- Interview at agency on use of private server ran 3 1/2 hours
- Says husband, DOJ’s Lynch exchanged ‘pleasantries’ in Phoenix
Hillary Clinton was questioned on Saturday as part of the FBI’s inquiry into her use of a private e-mail server while U.S. secretary of state, a practice that’s dogged her presidential run, fueled Republican charges that she’s unfit for office, and caused Clinton herself to say she wishes she could take it back.
The roughly three-and-a-half hour meeting at FBI headquarters in Washington was confirmed by Clinton’s campaign. It threatens more turbulence for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee days after Attorney General Loretta Lynch was criticized for meeting former President Bill Clinton privately on an aircraft in Phoenix.
In her first comments on the interview, Clinton said on MSNBC on Saturday that she “was happy I got the opportunity to assist the department and bring this to a conclusion.” The Democrat told NBC’s Chuck Todd, though, that she had “no knowledge of any timeline” for the investigation to conclude. “I’m not going to comment on the process,” she said. “I’m not going to go into any more detail then I already have in public many times.”
Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, said in an earlier e-mailed statement that Clinton’s appearance had been “voluntary.”
Once it finishes its investigation, the FBI will make a recommendation to Lynch about whether to pursue a prosecution of Clinton or her aides, guidance the attorney general said Friday that she expects to accept. And while the holiday-weekend interview doesn’t imply that the former first lady and senator from New York faces indictment, the idea of Clinton having met with law enforcement officers will have political consequences.
It’s unclear if Clinton was the final person to be questioned. If so, the probe may be wrapped up before the Democratic National Convention that starts in Philadelphia on July 25 at which Clinton is poised to formally become the first woman presidential nominee for a major U.S. political party.
FBI spokeswoman Susan McKee declined to comment.
The interview makes it “a bad day” for Clinton and her team, said George C. Edwards III, who holds a chair in presidential studies at Texas A&M University in College Station. “In heavily polarized partisan politics, people view all such things through their partisan blinders.”
The FBI investigation is focused narrowly on the question of whether Clinton or those writing to her improperly handled classified information by sending it to or from her private e-mail address. Politically, Clinton has been fighting the broader question of whether it was proper to rely on her own e-mail system rather than an official state.gov address.
‘It Was a Mistake’
“It was allowed, and the rules have been clarified since I left about the practice,” Clinton has told reporters. “I have said many times it was a mistake and if I could go back I would do it differently.”
She made that comment after a report from the State Department’s inspector general in May found she never asked for approval to conduct official business on a private e-mail server and would have been turned down if she had.
The FBI interview and continuing investigation could hamper Clinton’s efforts to capitalize on weeks of negative publicity for Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, ahead of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland that starts July 18.
Trump has repeatedly called his Democratic rival “crooked Hillary” and said on June 29, “Hillary Clinton, and as you know she -- most people know she’s a world-class liar. Just look at her pathetic e-mail server statements.”
Trump tweeted on Saturday that its impossible for the FBI not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton. “What she did was wrong! What Bill did was stupid!” Trump said.
At the FBI meeting, officials were likely to have presented Clinton with the evidence they have obtained so far, and question her in detail about the private e-mail system, according to lawyers who have litigated other cases involving the handling of sensitive information.
“This isn’t a game,” said Joseph diGenova, former U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia who led the prosecution of Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life in prison for violating the Espionage Act by passing top-secret classified information to Israel; he was released on parole last year. “You don’t negotiate with the FBI about what they’re going to ask you. She’s going to have to answer very specific questions.”
Clinton, 68, used the private e-mail to send or receive about 60,000 messages from 2009 to 2013. She and her aides said about half were work-related and turned over to the State Department. They said the rest, which they deemed personal, were destroyed. Clinton added that she used the system for convenience.
Following a review, State Department officials said more than 2,000 of the messages Clinton shared contained classified information, with top-secret information appearing in 22. However, no material was labeled as classified when the e-mails were sent or received. Clinton and her aides say that shows she didn’t do anything wrong.
In its May 26 report, the State Department’s inspector general faulted Clinton for failing to follow guidelines on records management and using the server. The inspector general also faulted the State Department’s handling of electronic records and communications in general. It didn’t say Clinton had done anything illegal. While previous secretaries of state had also used some form of private e-mail at work, “by Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the Department’s guidance was considerably more detailed and more sophisticated,” according to the report.
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon defended her after the State Department report was made public. “As this report makes clear, Hillary Clinton’s use of personal e-mail was not unique, and she took steps that went much further than others to appropriately preserve and release her records,” Fallon said in a statement at the time.
Yet the use of the private system did frustrate at least one key Clinton aide. In a 2010 exchange, Huma Abedin, Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and now vice chair of her presidential campaign, raised the idea of getting her boss an official government e-mail address, citing missed communications.
During a deposition in a separate legal case, Clinton’s chief of staff during her time as secretary of state, Cheryl Mills, said she never thought about the prospect that some of Clinton’s private e-mail exchanges wouldn’t be retained under federal records laws.
“I wish I had thought about that subset,” Mills said in a deposition released May 31 by the conservative government transparency group Judicial Watch. “I wish I had thought about the fact that someone could be non-government” and “those records might be not being captured.”
Information in the e-mails was retroactively deemed classified during a review undertaken after the existence of the server, originally based in Clinton’s home in Chappaqua, New York, was made public. That includes e-mails which were said to refer to the most secretive special access programs, such as satellite imagery or the names of foreign agents.
The March 2015 revelations by the New York Times and Associated Press that Clinton used a personal e-mail account on a private server quickly emerged as an issue in the presidential primaries and spawned a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits by organizations seeking access to the messages. Under U.S. law, e-mails created or received during the course of official business are considered federal records.
While Clinton apologized for using the server, she and her aides have also said that retroactive classification of the e-mails represents over-classification by the government.
Status of Aides
Edward MacMahon Jr., a Middleburg, Virginia-based lawyer who worked on the defense for Jeffrey Sterling, a former CIA agent convicted of leaking details of a program to disrupt Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said charges against Clinton are unlikely. But he said that the FBI would accept few mitigating explanations from aides if it were discovered that they entered or paraphrased classified information on the non-secure server.
“If the FBI has possession of a document that was plainly classified and deals with national security issues and was given to one of these people and then it ended up in Mrs. Clinton’s e-mail in unclassified form, they’re going to want to know how that happened,” MacMahon said.
Aides that knew about Clinton’s server and e-mails include Mills, Abedin, Philippe Reines, who served as a communication aide at the State Department, and former aide Jake Sullivan, now a top adviser on the campaign.
During their investigation, prosecutors granted immunity to Bryan Pagliano, a Clinton staff member who helped set up the e-mail server in 2009. Pagliano worked on Clinton’s failed 2008 presidential campaign. He and certain other aides have already spoken with the FBI. It’s unclear if Sullivan has been interviewed.
The FBI’s inquiry came back into focus this week following news that Lynch and Clinton’s husband met in Phoenix. Lynch described the encounter as a purely “social” occurrence that wouldn’t “have a bearing” on the e-mail investigation yet added, “I certainly would not do it again.” She said there was “no discussion” about the investigation.
Clinton told MSNBC that she had learned of the encounter, which she termed “an exchange of pleasantries,” from news reports. “They talked about grandkids, which is very much on our minds these days, golf, and their mutual friend and former attorney general Janet Reno,” she said.