Just as Hillary Clinton appeared to be cruising to Election Day with the wind at her back, the FBI rattled the presidential race Friday by announcing it is again probing emails that might be related to her private server, rekindling a politically damaging controversy for Clinton and reinvigorating Republicans scrambling to hold on to congressional seats.
The surprise word from FBI Director James Comey came after his agency discovered new communications on a computer jointly used by close Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. Investigators came across the emails while investigating whether Weiner violated federal law when exchanging sexually explicit texts with a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, the official said.
Comey wrote in a letter to Congress that the newly discovered messages could be relevant to questions of whether Clinton and her aides mishandled classified information while she was secretary of State.
The emails were not to or from Clinton, and contained information that appeared to be more of what agents had already uncovered, the official said, but in an abundance of caution, they felt they needed to further scrutinize them.
Because Comey had told Congress that the FBI had finished investigating Clinton’s server, he felt he needed to let lawmakers know that agents were looking into the case again in light of the recent discovery, the official said.
News of Comey’s letter sent the stock market falling and Republican candidates rewriting their stump speeches. The Clinton campaign was caught off guard, as the letter emerged while the candidate and her entourage, including Abedin, were flying on a campaign plane with no working Wi-Fi en route to a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Speaking briefly to reporters after an event in Des Moines, Clinton called on Comey to release more information. She said neither she nor her campaign staff was contacted by the FBI and noted twice that the bureau communicated only with Republican congressional investigators.
"The American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately," she said.
Clinton also expressed confidence that whatever might be in the newly discovered emails "will not change the conclusion" Comey reached in July when he announced he would not recommend criminal charges.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, excoriated Comey’s timing.
“The FBI has a history of extreme caution near election day so as not to influence the results,” she said in a statement. “Today’s break from that tradition is appalling.”
Democrats were not alone in demanding Comey disclose more information or questioning such a disclosure so close to the presidential election.
"The letter from Director Comey was unsolicited and, quite honestly, surprising,” said a statement from Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican. “But it's left a lot more questions than answers for both the FBI and Secretary Clinton. Congress and the public deserve more context to properly assess what evidence the FBI has discovered and what it plans to do with it.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asked in a tweet: “Why is FBI doing this just 11 days before the election?”
Comey had written in his letter that he could not assess whether the new messages contained “significant” material or “how long it will take us to complete this additional work.” He wrote that the FBI would “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.”
The review could take weeks and will not be completed by Election Day, a law enforcement official said.
The short note put Comey, a Republican who was appointed by President Obama, back under an unwelcome spotlight. Democrats who had praised his handling of the email investigation this year, when Comey declared he had reviewed the evidence and found it did not merit criminal charges against Clinton and her staff, are now questioning his judgment.
Republicans who accused Comey of covering up Clinton’s misdeeds then were lauding his courage Friday. Donald Trump said the political system "might not be as rigged as I thought.”
The announcement that FBI agents would again be combing through emails possibly linked to Clinton’s private server was enough to shift the tone of the race. Minutes after the news broke, Trump took the stage in Manchester, N.H., to suggest the FBI was all but ready to indict Clinton — which Comey’s letter hardly suggested.
"Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before," Trump said as the crowed roared "lock her up," a staple chant at his rallies. "We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office."
Trump branded the latest news from the FBI "bigger than Watergate.”
Congressional GOP candidates in tight races, who have been struggling to deflect voter attention away from their uneasiness with a presidential nominee who has been a drag on the ticket, were also quick to pounce.
"This decision shows exactly why we need strong watchdogs in Congress to ensure thorough oversight of the executive branch,” Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista said in a statement. “The federal government constantly needs to be held accountable to curb poor judgment — like using a private server to circumvent federal records laws — and incomplete investigations that fail to deliver justice and erode public faith in government.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan renewed his call to suspend classified briefings to the Democratic presidential nominee. Like Trump, Ryan took liberties in interpreting Comey’s carefully worded letter. Ryan declared the FBI is reopening its investigation into Clinton’s private email server, which is not what Comey wrote.
Unless the fresh FBI review leads to new evidence of actual wrongdoing by Clinton, it may not substantially change the contours of a presidential race in which Clinton is polling far ahead, and at least 17 million Americans have already cast their ballots through early voting.
But it could provide a badly needed boost to congressional Republicans. Antipathy toward Clinton is the issue that most unites the party.
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Katie McGinty, quickly sought to link his opponent to Clinton’s email woes, pointing to a controversy in Pennsylvania over some of McGinty’s electronic communications. "We knew McGinty was in complete lock-step with Hillary Clinton, but sharing an email scandal is ridiculous,” Toomey spokesman Ted Kwong said in an email.
Other Republicans demanded their opponents disavow Clinton — just as Clinton and her allies have for months been demanding Republican candidates disavow Trump following some of his more incendiary comments and the emergence of a video in which Trump boasted of his uninvited sexual advances toward women.
“The FBI is reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton,” said one of a blizzard of carbon copy releases sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee, where only the state and name of the Democrat targeted on each was changed. In this case, the target was Rep. Ami Bera, who represents a swing district in the Sacramento area. “California voters deserve to know if Ami Bera still stands by her.”
Times staff writers Chris Megerian in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Lisa Mascaro in Manchester, N.H., contributed to this report.