Amid a potentially lethal frenzy about renewed FBI activity related to Hillary Clinton’s email, the Clinton campaign and its Democratic allies worked furiously on Monday to change the subject to FBI interest in Donald Trump’s ties to Russia.
Democrats have complained for weeks that FBI director James Comey has refused to discuss his agency’s alleged investigations into ties between key Trump figures and the Kremlin even as he has commented on the FBI’s inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State.
But in a conference call with reporters on Monday, two top Clinton campaign officials escalated the charge, saying that Clinton was the victim of a “blatant double standard” when it comes to Comey’s public comments about his bureau’s investigations. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and press secretary Brian Fallon called it “jaw dropping” for Comey to disclose that the FBI is examining newly discovered emails potentially related to Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State while declining comment on reports of FBI queries involving Trump and Moscow.
“Director Comey owes the public an explanation for this inconsistency,” Fallon said.
The Clinton team was responding to a CNBC report published Monday afternoon that Comey had declined to sign onto an October 7 public statement from the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Homeland Security declaring that the Russian government had directed cyber theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign later released by the website WikiLeaks. According to the report, which was sourced to an unnamed former FBI official, Comey privately argued that it was too close to the presidential election to issue such a statement.
But the Clinton officials also vented long-boiling frustration among Democrats about Comey’s low profile on the question of Russian influence in the election and possible Kremlin ties to Trump.
They referred to a letter sent to Comey on Saturday by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, who fumed to Comey that the FBI director had made numerous public statements about the Clinton email case but not also publicized his knowledge of what Reid called “explosive information” about Trump’s connections to Russia.
Reid did not specify what that information might be. But Democrats, including Reid himself, have repeatedly cited several Trump aides and advisers with alleged links to the Kremlin or WikiLeaks, some of whom have been investigated by the FBI, according to media reports.
“It is not fair for [Comey] to stay silent about investigations into election related hacks,” Fallon told reporters. “If the Trump campaign or allies of the trump camp are being looked at as part of that investigation, he should tell us too.”
Many Democrats are frustrated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s apparent efforts to aid Trump haven’t inflicted more damage on the Republican nominee. Even after U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Russia’s government directed the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, only four in ten voters said they believe that Russia has tried to influence the election, according to a mid-October Politico/Morning Consult poll.
Even the slightest collusion between Trump and Putin would be a scandal of historic proportions, Democrats say, a potential act of treason far more severe than the charge that Clinton and her aides mishandled classified information over email.
Intelligence officials have not publicly asserted any direct ties between Trump and the Kremlin, but such ties have reportedly been a topic of discussion in private briefings with members of Congress. A spokesman for the FBI’s national security division did not respond to a request for comment.
“In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government,” Reid wrote to Comey on Saturday.
“Reading Senator Reid’s letter, its obvious that he has been briefed by FBI on such an investigation,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow under Clinton when she was Secretary of State. “When Comey testified last summer, he rightly refused to comment. So, it is an obvious double standard for him to comment on Clinton investigation,” added McFaul, who supports Clinton.
A spokesman for Reid did not respond to a request for comment or more specifics about what the Senator might know about FBI activity. But Democrats have pointed for months to connections between Trump advisers and Russia, and have repeatedly pressed Comey to pursue them.
Reid himself has led the charge since late August, when he sent Comey an open letter imploring the FBI to investigate what he called “evidence of a direct connection between the Russian government and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.” That letter cited a Trump campaign adviser who traveled to Moscow in July and who, according to Reid, “met with high-ranking sanctioned individuals” there. That was almost surely a reference to Carter Page, an investment banker who has worked in Moscow and whom Trump has publicly named as a foreign advisor. Page has denied meeting with sanctioned Kremlin officials in Moscow, where he delivered economic remarks at a think tank. The Trump campaign says Carter plays a minimal advisory role.
Some Democrats have also accused the former longtime Trump operative Roger Stone of inappropriate contacts with WikiLeaks, the organization that has posted troves of Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee emails stolen by what intelligence officials say was Russian hacking. WikiLeaks has not disclosed how it came to possess those emails.
Reid’s August letter referred to “video evidence” of an individual with “long ties to Trump and his top campaign aides claiming to be in communication with WikiLeaks.”
Reid was likely referring to an August 8 speech by the former longtime Trump operative Roger Stone, posted online, in which Stone says that he has “actually communicated with” WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Stone has since denied any collaboration with Assange.
Reid is not shy about pressing speculative charges. Speaking on the Senate floor in August 2012, Reid said that an unnamed source had told him that then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney paid no taxes for a decade. Romney later released tax returns proving the allegation false. (In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Reid expressed little remorse, calling the false charge “one of the best things I’ve ever done.” Asked by a reporter whether there is a line Reid would not cross when it came to political warfare, Reid replied, “I don’t know what that line would be.”)
On August 30, several leading House Democrats sent their own letter to Comey citing Stone and Page. That letter also noted Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort’s past work for a pro-Russian party in Ukraine, as well as Trump advisor and former Defense Intelligence Agency director Gen. Michael Flynn’s attendance at a December 2015 dinner in Moscow where he sat at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
NBC reported Monday that the FBI has begun a preliminary inquiry into Manafort’s foreign business connections. CNN also reported in August the FBI is investigating the role Manafort’s lobbying firm might have played in alleged political corruption in Ukraine, where Manafort advised the ousted president Viktor Yankovych; it is not clear whether those reports describe the same investigation.
Democrats have pursued the “double standard” complaint aired by the Clinton officials today for weeks. When Comey testified at a September 28 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats pressed him on his public discussion of the Clinton email case—Comey announced in July that he would recommend no charges in that inquiry, though he also criticized Clinton and her aides—while refusing to comment on whether the FBI has pursued questions about Trump’s ties with Russia.
“Has the FBI interviewed Roger Stone about his communications with Julian Assange or his knowledge of how WikiLeaks got these illegally obtained documents?” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY.) asked Comey.
“I can’t comment on that,” Comey replied.
“Mr. Stone stated that he has knowledge about upcoming leaks of additional illegally hacked documents,” Nadler stated. “Has the FBI asked him about those communications?”
“I also can’t comment on that,” Comey said. “I don’t want to confirm whether there is or is not an investigation.”
“Is there a different standard for Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump—and if not, what is the consistent standard?” Nadler asked.
“Our standard is we do not confirm or deny the existence of investigations. There is an exception for that when there is a need for the public to be reassured,” Comey said. “Our overwhelming rule is we do not comment except in certain exceptional circumstances.”
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Fallon appeared to refer to that September hearing.
Comey “should answer the questions he was asked by the House Judiciary Committee,” Fallon said. “We are asking him to comment on investigations into associations between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russian actors.”
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