- Michael Isikoffchief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. His new piece is titled “Exclusive: FBI still does not have warrant to review new Abedin emails linked to Clinton probe.”
The race for the White House was jolted on Friday when FBI Director James Comey notified congressional leaders that the agency had discovered more emails as part of its probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system. The emails were discovered as part of an investigation into former Congressmember Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Abedin reportedly stored hundreds of thousands of emails on Weiner’s computer, which was seized by the FBI after Weiner allegedly sent illicit text messages to a 15-year-old girl. Comey notified Congress before the FBI had even obtained a warrant to look at Abedin’s email. A warrant was reportedly issued over the weekend. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump welcomed Comey’s announcement, which came just 11 days before Election Day. Hillary Clinton is not alone in criticizing James Comey’s actions. A bipartisan group of former federal prosecutors signed an open letter, writing, “Many of us have worked with Director Comey; all of us respect him. But his unprecedented decision to publicly comment on evidence in what may be an ongoing inquiry just eleven days before a presidential election leaves us both astonished and perplexed.”
AMY GOODMAN: The race for the White House was jolted Friday when FBI Director James Comey notified congressional leaders that the agency had discovered more emails as part of its probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The emails were discovered as part of an investigation into former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Abedin reportedly stored hundreds of thousands of emails on Weiner’s computer, which was seized by the FBI after Weiner allegedly sent illicit text messages to a 15-year-old girl. Comey notified Congress before the FBI had even obtained a warrant to look at Abedin’s email. A warrant was reportedly issued on Sunday night.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump welcomed Comey’s announcement, which came just 11 days before Election Day.
DONALD TRUMP: Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never [seen before]. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office. I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made. This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood, and it is everybody’s hope that it is about to be corrected. … The news this morning is—this is bigger than Watergate.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton addressed the FBI’s actions over the weekend.
HILLARY CLINTON: It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election. In fact—in fact, it’s not just strange, it’s unprecedented. And it is deeply troubling, because voters deserve to get full and complete facts. And so, we’ve called on Director Comey to explain everything right away, put it all out on the table, right?
AMY GOODMAN: Hillary Clinton is not alone in criticizing FBI Director Comey’s actions. A bipartisan group of former federal prosecutors signed an open letter, writing, quote, “Many of us have worked with Director Comey; all of us respect him. But his unprecedented decision to publicly comment on evidence in what may be an ongoing inquiry just eleven days before a presidential election leaves us both astonished and perplexed,” they wrote.
The criticism of the FBI director has come from both Democrats and Republicans. Richard Painter, the former chief White House ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, filed a complaint against the FBI for possibly violating the Hatch Act, which prohibits employees of the executive branch from engaging in political activity. Painter wrote in The New York Times, quote, “I never thought that the F.B.I. could be dragged into a political circus surrounding one of its investigations. Until this week,” he wrote. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid also suggested Comey may have broken the Hatch Act. Meanwhile, former Attorney General Eric Holder said Comey’s actions violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition on the proper way to conduct investigations during an election season.
To talk more about the news, we’re joined by Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News. He’s joining us from Washington, D.C.
So, Michael, you broke the story on Friday—on Saturday—Friday—that FBI Director Comey, when he wrote his bombshell letter to Congress Friday about the newly discovered emails, the agents had not been able to review any of the material because they didn’t have a warrant. Explain the significance of what has transpired over the last few days.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, it is an extraordinary set of circumstances here. And, you know, obviously, when Director Comey wrote that bombshell letter on Friday, it raised all sorts of expectations. You had Donald Trump talking about how this was bigger than Watergate, and members of Congress saying that the FBI was reopening its investigation into the Hillary Clinton email server.
But when you put this under scrutiny, it was quickly apparent, and even reading closely what Director Comey said, not just in his letter to Congress, but then what he later said that night in his letter to—email message to all FBI agents seeking to explain his decision, he made it clear that after being briefed about the discovery of Abedin emails on the Anthony Weiner laptop, that had been seized in the course of the child pornography investigation, that those emails were not—the FBI agents had been unable to read them. They didn’t have legal authority to read those emails, so they really didn’t know the content of the emails. What Director Comey said in that letter to FBI agents is he decided to grant them permission to seek access to those emails. And that was the tipoff. They hadn’t reviewed the emails, so they don’t know—the FBI, as we speak, does not know whether those emails are duplicates of what they’ve already seen, whether they have any relevance to the Clinton email investigation, whether they contain classified information. They may, and this may turn out to be a treasure trove, for all we know. But based on what the FBI knows at this point—they just got the search warrant last night—they have no idea of the content of the emails. They can see that these were emails forwarded from—by Huma Abedin at the State Department to an account. It might be—have been a personal Yahoo account, or it might have been her Clinton email server account that she had access to on this laptop she shared—apparently shared with her husband. But what was in those emails, we don’t know.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the FBI agents who see this trove of emails, reportedly something like 650,000 emails—is that right?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: That’s 650,000 emails that were on the computer. Most of those were Anthony Weiner’s emails. Some portion of them, in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, were Abedin emails.
AMY GOODMAN: So, these email—do you think they actually didn’t look at them? I mean, I understand they didn’t have an arrest warrant, but—
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Search warrant.
