Updated: Jan 4
Oct. 28, 2016
WASHINGTON — Just as Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton appeared to be sailing to an election day victory, carrying a lengthening list of House and Senate Democrats in her wake, her email problems came roaring back Friday in a classic “October surprise” that Republicans said could upset the race.
FBI Director James Comey’s letter Friday to congressional leaders announcing that his agency is again investigating emails related to Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state came as a shock to both parties.
Republican nominee Donald Trump, Republicans in Congress and the GOP’s House and Senate campaign arms jumped on the news, calling for a full investigation of Clinton’s “reckless” conduct and demanding in new fundraising letters that Democratic candidates lower on the ballot “unendorse” her.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, and her aide, Huma Abedin, right, on the campaign's plane en route to a campaign rally in Iowa on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. Federal law enforcement officials said Friday that new emails uncovered in the closed investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server were discovered after the FBI seized electronic devices belonging to Abedin and her husband, Anthony Weiner, during investigation of messages Weiner is suspected of having sent to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.(Doug Mills/The New York Times)
The announcement provides “a much-needed boost for Donald Trump,” said GOP consultant Ford O’Connell. “Whether it’s a decisive game-changer, we don’t know, but it certainly seems to be helping.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a big Clinton backer and the top Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, reacted with outrage — not to any suggestions of Clinton wrongdoing, but to Comey’s making public such speculative information that Comey conceded had not yet been yet reviewed.
“One thing is clear: Director Comey’s announcement played right into the political campaign of Donald Trump, who is already using the letter for political purposes,” Feinstein said in a statement.
Clinton urged the FBI to “explain this issue in question, whatever it is, without any delay.”
“The American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately. Let’s get it out,” she said.
In his letter Friday, Comey said the new emails, found on a computer used jointly by longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, a disgraced former New York congressman, prompted investigators to take another look at whether classified information had been mishandled. An earlier FBI probe found that Clinton and her State Department colleagues had been careless in their handling of sensitive classified information, but that, as Comey said at the time, “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring criminal charges in the case.
Comey did not disclose how many emails were involved in the latest discovery but said further investigation was warranted.
“In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” Comey wrote. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
Comey noted that the FBI could not yet assess “whether or not this material may be significant” or how long it might take to run down the new investigative leads.
The emails reportedly emerged as federal authorities in New York and North Carolina investigated online communications between Weiner and a 15-year-old girl. Weiner was caught in 2011, 2013 and again in 2016 sending sexually explicit text messages and photographs of himself undressed to numerous women using the alias “Carlos Danger.”
A senior law enforcement official said the emails belonged to Abedin and were backed up on Weiner’s computer, the New York Times reported. It was unclear what the emails contained or what connection they might have to the FBI’s earlier investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server.
With a week and a half before election day and many voters already having cast ballots, it remains to be seen whether the news will damage Clinton enough to salvage Trump’s flailing campaign.
“It presents a pall of uncertainty just when the Clinton campaign is trying to nail down a victory and when the Trump campaign is struggling for air,” said San Jose State University political scientist Larry Gerston.
Comey’s acknowledgment that the newly discovered emails may lack significance gave Democrats some breathing room, but the issue strikes at the heart of Clinton’s biggest weakness, voter perceptions that she is untrustworthy. Against any opponent other than Trump, who is routinely caught in lies and fabrications, the revelations would certainly be damaging.
While congressional Republicans expressed indignation, most were careful to stop short of labeling Clinton a criminal.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the Bakersfield Republican who abandoned a bid for House speaker last year after admitting that the long-running Benghazi, Libya, investigations that initially revealed Clinton’s use of a private email server were politically motivated, issued a statement saying the FBI’s decision “once again showcases her fundamental lack of judgment and disregard for protecting and handling our nation’s highly classified secrets.”
Trump showed no such restraint.
“Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” he said in a statement. “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.”
Trump praised the FBI and Justice Department for having “the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made” in failing to charge Clinton with criminal wrongdoing earlier.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed the news during a visit to The Chronicle on Friday. “I don’t think it’s going to make any difference in the election,” she said.
Clinton, in a brief statement to reporters Friday evening, noted: “The director himself has said he doesn’t know whether the emails referenced in his letter are significant or not. I’m confident whatever they are will not change the conclusion reached in July.”
Earlier in the day, John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman, suggested that Comey is responding to pressure from Trump and his GOP allies, whom he accused of “baselessly second-guessing the FBI and, in both public and private, browbeating the career officials ... in a desperate attempt to harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.”
“It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election,” he said.
Some former prosecutors also questioned Comey’s judgment in making public a letter on such an explosive issue days before the presidential election with no clear evidence that the emails are significant and providing no chance for Clinton to respond.
Nick Akerman, former assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, said Comey “acted totally inappropriately.”
It’s not the FBI director’s job “to be making public pronouncements about an investigation, never mind about an investigation based on evidence that he acknowledges may not be significant. The job of the FBI is simply to investigate and to provide the results of its investigation to the prosecutorial arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.”
GOP strategist O’Connell said the odds of a Trump victory rose more than six points on ElectionBettingOdds.com, a political odds-making website, although the gain still left the GOP nominee with only a 23 percent chance of winning.
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead