The FBI accelerated its timeline for reviewing emails potentially linked to Hillary Clinton on Monday amid growing public pressure over the agency’s surprise announcement that it had found them in an unrelated case.
Investigators had planned to conduct the review over several weeks but, after a torrent of criticism over the weekend, began scrambling to examine the trove of emails, according to law enforcement officials. The FBI hoped to complete a preliminary assessment in the coming days, but agency officials have not decided how, or whether, they will disclose the results of it publicly, and officials also could not say whether the entire review would be completed by election day.
The uncertainty did not stop Donald Trump from charging into the vacuum with ominous speculation that a Clinton victory would spark national upheaval. Clinton repeated that she was confident the FBI had no case against her and that voters had already made up their mind on her use of a private server while she was secretary of State.
Hundreds of thousands of emails were discovered in an unrelated investigation into whether former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, violated federal laws while exchanging sexually explicit texts with a 15-year-old. Most of the emails were Weiner's, investigators say. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, belonged to Abedin, one official said.
FBI Director James B. Comey, a former Bush administration official appointed to run the bureau three years ago by President Obama, has come under heavy criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike for disclosing the investigation to Congress so close to the election.
Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican who heads the Judiciary Committee, demanded that Comey release more information about the review by Friday.
“While I disagree with those who suggest you should have kept the FBI’s discovery secret until after the election, I agree that your disclosure did not go far enough,” Grassley wrote to Comey. “Unfortunately, your letter failed to give Congress and the American people enough context to evaluate the significance or full meaning of this development.”
“Without additional context, your disclosure is not fair to Congress, the American people, or Secretary Clinton,” Grassley added. He also renewed concerns that the FBI’s initial email investigation may have been hampered “by political appointees at the Justice Department.”
Former Atty. Gen. Eric Holder, at one time Comey’s boss, wrote in the Washington Post that he was “deeply concerned” about Comey’s move to reveal the new email review because it violated guidelines “laying out the proper way to conduct investigations during an election season.”
“I fear he has unintentionally and negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI,” Holder wrote.
He was joined in his criticism by Alberto Gonzales, who served as attorney general under Republican President George W. Bush.
Gonzales, who has sparred with Comey in the past, told CNN that the FBI director made “an error in judgment.”
The White House largely stood by Comey but refused to defend his action and clearly wasn't happy that he broke with decades of law enforcement practice by discussing an ongoing investigation in public.
“The president doesn’t believe that Director Comey is intentionally trying to influence the outcome of an election,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said. “The president doesn’t believe that he’s secretly strategizing to benefit one candidate or one political party. He’s in a tough spot. And he’s the one who will be in a position to defend his actions."
The Justice Department promised lawmakers that it would “dedicate all necessary resources and take appropriate steps as expeditiously as possible."
To work faster, agents are using a computer program to winnow which emails need to be individually inspected, a federal law enforcement official said. A platoon of FBI agents, assisted by the Justice Department, has been dispatched to pore over the emails. But two law enforcement officials said the full examination of the emails is still expected to take weeks.
Legal experts and former agents said they would be surprised if investigators discovered anything incriminating that would force Comey and prosecutors to seek charges against Clinton. Agents had already taken exhaustive steps to track down the emails from her private account, so it was unlikely that undiscovered ones would be found now, they said. Agents also would have to find evidence that Clinton intentionally violated classification laws, which Comey said they did not find in their investigation that concluded in July.
"I don't envision a circumstance where this changes dramatically" for Clinton, said Ronald Hosko, a former top FBI official.
Hosko wasn't as sure about Abedin, depending on what she told investigators and what they find. The emails might even provide an avenue for investigators to pursue questions about the Clinton Foundation, he said; Abedin worked simultaneously for the foundation and the State Department.
Trump is hoping the late-breaking controversy helps his campaign make up a deficit in polls that shows him losing the popular vote and in key battleground states. Early evidence suggested that remains a heavy lift. Clinton maintained a 47%-41% lead in an NBC News/SurveyMonkey weekly tracking survey taken after Friday’s announcement, virtually unchanged from last week’s poll. Still, 55% of respondents said they thought the newest email issue was important.
"We will be facing the very real possibility of a constitutional crisis," Trump warned at a rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., pointing to dire warnings by former Bill Clinton aide Doug Schoen, who publicly renounced the Democratic nominee this week and in 2010 called on President Obama to resign.
"She would be under protracted criminal investigation and probably a criminal trial,” Trump said, while hastily adding that he didn't think a Clinton victory would happen.
Other developments Monday, though, rekindled unanswered questions about Trump. His former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is the subject of a preliminary FBI inquiry into any connections to Russia, NBC reported, citing unnamed law enforcement and intelligence officials. Manafort, who reportedly had financial ties to a pro-Russia party in Ukraine, where he once worked as a political operative, denied the report to the network. Trump’s campaign said that he had no knowledge of Manafort’s “past or present activities.”
Trump has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose strongman tactics the U.S. has disavowed. The White House accused Russia this month of leaking Democratic emails, which Putin has denied.
Though the void of information about the new email review may hurt Clinton, Trump’s reaction carried the risk of overplaying the controversy, especially with uncommitted voters who may not loathe Clinton as passionately as Trump’s core supporters do.
But even those who do not harbor Trump’s view may nonetheless be reminded of Clinton’s and her husband’s protracted battles with Republicans in the 1990s and the unending investigations that ensued.
“I’m sure a lot of you may be asking what this new email story is about and why in the world the FBI would decide to jump into an election with no evidence of any wrongdoing with just days to go,” she said in Kent, Ohio. “That’s a good question.”
She again called her use of private email a mistake and said she had no problem with the FBI looking at the newest batch.
“I am sure they will reach the same conclusion they did when they looked at my emails for the last year,” she said. “There is no case here. And they said it wasn’t even a close call, and I think most people have decided a long time ago what they think about all of this.”
Comey initially decided against recommending prosecution of Clinton, which drew heavy criticism from Trump and his allies and praise from Democrats. Now the tables are turned.
"It took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made," Trump said in Michigan.
"I really disagreed with him. I was not his fan. But I tell you what — what he did, he brought back his reputation," Trump said, as the crowd applauded in agreement. "He's got to hang tough.... A lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing."
Times staff writers Melanie Mason in Grand Rapids, Mich., Michael A. Memoli in Kent, Ohio, and Christi Parsons in Washington contributed to this report.
Follow @delwilber on Twitter