It has been one of the lingering mysteries of the 2016 campaign: Why did the FBI wait until 11 days before the election to announce a new batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails in an “October surprise” that might have tilted the election to Donald Trump?
Top FBI officials had learned weeks earlier that the laptop of disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner appeared to hold a huge cache of Clinton’s emails, yet they didn’t do anything about it until the eve of the election — a baffling delay that Clinton and her supporters, to this day, claim cost her the election.
For the first time, a full accounting of the game-changing episode has emerged. Deep in the 568-page report released last month by the Justice Department Inspector General on the FBI and the 2016 campaign lies a series of explanations from senior FBI officials — excuses, in the view of the Inspector General — for the damaging delay and inaction.
The most startling explanation from the FBI: It was all about Russia, or more precisely, the bureau’s urgent and then-secret investigation into the Trump campaign and Russia that fall. At least three senior FBI officials suggested in interviews with the Inspector General that the bureau was so overwhelmed that fall with frantically investigating the suspected Trump-Russia ties that the new Clinton emails simply took a backseat. Ironically, the urgency of chasing Trump’s possible ties to the Kremlin may have helped topple his opponent.
“It was Russia, Russia, Russia all the time” that fall before the election, then-Director James Comey told the Inspector General investigators in explaining the mindset at headquarters when the new batch of Clinton emails surfaced unexpectedly. Indeed, the report suggests that the FBI might not have done anything at all about the new Clinton emails before the election were it not for a desperate FBI agent in New York who realized that the issue seemed to have been forgotten.
The Russia investigation and the Clinton email probe collided in the closing weeks of the campaign with damaging results, the Inspector General found. A number of the same key FBI agents and lawyers who worked on the original Clinton investigation — which was effectively closed that July without charges — were then assigned just weeks later to the newly opened Russia investigation. They were in the midst of that pursuit when Weiner’s laptop turned up, the report found.
When the new Clinton emails surfaced unexpectedly in late September, “we were consumed by these ever-increasing allegations of [Russian] contacts and coordination and trying to get operations up, and following people,” said Peter Strzok, a lead agent on both cases, who was sharply criticized in the report for derogatory text messages he exchanged about Trump with Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer, who also worked on both cases and with whom Strzok was having an affair. Strzok battled with Republican lawmakers at a contentious House hearing last week.
When the Inspector General report came out in June, its scathing findings about the FBI’s mishandling of aspects of the Clinton email investigation understandably dominated media coverage. Largely ignored, however, were the many revelations in the report about the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe that fall, a topic that is still being hotly pursued by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and that created another political storm for Trump this week in Helsinki.
The report was not supposed to be about Russia at all. Indeed, the Inspector General declared at the outset that the Russia investigation “was not a part of this review.” But it was clear that the authors couldn’t avoid the topic altogether because that investigation had become so intertwined with the Clinton probe in the final months of the campaign. In all, Russia turned up 141 times in the report, with a slew of interviews, asides, and footnotes shedding light on the frantic pace of the investigation at FBI headquarters and the dilemmas it raised.
Even as Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s office laid out the testimony from FBI officials, it concluded that the urgent demands of the Russia investigation and other explanations offered by FBI officials did not justify the monthlong delay in the Clinton email case, which “had potentially far-reaching consequences” in the presidential campaign.
However, the Inspector General found no evidence that political biases by anyone at the FBI drove the delay – either in holding the new email review until the eve of the election to hurt Clinton or burying it altogether until after the election to help her, as some Republicans have suggested. Instead, the report suggests that the new Clinton emails inexplicably slipped through the cracks in the FBI’s massive bureaucracy because of needless management lapses and communication breakdowns against the backdrop of an increasingly urgent Russia investigation.
FBI agents in New York identified the huge new batch of Clinton’s emails in late September 2016 on the laptop of Weiner, who was under investigation for sexting a minor and was married at the time to Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Senior officials at FBI headquarters in Washington were alerted almost immediately – with all the relevant details, the report found, but it was not until October 28 that Comey told congressional leaders about the discovery and began a review.
Coming just 11 days before the election, the revelation that the FBI was re-examining Clinton’s emails diverted news coverage for days in the campaign’s last leg. Nine days later, Comey announced that the FBI’s examination of the new emails found nothing to change the original decision in July against bringing charges, but the damage was done. Clinton campaign aides cite poll numbers showing that the barrage of new email stories turned some key voters.
The Russia probe came up again and again in the Inspector General report, as FBI officials sought to explain the delay in acting on the Clinton emails.
E.W. “Bill” Priestap, head of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, “stated that the Russia investigation was a higher priority in October than reviewing the Weiner laptop,” the report said. His teams led both the Clinton and Russia investigations.
Priestap told the Inspector General that “I sincerely doubted that the emails identified on [the Weiner] laptop were likely to alter our informed view of the matter” – namely, that Clinton should not have been charged. As a result, he said he recognized that his team might not review the tens of thousands of Clinton emails until well after the election, while it pursued other matters, including the pending threat from Russia to an election just weeks away.
Strzok said in the report that the new Clinton emails were important and needed to be examined at some point. But more important at the moment, he said, was the question: “Is the government of Russia trying to get somebody elected here in the United States?”
Almost immediately after learning of the new Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop, FBI officials in New York and Washington discussed the need to seek a new search warrant in court to examine them because they were unrelated to the original sexting investigation, the Inspector General found. But those discussions ended by October 4, the Inspector General found, as FBI counterintelligence officials in Washington focused primarily on Russia. FBI officials in New York and Washington indicated that they were waiting on their counterparts in the other office to do something about the emails.
