Top Justice Department officials have a new strategy for dealing with their high-wattage clash with FBI Director James Comey over disclosures about the Hillary Clinton email probe: Downplay their disagreement and concentrate instead on pushing the FBI to move quickly to analyze the newly found messages.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates are now seeking a kind of detente with the beleaguered FBI chief after the extraordinary rift between Comey and the Justice Department last week over his plans to tell Congress that unexpected new evidence was under review in the Clinton email inquiry, officials familiar with the episode said.
While Justice officials disclaimed any political motivations in their shift in strategy, the effort to put the investigation on a fast track would be a step toward meeting the demands of top Democrats and the Clinton campaign for more answers in advance of the election.
Lynch and Yates “felt they needed to make clear that they disagreed with Comey’s decision,” one top Justice official said. “But no one is dragging their feet here. The Justice Department is committed to working with the FBI to move the case forward.”
Top prosecutors have echoed that view, telling colleagues that it’s time to put their disputes with Comey in the rear-view mirror and get on with an expeditious review of thousands of emails found on a laptop belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Letters the Justice Department sent to angry Democratic lawmakers Monday underscored that approach. Justice Department legislative liaison Peter Kadzik told the senators and House members that the agency “appreciates the concerns” they expressed about the impact of the disclosure on the election, but he never said explicitly that Comey had defied Lynch’s strong advice to follow the usual DOJ practice of avoiding any disclosures close to elections.
Kadzik did say that Justice is working “closely with the FBI” to pursue the inquiry “as expeditiously as possible.
Evidence of that approach, officials said, could be seen in Justice’s joint effort with the FBI to obtain a warrant over the weekend to access emails on the Weiner laptop that might be relevant to the Clinton email investigation. The warrant was granted Sunday, removing an important legal obstacle to the investigation.
In a letter to Comey Friday, top Senate Democrats said investigators should be “working around the clock to determine the basic facts about the emails in question.”
Still, it’s far from clear that the renewed investigation will reach any meaningful conclusions in the next eight days.
FBI officials said that if all of Abedin’s relevant messages turn out to be copies of ones her lawyers already turned over, the matter might be brought to a close within a few days. But given the frequency with which Clinton aides and other State Department officials used personal accounts to facilitate printing of documents, it seems more likely that at least some will fall into a gray area that requires a deeper level of review.
“You have to meticulously go through each one. You can’t just arbitrarily cut it off,” said one former FBI top official who has worked on similar investigations and asked not to be named. “Every document you think may have classified information in it, you have to give it to what we call the ‘victim agency.’ Each one of those agencies then has to sign off on whether it was classified and whether it is still classified. … There’s going to be maybe 16 different agencies that need to take a look at that stuff.”
Nonetheless, Lynch and Yates felt the fairest approach to all parties would be to push the investigation ahead as quickly as possible, given the expectations raised by Comey’s dramatic announcement on Friday.
Still, current and former FBI officials insisted Comey wasn’t looking to buck Justice Department policy, but believed he needed to fulfill promises he made to keep Congress posted of any significant developments in the case.
“He felt like he had to set the record straight. He found himself in a pickle,” the ex-FBI leader said. “I don’t think he thought this through, though.”
Comey is also facing dissent from his traditionally conservative rank-and-file agents over the decision in July not to recommend charges in the Clinton email case. It’s unclear whether that played any role in his decision to essentially announce last week’s development.
“The stuff about a rebellion going on inside the bureau is absolutely true, but that’s not going to influence his decision,” the ex-FBI official said.”He loves his troops, but it’s not a fair judgment that that’s why he did it.”
The FBI chief does seem to be aware that some in his agent ranks have doubts about how the politically charged, Clinton-related inquiry has been handled. In recent months, he has twice issued defensive memos to his workforce explaining his actions.
“Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. … At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression,” Comey wrote Friday. “In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.”
Some former FBI officials said it’s too early to say whether the highly public dust-up between Comey and Justice officials will poison the relationship or whether it can be put back on track.
“I hope some of the undercurrent of what is potentially playing out, the passive-aggressive part of it, isn’t a problem for the future,” former FBI agent Ron Hosko said, noting that the officials are typically together almost every workday for briefings on threats and ongoing operations.
“You hope the rhythm of the bureaucracy puts everybody back together,” he added.
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