James Comey’s fateful decision on Hillary Clinton’s emails is slowly coming into focus


On Oct. 28, 2016, James B. Comey made a decision that I soon labeled “unavoidably horrible”: to disclose that the FBI was reviewing more Hillary Clinton emails. This disclosure, 11 days before the presidential election, is now routinely blamed for her narrow loss, including by Clinton herself.

And now we may be learning more about just how unavoidably horrible that decision was.

The Post’s Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian report that a Justice Department inspector general has been looking into why Andrew McCabe, who stepped down Monday as deputy director of the FBI (its No. 2 role), didn’t appear to examine those emails for three weeks before Comey disclosed them in a letter to Congress. This investigation was reportedly discussed by McCabe and current FBI Director Christopher A. Wray shortly before McCabe stepped down two months earlier than previously indicated.

It’s not clear exactly when Comey became aware of the emails. But the timeline here (with an assist from Philip Bump) is instructive:

  • Late September/Early October: McCabe becomes aware of the new emails, which were recovered from a laptop belonging to disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
  • Oct. 23: Barrett, who was then reporting for the Wall Street Journal, reports on McCabe’s wife having received hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a close Clinton ally, for her Democratic campaign for Virginia state Senate in 2015. McCabe is already facing internal questions about whether he had slow-rolled a separate investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Then-candidate Donald Trump soon begins attacking McCabe via Twitter and on the campaign trail.
  • Oct. 28: Comey discloses the additional Clinton emails in a letter to Congress.

After Comey’s disclosure, I wrote about how he was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t. As any Clinton backer will tell you, disclosing the existence of the emails violated the usual Justice Department protocols about disclosing details of investigations so close to an election. But what if Clinton won the election — as the vast majority of us wrongly assumed she would — and it came out that the FBI had discovered the emails and didn’t say anything about them? It risked looking like a coverup, especially given that Comey had angered Republicans just a few months prior by making a very public spectacle of not recommending criminal charges for Clinton in the email probe. And imagine further if Comey didn’t say anything and then something significant came out of those emails (which it ultimately didn’t, as Comey announced just a few days before the election).

Exactly why Comey decided to err on the side of disclosure may be coming even more into focus. McCabe knew about the emails for three weeks. We knew, to some degree, about the public political pressure on Comey and McCabe. But now we know more about apparent questions within the bureau about McCabe’s handling of the Clinton investigations. And again, if all of this came out after an election Clinton had won, it’s not difficult to surmise how it would have been cast by Trump, who was already warning that the election would be “rigged” against him. It would have been nothing short of a scandal.

Whether McCabe actually did anything wrong is one question, and one that we have no answer to right now. We also don’t know when Comey became aware of the new emails, a key element of the timeline that is in dispute. But it’s not difficult to see how the whole thing may have made Comey hugely uneasy on the eve of the 2016 election — hugely uneasy and reluctant to sit on his hands.

His decision still reverberates, and given today’s news, it seems it’ll be a long while before it stops.

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