Comey himself told the Inspector General that he recalled hearing about the Weiner laptop’s connection to Clinton by early October, but “I didn’t index it” as particularly important in the Clinton email investigation, and “I put it out of my mind.” The Inspector General pressed Comey on why the Weiner laptop didn’t register to him as potentially significant at first, given Abedin’s well-known role as a Clinton confidante. In one of several odd comments by Comey captured in the report, the FBI director professed ignorance. “I don’t know that I knew that [Weiner] was married to Huma Abedin at the time,” he said.
After weeks of inaction in October, an FBI agent in New York who was involved in the original sexting case became deeply concerned, the report found. The unnamed agent said he had not heard anything more from FBI headquarters about moving ahead with a search warrant to examine the new Clinton emails. “The crickets I was hearing [were] really making me uncomfortable because something was going to come crashing down,” the agent told the Inspector General.
On October 19, more than three weeks after the emails were first identified, the agent took his concerns to two federal prosecutors in Manhattan involved in the sexting case. By elevating his concerns up the chain, the agent said, he thought that “maybe they’d kick some of these lazy FBI folks in the butt and get them moving.” While some FBI agents in New York were known to oppose Clinton, the report indicated that the unnamed agent relayed his concerns not out of any political agenda, but because he feared that he might be blamed for the delay. The agent recounted telling the prosecutors that “I’m not political. Like I don’t care who wins this election, but this is going to make us look really, really horrible” if it came out publicly that nothing was done with the emails.
That conversation led to a meeting between Preet Bharara, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District in New York, and his deputy, Joon Kim, who then called the Justice Department in Washington on October 21 to find out what had happened. The call to Washington “set off alarm bells,” Matthew Axelrod, a senior Justice Department official, told the Inspector General. That, in turn, led to a flurry of phone calls and emails between the Justice Department and the FBI over the next few days and, ultimately, Comey’s controversial decision on October 27 to seek a search warrant and notify Congress. The next day, he sent a confidential memo to congressional leaders, which leaked within minutes and upended the campaign.
In documenting the monthlong delay, Horowitz’s office said it was not persuaded by any of the justifications offered by the FBI, including the urgent distraction of the Russia investigation. The report said that FBI agents who weren’t working on the Russia investigation could have been assigned to examine the Clinton emails much sooner, rather than waiting a month as the election approached. “This was a staffing choice, not an excuse for inaction,” the report said.
Comey acknowledged to investigators that in hindsight, the Russia team probably should have been bigger or structured differently to avoid the staffing conflicts that arose when the Clinton emails resurfaced. “Maybe I needed two teams,” Comey said. Spy work has always been a prize assignment for FBI agents, yet in another surprising concession, Comey indicated that he didn’t have enough capable people in that area. “The challenge is [that] the talent is not necessarily that deep when it comes to counterintelligence, people who can work this stuff.”
The Inspector General highlighted the different standards to which Comey apparently adhered in keeping the Trump-Russia investigation a secret, even while he talked extensively in public about the Clinton probe. Democrats have long accused Comey of a double standard, and the report buttressed that accusation and revealed new details about what it called the FBI’s “differential treatment” of the Russia and Clinton cases — one secret and the other quite public.
Just one month before the November election, Comey decided that the FBI would not sign on to a formal statement from U.S. officials declaring that Russia was behind a string of damaging cyberattacks on Democrats. In an email to then-CIA Director John Brennan and then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper on October 5, 2016, Comey suggested, bewilderingly, that it was already common knowledge at the time that Russia was trying to help elect Trump.
A formal statement about Russian interference so close to the election “adds little to the public mix” and threatened to damage the intelligence community’s “reputation for independence,” Comey wrote in the email, which was included in the report. “I could be wrong (and frequently am) but Americans already ‘know’ the Russians are monkeying around on behalf of one candidate.” (A declassified report two months after Trump’s election, released this time with the FBI’s sign-off, found with “high confidence” that Russia wanted Trump elected, a revelation that dominated headlines and enraged the president-elect.)
Matt Miller, a senior Justice Department official in the Obama administration and a Clinton supporter, told The Intercept that he found Comey’s email “infuriating in the context of everything else that was going on,” especially the decision just three weeks later to reopen the Clinton email case. Miller said he believed Comey had in fact been ‘’wrong,” just as he had acknowledged he might have been in his email, to think that the American public already knew Russia was “monkeying around” on Trump’s behalf. “Most people had no idea, or at least didn’t understand the extent to which it was happening,” he said.
The Inspector General’s team pressed Comey on whether he took the then-secret Russia investigation into account when he decided on October 28 to tell Congress about the reopening of the Clinton email probe. Comey said he did not factor it in. “You’ve got to look at each case individually,” Comey said in the report. Comparing investigations is “a calculation you shouldn’t engage in because then you’re starting to weigh political impacts of your work — who’s hurt by this, who’s hurt by that.”
Again, the Inspector General appeared skeptical of that explanation for the FBI’s decision to effectively treat the Clinton case differently than the Trump-Russia investigation. It was just one example of what the report criticized as Comey’s “ad hoc decision-making,” which it said amounted to insubordination in his decision that July to announce the Clinton findings publicly on his own. (Comey said in response to the report that he disagreed with some of the conclusions, but that “people of good faith can see an unprecedented situation differently.”)
Scrutiny of the FBI’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation during the 2016 campaign isn’t over. In late March, the IG opened another polarizing investigation into the FBI in response to charges from Republicans that the bureau abused its authority in the Russia probe during the campaign when it got a court order in the fall of 2016 to wiretap former Trump advisor Carter Page, who had Russian contacts and visited Moscow. That report seems sure to reopen the political wounds from the 2016 election once again.