WASHINGTON (AFP) - The FBI recommended on Tuesday that no charges be brought over Hillary Clinton’s e-mail use while secretary of state, taking a weight off the presumptive Democratic nominee as she campaigned with Barack Obama for the first time.
But the FBI’s assessment, which found that Clinton was “extremely careless” in sending classified information via her personal e-mail account, is far from the complete exoneration she had hoped for as she rallies Democrats in her showdown with Republican Donald Trump.
She and Obama arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina aboard Air Force One for the first in a series of high-profile rallies that Clinton hopes will energise voters, particularly minorities who remain enamoured with the outgoing president, in crucial battleground states where the November election will be decided.
The rally comes hours after Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey said he will recommend that Justice Department prosecutors file no criminal charges in the Clinton e-mail investigation.
Comey said that after an exhaustive probe, carried out with no political agenda, investigators found no evidence of “intentional misconduct” by Clinton or her close aides.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said the campaign was “pleased” by the FBI’s recommendation.
But in a damaging rebuke to the former top diplomat, Comey said the FBI found that Clinton and her team “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Comey’s conclusion that Clinton did send and receive information that was deemed classified, and in some cases top secret, at the time of transmission contradicts Clinton’s repeated assertion that she never sent classified information through her personal e-mail account or homebrew server.
And while they did not find proof that her e-mail had been successfully hacked, Comey said FBI investigators “assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.”
The FBI accusations of carelessness are sure to fuel Trump’s narrative that the Clintons have operated above the law for years.
“FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow!” Trump said on Twitter. “The system is rigged.”
While not as legally damaging as a prosecution would be, Comey’s judgment is far from the all-clear that the Clinton team would have hoped for.
House Speaker Paul Ryan weighed in, slamming Clinton for “recklessly mishandling” classified information and saying Comey’s announcement defies explanation.
“Based upon the director’s own statement, it appears damage is being done to the rule of law,” warned the top Republican.
With just three weeks until the Democratic convention formally anoints Clinton as the party nominee, Republicans have seized on the e-mail case to highlight her lack of trustworthiness among voters.
Clinton was interviewed for 3.5 hours on Saturday by the FBI as the investigation came to a close.
The former first lady came under renewed fire after it emerged that her husband Bill met briefly with Attorney-General Loretta Lynch at an airport in Arizona last week – prompting Republicans to cry foul over possible government interference with the probe.
Lynch pledged in response to respect FBI and prosecutors’ decisions on whether to bring charges in the case.
With the Justice Department yet to decide how to proceed in the e-mail probe, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters en route to Charlotte that Obama would not touch directly on the case while at Clinton’s side.
Clinton, meanwhile, was expected to seek to reset her campaign with their joint appearance, and move on from the controversy.
Luxury retail worker Hade Robinson, 49, was among about 2,000 people waiting for Clinton to arrive at the Charlotte rally in a cavernous convention center.
He waved off the scandal.
“I think it would have set a bad precedent if they had filed charges against her because... in court, they would have to go back and look at some of their predecessors who have done some of the same things,” Robinson told AFP.
But he acknowledged that “government has learned a lesson when it comes to public officials using e-mail.”
To prevail in November, Clinton will need the embrace of Obama as a top character witness who can draw sharp distinctions between her and Trump.
Obama is at his highest approval rating in years and can still rally the Democratic base, crucial for Clinton whose popularity is deep in the red, as is Trump’s.
Trump was also taking his campaign to North Carolina, scheduling a rally in Raleigh for Tuesday evening, highlighting the importance of winning the swing state.
Nearly all major recent polls put Clinton ahead of Trump nationally, although a poll in Tuesday’s USA Today shows her lead over the provocative billionaire shrinking to five points, compared with the poll’s 11-point gap two months ago.