(Updated, 22:28 p.m.) A rarely used Twitter account, sharing links to material released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in response to Freedom of Information Act requests, became fodder for partisan argument on Tuesday when, without explanation, it drew attention to Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich in 2001, on the final day of his presidency.
Coming days after F.B.I. Director James Comey was criticized for announcing a fresh review of emails from Hillary Clinton’s aide, Huma Abedin, the tweet prompted accusations that supporters of Donald Trump inside the bureau are ignoring Justice Department guidelines to avoid any actions that might be perceived as attempts to influence next week’s election.
FBI release of old Clinton docs seven days before election show the bureau under Comey is out of control.— Norman Ornstein (@NormOrnstein) November 1, 2016
WTF is "FBI Records Vault" and WTF is it doing?— Joan Walsh (@joanwalsh) November 1, 2016
The documents, which were posted online Monday, are of little obvious interest, since they are heavily redacted and relate to an F.B.I. investigation of possible corruption that closed 11 years ago with no charges. Still, those rooting against Hillary Clinton’s campaign were elated, largely because of the mistaken belief that the records were related to a new investigation of the Clinton Foundation that has reportedly made little headway.
In fact, the F.B.I. files relate to accusations that Bill Clinton had pardoned Rich, who was indicted for tax evasion and sanctions-busting, because the wealthy oil trader’s former wife, Denise Rich, had donated money to help build the Clinton presidential library in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Clinton foundation, originally set up to fund that project, was later relaunched as an international philanthropic organization that has both done good and raised questions about possible conflicts of interest.
Hillary Clinton’s press secretary, Brian Fallon, called the timing of the F.B.I. release of the documents “odd,” since it seemed to ignore the pre-election guidelines, and there was no obvious reason the files had to be made public this week.
The fact that, until the early hours of Sunday morning, the @FBIRecordsVault Twitter account had not been used to share links to new material since the middle of 2015 fueled suspicion that whoever is in charge of social media at the F.B.I. archive seemed to be in an unusual rush to draw attention to these documents before the election.
Three of the other document collections referred to when the account suddenly sprang to life at 4 a.m. on Sunday could also be described as election related: an archive of documents from the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state; a similar trove from the probe of David Petraeus (whose case is constantly compared to Clinton’s by Trump); eight pages about Fred Trump, the Republican candidate’s late father.
The few pages of F.B.I. files about Fred Trump relate to routine record searches from 1966 and 1991. They do not, as Fallon noted, include any records from the federal investigation of Fred and Donald Trump from 1973, when the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division sued the family business for violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against potential tenants on the basis of their race. The Trumps were eventually forced to operate according to the terms of a consent decree, but only after their lawyer, Roy Cohn, was rebuked by a judge for accusing F.B.I. investigators gathering evidence of “gestapo-type conduct,” according to Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice.
The Rich case has some contemporary resonance, given scathing criticism by former Attorney General Eric Holder of Comey’s decision to announce that his investigators are reviewing newly discovered emails to and from Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s closest aide. Holder, as Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general at the time, was involved in the decision to grant the Rich pardon. Comey, then a federal prosecutor, ultimately decided in 2005 to close the investigation into that pardon without bringing charges.
In a statement released late on Tuesday, the F.B.I. gave no explanation for the flurry of pre-election activity from a long-dormant Twitter account, but insisted that Freedom of Information Act requests triggered the release of documents relating to the pardon. “Per the standard procedure for FOIA,” the bureau said in the statement, these materials became available for release and were posted automatically and electronically to the FBI’s public reading room in accordance with the law and established procedures.”