President Barack Obama is questioning the wisdom of FBI Director James Comey’s vague announcement that the agency is reviewing new evidence in its probe into Hillary Clinton’s email practices, saying investigations shouldn’t “operate on innuendo.”
In an interview with NowThis released Wednesday morning, Obama did not call out Comey by name but vented his frustration that the FBI director dropped a bombshell 11 days before the presidential election, a move that has produced a flurry of anonymously sourced stories about how potentially damaging the new evidence might be.
“Setting aside the particulars of this case,” Obama said of Clinton, “I know that she is somebody who has always looked out for the interest of America and the American people first. And I do think that there is a norm that, you know, when there are investigations, we don’t operate on innuendo. We don’t operate on incomplete information. We don’t operate on leaks. We operate based on concrete decisions that are made.”
Obama said he “made a very deliberate effort to make sure that I don’t look like I’m meddling in what are supposed to be independent processes for making these assessments.” Even so, the president seemingly rebuked the FBI chief’s decision to release the cryptic, cursory letter so close to Election Day.
He also said there’s no fire to all the smoke. In July, after its yearlong investigation, Obama continued, “the conclusion of the FBI, the conclusion of the Justice Department, the conclusion of repeated congressional investigations was that, you know, she had made some mistakes but that there wasn’t anything there that was, you know, prosecutable.”
Congressional investigations, however, did not come to such a firm conclusion, and some are ongoing.
The president’s assessment was backed up by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said Comey had “made a mistake” by going public with the bureau’s investigation of additional evidence relating to the private email server Clinton operated as secretary of state. That Comey felt compelled to disclose the FBI’s additional review but has been tight-lipped on the existence of any other election-related investigation shows that he is operating under a double standard, Pelosi said.
“I am an admirer of Comey in terms of what he has done in the past. I think he made a mistake on this, and he clearly has a double standard when it comes to Donald Trump,” Pelosi said in an interview Wednesday on CNN. “When it came to the hacking by the Russians, that the highest confidence of our intelligence community says the Russians did this, I know it privately, because of being hacked by the Russians, and he says, ‘Well, it’’s too close to the election to talk about that.’ And yet it’s not too close to the election to talk about the emails that he says may not be significant.”
Pressed repeatedly Wednesday by reporters on Air Force One about whether the president had departed from the White House’s official refusal to neither “criticize nor defend” the director’s behavior, spokesman Eric Schultz insisted the president was speaking only generally and reiterated that White House officials do not have the “luxury” of weighing in.
Reporters asked Schultz whom, exactly, the president was referring to when he said, “We don’t operate on innuendo.”
Schultz responded: “He was referring to the idea that in the course of a law enforcement investigation, if facts and materials are released before that investigation comes to a conclusion, or in the middle of it, then that could lead to public speculation and innuendo. And the president believes that generally speaking, that that doesn’t serve our interest.”
Comey informed lawmakers last Friday that more information had been uncovered in the probe but declined to provide details on the evidence or a timetable for when the new review may be resolved. Anonymous law enforcement sources later told reporters that investigators found new messages to and from Clinton’s private email server on a laptop used by Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Weiner is under investigation for allegedly exchanging sexually explicit texts with an underage girl.
The FBI director’s revelation sent shock waves through the presidential campaign, a final October surprise to cap a month that was already full of them. Comey’s announcement shook Clinton’s campaign from its apparent glide path to the White House and forced the former secretary of state to again defend herself against allegations that had seemingly been put to rest over the summer. And it handed momentum to Donald Trump, already on the offensive with the daily release of hacked Clinton campaign emails and news that Obamacare premiums are set to spike next year, allowing the Manhattan billionaire to once again hammer his opponent as corrupt.
But while news that the FBI is once again examining Clinton’s email practices has shifted campaign talking points, there is less evidence that it has moved the needle among American voters. Although the race has generally tightened in recent days, Trump had begun closing the gap before Comey’s announcement Friday, and polls conducted afterward do not seem to show an acceleration in the Manhattan billionaire’s resurgence.
In the immediate aftermath of Comey’s disclosure, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote in a letter to the FBI director that his disclosure may have violated the Hatch Act, a law prohibiting many executive branch officials from interfering in elections. Adding to that criticism, the Clinton campaign itself questioned the timing of the FBI’s release of records this week on a 15-year-old investigation into former President Bill Clinton’s pardon of the late fugitive financier Marc Rich. The Democratic nominee’s press secretary, Brian Fallon, wrote on Twitter that “Absent a FOIA litigation deadline, this is odd. Will FBI be posting docs on Trump’s housing discrimination in ’70s?”
But the FBI and the DOJ have also been criticized from the right for meddling with the election. Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik, who is now the Justice Department official in charge of keeping Congress informed about the review of additional email-related evidence, allegedly warned Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta in May 2015 that lawmakers could raise the long-running scandal during a hearing. That heads-up, which appeared in one of Podesta’s hacked emails released by WikiLeaks, appeared to have been public information at the time, but still leaves the FBI open to questions about Kadzik and the Hatch Act.
Obama, in the interview that aired Wednesday, also expressed full confidence in Clinton.
“Obviously, it’s become a political controversy,” he said of Comey’s letter. “You know, the fact of the matter is, is that Hillary Clinton, having been in the arena for 30 years, oftentimes gets knocked around and people say crazy stuff about her and when she makes a mistake, an honest mistake, it ends up being blown up as if it’s just some crazy thing.”
The president sympathized with new voters who hear all the “noise” about Clinton from Republicans and worry about whether they should cast their ballots for her. But he unequivocally supported Clinton to succeed him in the White House.
“I just want everybody who’s watching to know that Hillary Clinton not only is going to make a great president and not only is she willing to work on the issues that your viewers care about most, but I trust her, I know her and, you know, I wouldn’t be supporting her if I didn’t have absolute confidence in her integrity and her interest in making sure that young people have a better future,” he said.
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