A presidential candidate faces an FBI probe surrounding alleged mishandling of classified information, amid questions about the independence of the Justice Department. Meanwhile, the candidate’s supporters allege political interference and demand that the chief investigator be investigated.
Such was the case in the closing days of the 2016 presidential election.
Democrats and other supporters of Hillary Clinton complained that then-FBI Director James Comey violated the law in notifying Congress that he had restarted an investigation of Clinton’s use of a private, unsecure email server while she was secretary of state.
Meanwhile, FBI officials questioned the independence of then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and considered asking for a special counsel to investigate Clinton’s private email server, according to a heavily redacted transcript of an interview with a top FBI career official.
Trisha Anderson, then a deputy assistant FBI director, told Office of Special Counsel investigators that “public perception would be that the attorney general herself was not maintaining an appropriate degree of independence.”
Anderson expressed her concern after Lynch, the top Justice Department official during the Obama administration, met with former President Bill Clinton while the investigation of his wife, the Democrats’ nominee for president, was ongoing.
Anderson also told investigators that FBI officials discussed at various points “whether the [FBI] director should or should not make a recommendation to the attorney general” to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate the Clinton email case.
These are among facts gleaned from a heavily redacted 2017 transcript of an interview conducted by the Office of Special Counsel. That independent agency was investigating whether Comey had violated the Hatch Act, the law that prohibits federal employees from engaging in political activity on government time or with government resources.
The 74-page transcript was obtained by The Heritage Foundation’s Oversight Project through the Freedom of Information Act. (The Daily Signal is the news outlet of The Heritage Foundation.)
The interview and overall OSC investigation underscore differences in how the FBI’s Clinton email probe, including the vulnerability of classified information, was conducted compared to the FBI’s probe of former President Donald Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified information.
For one, the Office of Special Counsel almost immediately responded to a complaint by beginning an investigation into Comey as FBI director over the accusations of a politicized FBI. However, the office terminated its probe of Comey after Trump fired him in May 2017, since it investigates only federal employees.
A report by the Justice Department’s own Office of Inspector General on the Russian collusion allegations against Trump wasn’t completed until 2019. A subsequent report by special counsel John Durham into the origins of those Trump-Russia allegations and the investigations that followed wasn’t completed until earlier this year—two years after Trump left office.
Both reports criticized the FBI for procedural abuses amid a lack of evidence that Trump or his associates did anything wrong.
“The only people to ever hold Hillary Clinton accountable for anything are the American voters, who rejected her bid for president,” Mike Howell, director of Heritage’s Oversight Project, told The Daily Signal. “It’s seven years after the infamous tarmac meeting where her husband leaned on the then attorney general, and the government is still redacting information.”
Howell was referring to Clinton’s meeting with Lynch onboard an airliner at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in June 2016.
The Daily Signal sought comment from the Justice Department on what Anderson, the FBI official, told the Office of Special Counsel about concerns that the Justice Department was protecting the Clintons.
“Thank you for reaching out to us,” a spokesperson emailed. “We will decline to comment.”
The Office of Special Counsel, or OSC, should not be confused with any agency of the Justice Department or with the special counsels appointed by the Justice Department to investigate either Trump or President Joe Biden.
The OSC, considered an independent investigative agency, operates with basic authorities specified in four federal statutes: the Civil Service Reform Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Hatch Act, and the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. Provisions of these laws prohibit federal employees from devoting government time and resources to advancing partisan politics.
Two lawyers from the office, Erica Hamrick and Ana Galindo-Marrone, conducted the May 1, 2017, interview with Anderson, the deputy assistant FBI director, who was under oath.
At one point, Hamrick asked: “Was the appointment of a special counsel [to investigate Clinton] ever discussed?”
“Yes, it was. We were asked to consider,” Anderson replied. “I mean, there were numerous congressional letters that were asking for the appointment of a special counsel.”
Anderson said she didn’t “have a great memory exactly what was discussed” regarding potential appointment of a special counsel to look into the actions of the former first lady, U.S. senator from New York, and secretary of state, who became the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate.
“I just remember that we did talk about it at various points in time of whether the [FBI] director should or should not make a recommendation to the attorney general,” the FBI official said.
Documents provided to Heritage’s Oversight Project under the Freedom of Information Act redacted Anderson’s name but included her title. However, the FBI posted Anderson’s interview online as part of a larger release of documents.
Anderson answered, “I don’t remember” when asked whether anyone at the FBI was in favor of calling for a special prosecutor to independently investigate Clinton’s unsecure email traffic.
She answered, “I don’t recall” when asked the reasons for not recommending a special prosecutor.
Anderson talked about numerous meetings with high-level Justice Department staff to discuss the FBI investigation of Clinton. She said there was considerable concern about whether Lynch, who oversaw the FBI as attorney general, could be independent during the Clinton probe.
The focus of the Office of Special Counsel’s brief investigation of Comey was a letter dated Oct. 28, 2016, in which the FBI director informed House and Senate committee chairmen that the FBI had reopened its Clinton email investigation just days before the election pitting Trump against Clinton. (As it turned out, the FBI quickly closed the case again.)
Other OSC questions targeted Comey’s July 2016 press conference in which he announced that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges against Clinton for conducting government work as secretary of state on a private email server.
Anderson said in the interview that “there were a lot of concerns” about the FBI’s not making an announcement and simply providing its recommendation to the Justice Department.
“It was really clear, especially in the weeks leading up to the [Comey] statement, that at least the public perception would be that the attorney general herself was not maintaining an appropriate degree of independence with respect to the decision making in this investigation,” the FBI official told the OSC lawyers. “And I’m referring to, I mean, I think there were concerns even preceding this, but [in particular] the incident that was extensively reported in the media involving the attorney general’s meeting with former President Clinton on the airplane tarmac.”
This seems consistent with Comey’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee in June 2017, after Trump fired him the previous month. The former FBI director testified that Lynch, as attorney general, seemed to try to interfere with the probe of the Democratic nominee by pushing a political line.
“At one point, the attorney general had directed me not to call it an ‘investigation,’ but instead to call it a ‘matter,’ which confused me and concerned me,” Comey told the Senate panel. “But that was one of the bricks in the load that led me to conclude I have to step away from the department to close this case credibly.”
In her interview, Anderson asserted that the Justice Department is “run much more heavily by political appointees,” while the “FBI by tradition, just by virtue of the composition of our executive core, is much more apolitical and independent.”
She said most FBI staff didn’t know how much Lynch was briefed on as attorney general regarding the FBI’s investigation of Clinton.
“The failure to hold Clinton accountable paved the way for the Biden family corruption scheme, which is essentially a unsophisticated version of the Clinton Global Foundation,” Howell, of Heritage’s Oversight Project, told The Daily Signal.
“Failing to hold Hillary Clinton accountable for Jake Sullivan and her campaign’s creation of the Russia hoax led to Jake Sullivan as Biden’s national security adviser, where he has hopscotched the globe leaving disasters in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and our southern border,” Howell said.
“Someone needs to be held accountable for a change, because everyday Americans are living with the consequences,” he said.
Ken McIntyre contributed to this report.
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