FBI chief James Comey's start-and-stop Hillary Clinton probe turns up heat on himself

FBI Director James Comey tried to put the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga behind him on Sunday, but his position will be questioned by lawmakers after Election Day.
FBI Director James Comey tried to put the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga behind him on Sunday, but his position will be questioned by lawmakers after Election Day.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) - FBI director James Comey tried to put the Hillary Clinton e-mail saga behind him on Sunday, but both Democratic and Republican lawmakers made clear he'll face tough questioning about whether he's fit to lead the agency after Election Day.

Mr Comey roiled the election on Oct 28 when he sent a letter to Congress announcing that his agency was examining a new cache of e-mails that might be linked to an investigation of Mrs Clinton's use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state.

The FBI director had already inserted himself into a divisive election by deciding in the summer to keep Congress informed on the bureau's inquiry into Mrs Clinton's e-mail.

Mr Donald Trump's campaign seized on the probe, while Democrats complained the FBI didn't provide similar information on reported investigations into Mr Trump's associates and links to Russia.

Democrats fiercely attacked Mr Comey for his Oct 28 letter. They offered more measured criticism on Sunday, after Mr Comey sent a second letter announcing that the review had turned up no information that would change his determination in the summer that neither Mrs Clinton or any of her aides should face charges.

Many Democrats seemed eager not to prolong the story with the election looming, but the tenor of their remarks made clear that Comey's entire performance will face tough scrutiny in the months ahead.

"The October surprise that came only 11 days before Election Day has unfairly hurt the campaign of one candidate and changed the tenor of this election," Ms Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

"Today's letter makes Director Comey's actions nine days ago even more troubling. There's no doubt that it created a false impression about the nature of the agency's inquiry."

Calls to Resign

Democratic Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, went further, reiterating his call on Mr Comey to resign.

"Yes. Has influenced the election & needlessly! Nothing there! Now many on both sides don't have faith in the FBI. He is is (sic) to investigate only," he wrote on Twitter.

At least one Republican also called for Comey's departure. "He's so tied to this mess that it's time he's gotta go," Republican Representative Louie Gohmert of Texas said on Fox Business Network.

But no other lawmakers publicly joined Mr Cohen and Mr Gohmert in calling for Mr Comey's head.

It's not easy for lawmakers to remove the FBI director from his job. Mr Comey is serving a 10-year term that ends in 2023. Whoever is elected president could fire Mr Comey or demand his resignation, but it would be a politically charged decision for a President Clinton to try to remove an FBI director who investigated her. Less likely, Congress could impeach him.

The Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr Chuck Grassley of Iowa, made clear his displeasure with Mr Comey, but focused on what he said were significant gaps in the FBI's probe of Mrs Clinton. He criticised the FBI director for still not providing enough information.

'Unanswered Questions'

"The growing number of unanswered questions demand explanations: Is the FBI continuing to review the newly-revealed e-mails? Did the FBI limit its review to e-mail from when Clinton was secretary of state, leaving out e-mails that could shed light on possible obstruction of Congress?," Mr Grassley said in a statement.

The precise tenor of congressional scrutiny of Mr Comey and the FBI will depend on whether Democrats or Republicans win control of the Senate on Tuesday.

Although the investigation into Mrs Clinton's handling of classified material as secretary of state is over, Mr Comey's damage control is only beginning. He began his term highly praised by Democrats and Republicans for his courage and judgment. Now, a director who prides himself on defending the integrity and reputation of the bureau must navigate through internal divisions and external relations.

"While Director Comey's last-minute announcement may have mitigated some damage, it is clear that much must be done to bring credibility back to the FBI as our principal federal law enforcement agency," said Democratic Representative Mike Honda of California. "As the ranking Democrat of the committee that directs funding for the Department of Justice and the FBI, I intend to determine what steps must be taken to accomplish that."

FBI Relations

Mr Comey could come under great pressure to resign if he's seen as unable to manage the bureau, including its relationship with the Justice Department, Congress and the White House.

The e-mail probe exposed tensions between FBI leadership and some agents who wanted a more aggressive investigation into Mrs Clinton, including the Clinton Foundation.

Indeed, Mr Comey sent his Oct 28 letter to lawmakers notifying them of newly found e-mails in part out of concern that disgruntled agents would leak the information had it been kept secret, according to two law enforcement officials familiar with the matter.

Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota said on CNN's State of the Union that the Senate was sure to hold hearings to examine what he called "rogue elements" within the FBI.

Mr Comey also must smooth over relations with the Justice Department. Attorney-General Loretta Lynch and other top department officials, for example, urged Mr Comey not to take overt steps that could be seen as influencing the election before he sent his Oct 28 letter.

Clinton Foundation

Tensions between the FBI and Justice Department increased in February when agents asked the department's public integrity section to approve investigative tools, such as subpoenas and wiretaps, to probe the Clinton Foundation, the two officials said.

Agents in the FBI's New York office had opened an inquiry into the foundation, a step short of a formal investigation.

The presentation and evidence presented by the agents during a February meeting wasn't impressive and Justice officials declined to approve the additional tools, the officials said.

Republicans, including the Trump campaign, continue to describe the reported Clinton Foundation inquiry as an ongoing matter, even though Mr Comey has never publicly disclosed it and the investigation was effectively ended in February.

Democrats appear eager to postpone their attacks on Mr Comey until after the election, when control of both chambers of Congress is at stake as well as the White House.

"In the days that come, we will have many questions about the FBI's handling of this investigation," said Mr John Conyers of Michigan, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.

"In the meantime, however, I welcome this news confirming again that no charges are warranted in this matter."