Clinton aides accuse FBI director of double standard in e-mail case

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waving to supporters during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Oct 31, 2016.
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton waving to supporters during a rally in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Oct 31, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Mrs Hillary Clinton's campaign accused FBI director James Comey of applying a double standard by disclosing a renewed inquiry into her e-mails, an hour after the Justice Department offered a bare-bones promise to lawmakers that it would act "expeditiously" to settle the matter.

Clinton campaign officials seized on a CNBC report, citing an unnamed former FBI official, that Mr Comey baulked at joining with US intelligence agencies on Oct 7 when they blamed Russia for hacking the e-mail systems of US political figures and organisations - including the Democratic National Committee and Mrs Clinton's campaign chairman - because it was too close to Election Day. 

Democrats have excoriated the FBI chief for telling Congress about a new, vaguely defined probe of e-mails related to Mrs Clinton less than two weeks before the end of the US presidential campaign.

"It's impossible to view this as anything less than a blatant double standard," Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said on Monday (Oct 31) in a conference call with reporters.

The revelation by Mr Comey that the agency was investigating e-mails found on a computer belonging to Mr Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of close Clinton aide Huma Abedin, jolted the presidential race between Mrs Clinton and Republican Donald Trump as millions of Americans are casting early ballots and the two candidates are entering the final week of their campaigns.

BIPARTISAN COMPLAINTS

Conflicting stories emerged later in the day about whether there were potential links between Mr Trump and Russia. Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan seized on a Slate story saying a group of computer scientists believes a Trump computer server was communicating with a Russian bank.

The New York Times subsequently reported that the FBI hasn't found any link between Mr Trump and the Russian government, and that investigators "came to doubt" the server report.

Also on Monday, NBC News reported that the FBI has been conducting a preliminary inquiry into the business connections of Mr Trump's former campaign manager, Mr Paul Manafort. In response, Mr Manafort denied any wrongdoing and said Democrats were seeking to divert attention away from the FBI investigation into Mrs Clinton's e-mails.

 
 

"There is nothing of my business activities to investigate," Mr Manafort said in a statement to Bloomberg News. "This is presidential politics and nothing more."

Mr Comey has come under fire from some Republicans as well as Democrats for providing few details about what his agents are investigating and whether it may change the outcome of the FBI's earlier investigation of Mrs Clinton's e-mails while she was secretary of state.

Mr Comey announced in July that he was closing that inquiry after finding that Mrs Clinton and her aides were "extremely careless" in handling classified information but prosecution wasn't warranted.

"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," Senator Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter Monday to Mr Comey. "Without additional context, your disclosure is not fair to Congress, the American people, or Secretary Clinton."

As the din of complaints from Congress grew louder on Monday, the Justice Department sent a three-paragraph letter to lawmakers telling them that it will move quickly on the new probe and that it was working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Mr Comey made his announcement last week over objections from Justice Department officials.

"We assure you that the department will continue to work closely with the FBI and together, dedicate all necessary resources and take appropriate steps as expeditiously as possible," according to the letter from Assistant Attorney General Peter Kadzik. "We hope this information is helpful."

WHITE HOUSE DEFENCE

The White House stepped in to give a modest defence of Mr Comey. Press secretary Josh Earnest said on Monday that he will "neither defend nor criticise" Mr Comey's decision to disclose the review of newly discovered e-mails. But he said there's no reason to believe Mr Comey is "secretly strategising to benefit one candidate or one political party. He's in a tough spot".

The FBI is now using a computer program to winnow down the number of Abedin e-mails that may be pertinent to the Clinton investigation or whether they are duplicates of what investigators have already seen, according to a person familiar with the matter. That process could conclude this week, the person said.

It's not yet possible to assess whether a complete review can be finished before Election Day on Nov 8, the person said. If investigators find new e-mails with potentially significant or classified material, it will take more time to analyse them, possibly by sending them to other agencies for vetting, said the person, who asked for anonymity to discuss a pending investigation.

Ms Abedin "only learned for the first time on Friday, from press reports, of the possibility that a laptop belonging to Mr Weiner could contain e-mails of hers", said Ms Karen Dunn, a lawyer for Abedin, in a statement. "While the FBI has not contacted us about this, Ms Abedin will continue to be, as she always has been, forthcoming and cooperative."

POLITICAL IMPACT

Democrats are starting to fret openly that the outcome of the presidential and congressional races could be affected by Mr Comey's disclosure and have mounted a concerted effort to contain the political damage by questioning his motives and focusing on Russia's interference in the political campaign. 

Mr Mook said Mrs Clinton's staff is "completely confident" that the current investigation won't reveal anything new, echoing the message the Democratic nominee is delivering as she campaigns through battleground states in the final stage of the race.

Mr Mook and Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon also picked up a line of attack being used by a few members of Congress, notably Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and Representative Elijah Cummings, suggesting that the FBI is looking into possible ties between Trump associates and Russia.

"I do not know how Director Comey will justify his decision to withhold information relating to Trump while publicly announcing ongoing investigative steps against his opponent just days before the election," Mr Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, said.

Mr Fallon said that if Mr Trump or his allies are being investigated, Mr Comey "should tell us that too".

Mr Mook said the FBI director already has broken with protocol by disclosing the e-mail review and said the "same treatment that has been applied" to Mrs Clinton should be given to Mr Trump.

The FBI review has given Mr Trump a chance to reset his campaign after weeks of stumbles and falling poll numbers. He renewed his assault on Mrs Clinton's trustworthiness and found a new cue for his crowds to chant "lock her up" as he ramped up his campaign pace.

"I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad what happened originally, and it took guts for Director Comey" to keep the investigation going, Mr Trump said on Monday in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The candidate, who criticised the FBI chief's decision in July not to pursue prosecution of Mrs Clinton, said Mr Comey has "got to hang tough because a lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing".