Hillary Clinton submitted to more than three hours of questioning at FBI headquarters Saturday morning about her “email arrangements” while she served as secretary of State, according to an aide, a sign that the probe is reaching a conclusion.
The interview marks the first time that Clinton — now the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee — has responded in person to the law enforcement officials who are investigating her use of a personal email account and server for official government communications.
“Secretary Clinton gave a voluntary interview this morning about her email arrangements while she was secretary,’’ said her spokesman, Nick Merrill, who added: “Out of respect for the investigative process, she will not comment further on her interview.’’
The ongoing probe is focusing on whether Clinton or her aides or others in any way mishandled classified information in connection with the personal email account and server. Former federal officials have said that an interview of Clinton would likely come at the end of the investigation, after emails and other background material were collected.
Her interview on Saturday further highlights the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the federal inquiry. It is unfolding amid what is already a fiercely fought presidential campaign — and on the heels of a controversy touched off this week by a private meeting on the tarmac of the Phoenix airport, between Atty. Gen. Loretta E. Lynch and Clinton’s spouse, former President Bill Clinton.
Lynch, obviously chastened by the outcry over what she and her aides have described as an impromptu, 30-minute social visit with the former president, said Friday, “I certainly wouldn’t do it again.’’
Commenting during an appearance at the Aspen Institute in Colorado, Lynch said that she and Bill Clinton did not discuss the ongoing investigation.
Clinton’s use of a private server has called into question her honesty and trustworthiness, with voters giving her low marks in polls on both counts. As the presidential race moves into the general election phase, presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump has pounced on her perceived weakness, dubbing Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and repeatedly insisting that she should be indicted, though he cites no evidence that would ensure such an outcome.
The email arrangements came to light, indirectly, as a result of probes by congressional Republicans into the fatal attacks in September 2012 in Benghazi, Libya. Two U.S. officials, including the ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, and two American contractors, were killed.
Extensive inquiries into what happened in Benghazi — including a House panel’s marathon questioning of Clinton — have yielded no evidence of wrongdoing on her part regarding U.S. operations there before or in response to the attack.
However, the congressional inquiries did reveal the then-secretary of State’s use of the personal email account and server — which , it turned out, handled emails containing some information that appears to be classified. Clinton, personally and through her aides, has said that she at no point mishandled information that was known at the time to be classified.
What was known, or reasonably should have been known, about any classified information that flowed through Clinton’s personal account is a crucial distinction for federal investigators to make as they decide whether any of the conduct rises to the level of a chargeable, criminal offense.
An FBI spokesman, Mike Kortan, declined to comment on the investigation.
A longtime friend of the Clintons who described himself as close to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run said that while her conduct with the emails was a “mistake,’’ it did not reflect a conscious breach of law.
“The key issue is whether she looked at a document marked ‘classified’ and put it on [her personal] server,’’ said the friend, who spoke on a condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for Clinton. “The absence of the labeling of an email is crucial.’’
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, reacted differently to Clinton’s FBI interview, calling her handling of the emails “reckless’’ or worse.
“Others have lost their security clearances, their jobs, or even gone to jail for doing far less,’’ Priebus said in a statement. “Clinton needs to be held to the same standard as everyone else.’’
High-profile terrorism and the extensive government-led efforts to find those responsible for planning or carrying out attacks has generated increasing volumes of information deemed to be classified.
This trend has posed greater challenges for how federal officials can discuss or otherwise communicate about those events while avoiding improper disclosures.
David H. Petraeus, the retired Army general and former CIA director, came under FBI investigation as a result of having shared classified information with a woman who was his biographer and paramour.
Last year, FBI officials sought to charge Petraeus with a felony for allegedly making a false statement during the investigation. But Lynch’s predecessor as attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., decided ultimately to accept Petraeus’ plea of guilty to one misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information.
Staff writer Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the Republican National Committee.
1:16 p.m.: This article was updated with details and background on the Benghazi attacks and the investigation into Clinton’s email server.
10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with background on former President Clinton’s informal meeting with the attorney general.
This article was originally published at 10:23 a.m.