AMY GOODMAN: A search—sorry, a search warrant. But do you think they looked at them? I mean, they were right there.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, they would have been able to see the metadata. They could have seen—they apparently saw that they were from the State Department. Huma Abedin, when she was questioned by the FBI as part of that Clinton email investigation back in—she was questioned back in April—she said she routinely forwarded State Department emails that she got on her StateDepartment.gov account to either her personal Yahoo account or her Clinton email server account, she said, to print them out. She said she had difficulty printing StateDepartment.gov emails out, so she would forward them to these—to her personal accounts on those two—at those two addresses. So, I think that we can surmise that is probably the universe of what we’re talking about: State Department emails that she forwarded to those two accounts. What was in them, we don’t know.
I should say that in her Judicial Watch testimony—Judicial Watch has sued Clinton over failure—and the State Department, over failure to adhere to Freedom of Information Act requests. She was deposed in that. She said that the emails she forwarded to her Yahoo account were State Department press clips. Now, if she was truthful in that, we may—the FBI may be looking at a lot of State Department press clips. Or it may be looking at more than that. But I think the important point is that Director Comey didn’t know, when he wrote that letter, and his own agents didn’t know. They could see that they were forwarded from the State Department, but they could not—they didn’t have legal authority to review the content of those emails.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, Michael, talk about the significance of that. When FBI Director Comey released that letter on Friday, he reportedly was briefed about even the existence of these emails just on Thursday.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what you understand happened within the Justice Department.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Well, look, there’s clearly enormous tensions within the FBI and between the FBI and the Justice Department over this. There are agents who are clearly not happy with Director Comey’s decision not to recommend criminal prosecution of Hillary Clinton originally. Many of them have made that clear through friends in the media, through former FBI agents who appear regularly on Fox News and other conservative news outlets. That’s part of Comey’s constituency, and I think it probably informs his decision-making process.
At some point after FBI agents investigating the Weiner matter in late September seized the laptop, they discovered these emails were on them. There is some question about how quickly Comey was informed about this. There are reports just in the last day or so that actually the FBI agents were aware of the existence of these Abedin emails for some weeks. Comey only learns about it on Thursday, and he suddenly feels like he’s got a real dilemma on his hands, because he’s told Congress the Clinton matter has been closed, he’s told Congress if there’s new information he’ll look at it, and suddenly on Thursday he’s told there is this potential new information out there. He felt an obligation to inform Congress, based on his testimony and, I think we can also surmise, based on the internal criticism he had gotten for not being more aggressive in the first place on this. So he was sort of dealing with those—you know, that is almost certainly what was on his mind.
He informs the Justice Department he’s going to write this letter, and the Justice Department says, “Wait a second. We’re in the closing days of an election. We have firm policies against taking investigative steps or making public announcements that might influence the outcome of an election in the closing days.” And Director Comey chose to ignore that guidance from the Justice Department. The senior Justice Department officials informed the FBI of this. Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, did not directly speak to Comey about it. I think there was also a concern on the Justice Department’s part that if they ordered Comey not to send the letter, that that would look like they were covering up or concealing or protecting Hillary Clinton. They didn’t want to be put in that position. And so, as a result, we have this really extraordinary mess on our hands.
AMY GOODMAN: You have FBI, it sounds like, and the Justice Department in disarray. In headlines, we just reported on the Eric Garner investigation and how the Justice Department has just removed all the FBI agents and lawyers involved in the investigation into Daniel Pantaleo and the officers who were involved in the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right, right.
AMY GOODMAN: And they were just let off—they were just removed last week.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Right. Look, it is not unusual for there to be disagreements between FBI agents and federal prosecutors and federal prosecutors in the field and main Justice Department officials. Let’s remember, you know, senior Justice Department officials are political appointees. They have agendas. FBI agents have their own perspectives. So, these sorts of internal disagreements are not—certainly not unprecedented. What is unprecedented is to have this spill out in the closing days of an election, particularly as it relates to an investigation or a closed investigation or matter affecting one of the presidential candidates. That’s what’s really unprecedented.
AMY GOODMAN: We have 30 seconds, Michael. What is your prediction of what happens next? The FBI has clearly said it will not have any conclusions before the election.
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: There’s no way they can have conclusions before the election. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, given the amount of tension this has concerned, if Director Comey doesn’t find some way to address the criticism he’s getting right now—it’s pretty withering—and may try to explain his decision-making process a little better. Whether it will satisfy anybody is anybody’s guess at this point.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, it is quite something—what you reported in Yahoo News is that Abedin, when you looked back at her testimony in April, she referred to this other computer. Why wasn’t it taken at the time?
MICHAEL ISIKOFF: That is a very good question. She referred to the fact that she was sharing emails among her accounts, and the logical follow-up would have been on what devices were those accounts accessible. And it’s not clear that the FBI agents did that, followed up. And, you know, perhaps if they had, they might have learned back then about the existence of these emails and could have—and could have searched them at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: Michael Isikoff, chief investigative correspondent for Yahoo News, his new piece, which we will link to, “Exclusive: FBI still does not have warrant to review new Abedin emails linked to Clinton probe.” It got that warrant on Sunday, and we will continue, of course, to follow this story.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, what’s happening at the standoff at Standing Rock? We bring you some shocking video of a security guard, who’s covered his face in a bandana, with an automatic weapon, as he tries to infiltrate the water protectors. Stay with us.