WASHINGTON – FBI Director James Comey's testimony Monday that the bureau has been quietly investigating possible links between associates of President Donald Trump and Russian officials since the summer enraged Democrats who already blame him for rattling the 2016 campaign's closing days.
For the first time, Comey confirmed that the FBI had opened a probe into the Trump campaign in July, the same month he called an unusual news conference to announce the agency had finished its investigation into whether Hillary Clinton mishandled classified information – and three months before he scrambled the White House race a second time by announcing that the Clinton probe was continuing just days before the election.
The revelation drew the ire of Clinton supporters who called out an apparent double-standard and a breach of bureau norms that caused their nominee's surprising defeat.
Clinton's former press secretary, Brian Fallon, bitterly noted that "Comey at least waited until after the election to confirm there was an investigation related to Trump's campaign."
"In Hillary Clinton's case, the FBI confirmed the fact of an investigation into her emails during the heart of the campaign, creating a damaging cloud even though the probe never produced charges of any kind," Fallon said in an email Monday. "It is fair to ask why Jim Comey confirmed one investigation prior to the election, but not the other."
The FBI and Justice Department do not ordinarily discuss open investigations. But Comey said Monday that he has been authorized to do so, given the extreme public interest in the Trump-Russia case.
"As you know, our practice is not to confirm the existence of ongoing investigations, especially those investigations that involve classified matters, but in unusual circumstances where it is in the public interest, it may be appropriate to do so as Justice Department policies recognize. This is one of those circumstances," Comey told the House intelligence committee.
Comey's televised news conference in July to discuss the results of the bureau's investigation into Hillary Clinton's email use came only after the FBI was recommending that it be closed without criminal charges. It was a rare display of openness; normally the FBI would privately relay that information to Justice Department prosecutors. Comey said intense public interest in the case warranted the rare candor.
Later, Comey testified about the case before Congress, promising to come forward if investigators uncovered new information that caused them to reopen their probe into Clinton's emails. Given that testimony under oath, Comey said he felt obligated to tell Congress just weeks before the election that new emails had prompted investigators to take another look at whether classified information had been mishandled.
Comey sent the October 28 letter to Congress over the warnings of Justice Department officials that doing so would be inconsistent with department policy meant to avoid the appearance of prosecutorial interference or meddling in elections.
Investigators found emails on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. In a second letter dated November 5, Comey said the new material did not change the FBI's decision to not recommend charges against Clinton – but Democrats believe that re-airing the scandal days before most voters went to the polling booths hurt their candidate.
"Doing some jobs right requires being in the news every day, becoming a household name, enraging everyone," tweeted longtime Clinton aide Philippe Reines on Monday. "FBI Director isn't one of them."
The congressional hearings were the most extensive public accounting of a matter that has dogged the Trump administration for its first two month. The president has repeatedly denied any ties to Russia though several aides have come under scrutiny and his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after initially lying about his contacts with a Russian ambassador.
Comey said Monday that Russia "hates" Clinton and wanted her to lose the election; he added that officials believe both political parties were hacked in 2016, but only Democratic emails were released.
Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in legal ethics, said Comey would have been justified in simply announcing that the bureau's Clinton email probe was closed, rather than going further to criticize her sloppy work habits. But he should not have spoken publicly about either case.
"He should not have talked about Hillary and he should not have talked about the Russia connection. He has no public persona," Gillers said. "It's just not a cop's job to do that. A prosecutor might in very rare circumstances comment about certain aspects of an ongoing investigation, but he's not a prosecutor."
Lemire reported from New York.