WASHINGTON — Attorney General Loretta Lynch objected to the decision by FBI Director James Comey to notify Congress that the bureau was reviewing newly discovered emails that might be related to the previously closed investigation of Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified information, according to an official familiar with the matter.
Lynch's views were relayed to Comey just hours before the FBI director transmitted a letter to federal lawmakers indicating that investigators were reviewing the emails that may or may not have a bearing on the Clinton case that was closed in July, said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly.
The official said Lynch was standing by long-held Justice Department policy that federal authorities should not take any action that may interfere with an election. While Lynch made her position clear, the official said Comey acted independently of the attorney general.
A second federal official familiar with Comey's decision said Saturday that the FBI director considered the attorney general's advice during a spirited discussion of the matter Thursday and early Friday but felt compelled to act.
The emergence of the FBI director’s letter to Republican lawmakers has jolted the presidential race in its final 10 days, angering the Clinton camp and giving Donald Trump and Republicans new hope.
Vice President Biden called the situation “unfortunate” and urged the FBI to “release the emails for the whole world to see.” That was the message Clinton sent Friday night when she said, “the American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately.”
Until Friday, Clinton appeared to be coasting to a comfortable victory on Nov. 8, with campaign aides talking openly about expanding the Electoral College map to previously safe Republican states such as Arizona, Georgia, and even Texas. National polls showed her leading by anywhere from 4 to 12 points.
But Comey’s decision to mention new emails – without any immediate prospect of clarifying their content – created new opportunities for the Trump campaign.
In the letter to congressional leaders explaining his decision, Comey said "the FBI cannot yet assess" whether the information is "significant" nor could he offer a timetable for how long it will take investigators to make an assessment.
An official familiar with the matter said Friday that the new materials, perhaps thousands of emails, were discovered in the ongoing and separate investigation into sexually charged communications between former New York congressman Anthony Weiner and a 15-year-old girl. Comey was briefed on the findings in recent days, resulting in the director's notification to Congress, said the official who is not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The emails were discovered in a search of a device or devices used by Weiner, who is separated from longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Abedin also had access to the same device or devices.
The official said it was not likely that the FBI's review of the additional emails could be completed by Election Day.
After Comey was briefed on the material discovered in the Weiner inquiry, the official said the FBI director gathered members of the investigative team in the Clinton case and top staffers to discuss how to proceed and whether a notification should be made to lawmakers. Comey had testified as recently as September that no additional information had been presented to investigators involved in the Clinton matter.
The discussion, the official said, continued into early Friday and weighed the view transmitted to the bureau by Lynch. But Comey ultimately believed he needed to act to correct his previous testimony.
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and campaign manager Robby Mook held a conference call early Saturday afternoon in an effort to cast the FBI revelations as overblown.
“There’s no evidence of wrongdoing, no charge of wrongdoing, no indication that this is even about Hillary,” Podesta said. “It’s hard to see how this amounts to anything, and we’re not going to be distracted.”
The two campaign chiefs blamed Comey for what they both characterized as his “extraordinary step” in releasing the letter to members of Congress. It’s possible, they said, that most or all the emails in question are just duplicates of others already reviewed by the FBI.
“He owes the public the full story, or else he should not have cracked open this door in the first place,” Mook said.
Podesta noted that congressional Republicans, not the FBI director, are now characterizing it as a reopening of the original email probe, something it is not.
The Clinton campaign response comes as the differences between the attorney general and FBI director were generating a focus all of its own.
While it is rare for such a public split between the attorney general and the FBI director, it is not unprecedented.
Attorney Janet Reno and FBI Director Louis Freeh feuded throughout the mid and late 1990s when Reno first declined to appoint a special counsel to investigate fundraising practices by then-President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.
The chasm widened when Reno dispatched U.S. marshals to FBI headquarters to seize material related to the government's inquiry into the 1993 siege at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.