WASHINGTON — Under fire from Democrats, FBI Director James Comey insisted during repeated questions Wednesday he was consistent in disclosing information about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails before Election Day while keeping quiet about a probe into possible contacts between Russia and the Donald Trump’s campaign.
Comey, in his most impassioned public defense of how he handled the case, also said it made him feel “mildly nauseous” to think his actions in October might have influenced the race won by Republican Trump over Democrat Clinton. But he told the Senate Judiciary Committee the FBI cannot take into account how its actions might benefit or harm politicians.
“I can’t consider for a second whose political futures will be affected and in what way,” Comey told the senators. “We have to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do and then do it.”
Persistent questions from senators, and Comey’s testimony, made clear that the FBI director’s decisions of last summer and fall involving both the Trump and Clinton campaigns continue to roil national politics and produce lingering second-guessing about whether the investigations were handled evenly.
On Tuesday, Clinton partly attributed her loss to Comey’s disclosure to Congress less than two weeks before Election Day that the email investigation would be revisited. But Trump tweeted a bit later that Comey actually “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”
Speaking at times with a raised voice, Comey said he faced two difficult decisions when agents told him in October that they had found emails potentially connected to the Clinton case on a laptop belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who separated last year from top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Weiner’s laptop was seized as part of a sexting investigation involving a teenage girl.
Comey said he knew it was unorthodox to alert Congress to that discovery 11 days before Americans picked a new president. But he said he decided it would have been “catastrophic” to keep silent, especially when he had testified under oath that the investigation had been concluded and had promised to advise lawmakers if the probe needed to be reopened.
“I sat there that morning and could not see a door labeled, ‘No action here,'” Comey said.
The FBI obtained a warrant to search the laptop and sifted through thousands of emails, Comey said, including ones with classified information that had been forwarded to the laptop by Abedin to be printed out. Though officials found many new emails, there was nothing to change the FBI’s decision from July not to recommend charges, Comey said.
He also said he had not intended to harm the Clinton campaign with his unusual public announcement in July that Clinton and her aides had been “extremely careless” in their handling of classified information though there was not evidence to support criminal charges.
He said he had been concerned for months about how to report the investigation’s findings to the public, and because of Justice Department actions including an impromptu airplane meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch he had concluded he needed to make the announcement himself.
“My goal was to say what is true. What did we do, what did we find, what do we think? And I tried to be as complete and fair” as possible, Comey said.
He said he himself had been interviewed by the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office as part of the watchdog’s investigation into the Clinton email case. He said he welcomed that review and continues to believe he did things the right way.
Under questioning from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Comey said he did not treat disclosures about investigations into Clinton’s emails differently than potential connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The FBI began a counterintelligence investigation last July into whether Russia had coordinated with Trump campaign associates to influence the American election, but he did not disclose that until a hearing in March, after Trump had been elected and taken office.
That prompted Democrats to complain of a double-standard in the way the investigations were treated.
But Comey said that other than confirming the Clinton investigation existed, he did not discuss it until after it concluded last year. And he said the FBI does not expect to have anything to say about the Russia investigation until that one was over.
He declined on Wednesday to discuss that investigation or to say which Americans the FBI was looking at.