his review of the investigation in the coming months. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also has ordered federal prosecutors to explore a host of GOP concerns surrounding Clinton and has suggested he would entertain the idea of a second special counsel.