2016 Elections

The FBI Wants to Make America Great Again

It sure seems like the bureau is trying to send a message about next week’s election

Not in an enviable position.

Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Maybe it’s just me, but I think the FBI is trying to send a message about next week’s election.

It’s not just that FBI Director James Comey informed Congress that there may be things on Anthony Weiner’s computer pertinent to his investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server. Nor is it the extraordinary Wall Street Journal coverage this week that revealed frustrations in the bureau over alleged Justice Department pressure to slow-walk an investigation into the Clinton Foundation. 

The cherry on this banana-republic split is a tweet published Monday from a long-dormant Twitter account called @FBIRecordsVault. It disclosed that new records of the bureau’s probe into Bill Clinton’s pardon of Marc Rich had been released because of a Freedom of Information Act request.

The FBI has since assured the public that this was all standard operating procedure. The records were requested. The request was approved. And the Twitter account automatically tweets out new files sent to the bureau’s electronic reading room. 

Nonetheless, it’s hard to credit this explanation. As Mark Corallo, a former Justice Department spokesman and Trump supporter, told me Wednesday, “The Marc Rich tweet is evidence of open warfare between the Justice Department and the FBI.” Corallo said this is largely because frustrated field agents believe the Justice Department has stymied the bureau’s investigations into Clinton’s e-mails and the Clinton Foundation.

Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy, told me it was true that records requested from multiple people are supposed to be added to the government agency’s electronic reading room. “What undermines that explanation is that they were not just added to the reading room, they were broadcast on this rarely used Twitter account,” he said. What’s more, Aftergood said government agencies have great discretion when they respond to Freedom of Information Act requests. “There is always a bottleneck, because the resources to review FOIA requests are inadequate to the demand,” he said.

The move certainly appeared political. After all, former Attorney General Eric Holder was one of the first former officials to criticize Comey’s decision to update Congress on the e-mail investigation. Perhaps the tweet was a shot across the bow to Holder, who recommended the Rich pardon in 2000 as deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

So what’s going on here? As the New York Times and the Washington Post are now reporting, and as my own sources confirm, many rank-and-file FBI officials are frustrated about the investigation into the Clinton Foundation and the way the e-mail probe was handled. Republicans too have wanted to see the FBI more robustly investigate the Clintons. So Comey has tried his best to split the baby.

The baby-splitting began over the summer, when Comey held a press conference and testified before Congress on his decision to not recommend the Clinton e-mail case to prosecutors. As he announced his decision to close the investigation, he also excoriated Clinton, calling her decision to use a private e-mail server for official business reckless and speculating that foreign powers accessed her e-mails (although he said the bureau could not prove that). Comey then promised Congress he would keep them abreast of new developments. He did just that less than two weeks before the election. 

Comey’s letter to Congress has gotten a lot of attention. But his initial blunder was breaking with precedent and explaining to the public his decision not to recommend prosecution of Clinton for her use of the private e-mail server when she was secretary of state.

“When Comey did his press conference in July, I nearly fell off my chair,” Steven Pomerantz, a retired assistant director for the FBI, told me. “I don’t think the FBI should ever make a prosecution recommendation. I believe Comey was honestly motivated, but I just don’t think process- and procedure-wise it was the right thing to do. And it all got compounded when he testified before Congress.”

Victoria Toensing, a former deputy assistant attorney general under President Ronald Reagan and a Trump supporter, told me much of this goes back to the decision not to impanel a grand jury in either the Clinton Foundation or e-mail investigation. “Comey fumbled the ball in the beginning by not demanding a grand jury,” she said. “And now he’s trying to make it up because he was caught between a rock and a hard place.”

In this case, the rock for Comey is the perception that he is influencing the election by informing Congress about Weiner’s computer. The hard place is his pledge to Republicans in Congress to keep them informed of any developments about Clinton’s e-mails.

Comey appears to have done his best to stay out of the election, but he is in the middle of it now. Through leaks and tweets, people in his bureau appear to be helping Donald Trump -- a man who has called for Clinton to be jailed. Ironic that Trump is the one who keeps saying the election will be rigged.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

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