The FBI Director dramatically raised the possibility on Thursday of Hillary Clinton being charged with mis-handling classified material despite being cleared by his predecessor.
Chris Wray told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI Inspector General was looking into whether ‘improper political considerations’ led to Clinton not being prosecuted, a decision made by James Comey who was later fired by President Donald Trump.
‘If he were to conclude that that’s what happened, then I think at that point we’re in a situation where we have to assess what else might need to be done to un-ring that bell if you will,’ Wray told members of Congress.
The possibility of a re-consideration of the Clinton probe would be a bombshell which could only be built on a damning verdict on James Comey and those around him.
But this week it was revealed that the top counter-intelligence agent who was involved in the Clinton probe, Peter Strzok, had exchanged anti-Trump and pro-Clinton texts with his lover Lisa Page, another FBI lawyer.
It’s not over: Chris Wray, the FBI Director, told the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI would have to consider what to do if the Inspector General concludes political considerations had led to Hillary Clinton being cleared
Strzok (left) was dismissed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe over the messages he sent to Page (right) and was relocated within the FBI
Could they still lock her up? Hillary Clinton, seen this week at the Big Sister Association of Boston, Mass., could still have charges filed against her, Chris Wray hinted
And it was disclosed that Strzok had watered down language in a memo from Comey to remove the term ‘grossly negligent’ from the description of how Clinton handled intelligence and replaced it with ‘extremely careless’.
Grossly negligent is the term which opens the way for charges to be brought. He also concluded that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s right-hand woman, and Cheryl Mills, her State Department chief of staff, had not lied to the FBI, even though what they said in interviews was contradicted by emails they had sent and received.
Wray spoke to counter strident attacks on his agency from the president who appointed him, and told the committee: ‘There is no finer institution, and no finer people, than the men and women who work there and are its very beating heart.’
Wray provided his first public defense of the nation’s premier law enforcement agency since a weekend of Twitter attacks by Trump, who called the FBI a biased institution whose reputation is ‘in Tatters – worst in History!’ and urged Wray to ‘clean house.’
The outburst from the president followed a guilty plea from his former national security adviser for lying to the FBI and the revelations about Strzok.
Wray, who served as a top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush and was nominated as FBI director by Trump, faced a wave of Republican criticism over perceived political bias in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of possible Trump campaign ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election and in the handling a year earlier of an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server that ended without criminal charges.
Although he did not mention Trump’s criticism directly, Wray rebutted him directly, saying, ‘My experience has been that our reputation is quite good.’
Wray sought to fend off the attacks on the agency by expressing pride in the agents, analysts and other personnel who he said were working to protect Americans. But he also conceded that agents do make mistakes and said there are processes in place to hold them accountable.
‘There is no shortage of opinions out there, but what I can tell you is that the FBI that I see is tens of thousands of agents and analysts and staff working their tails off to keep Americans safe,’ Wray said of the agency he has led for just four months.
‘The FBI that I see is tens of thousands of brave men and women working as hard as they can to keep people they will never know safe from harm.’
The focus on the Clinton and Trump probes reflected how the FBI in the last two years has found itself entangled in American politics, with investigations focused on the Democratic presidential nominee and the Republican president and his successful campaign.
Those investigations have transformed routine oversight hearings, like the one Thursday, into platforms for tense questions about the political leanings of an agency that prides itself on being removed from partisan consideration.
Wray’s defense of the FBI came after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., said he was concerned by reports that Peter Strzok, a veteran counterintelligence agent involved in the Clinton investigation, was removed from Mueller’s team last summer following the discovery of text messages seen as potentially anti-Trump.
Under attack: Chris Wray, the FBI Director, was presented with direct evidence of the president’s assault on the agency’s integrity but rose to his agents’ defense
More questions: Trump’s tweets attacking James Comey, the FBI Director Chris Wray’s fired predecessor, were projected in the committee room where Wray was being questions
‘It is absolutely unacceptable for FBI employees to permit their own political predilections to contaminate any investigation,’ Goodlatte said.
‘Even the appearance of impropriety will devastate the FBI’s reputation.’
Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, top Democrat on the House Judiciary panel, predicted Trump’s attacks on the FBI will only grow louder as Mueller continues investigating.
‘Your responsibility is not only to defend the bureau but to push back against the president when he is so clearly wrong, both on the facts and as a matter of principle,’ Nadler told Wray.
Wray’s tenure as the new FBI chief would be difficult even without the intense scrutiny of the Russia investigation.
Since he was sworn in on Aug. 2, the U.S. has experienced two of the deadliest shootings in its modern history and a terror attack on a bike path in Manhattan.
Trump’s weekend tweets created a fresh dilemma for Wray. With his bosses, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Sessions’ deputy, Rod Rosenstein, staying publicly silent, it fell to Wray to defend the agency.
But FBI directors traditionally have been low-key and stoic – with Wray’s predecessor, James Comey, a notable exception.
And Trump’s firing of Comey while he led the Russia probe shows what can happen to a director who antagonizes the president.
Wray repeatedly deflected questions about the FBI’s handling of the Clinton investigation, saying the entire matter was under review by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
Republicans repeatedly pressed him on reports that Strzok tweaked the language of the FBI’s finding from ‘grossly negligent’ – the standard laid out in the relevant statute – to ‘extremely careless,’ which was the language that Comey ultimately used in discussing the Clinton case with the public.
WHAT THE LOVE CHEAT FBI AGENT DID FOR HILLARY AND TRUMP
HILLARY’S SERVER PROBE
Peter Strzok was a key investigator into Hillary Clinton’s handling of classified intelligence when she was Secretary of State. Here is how his role affected the key players.
Huma Abedin: Cleared despite telling untruths
Hillary Clinton’s right-hand woman was interviewed by Strzok and questioned about her knowledge of the existence of Clinton’s secret server.
Strzok wrote a summary of the interview which said: ‘Abedin did not know that Clinton had a private server until about a year and a half ago when it became public knowledge.’
In fact Abedin had been involved in a series of email exchanges which demonstrated that she knew about the server, including one from an IT aide whihc said: ‘I had to shut down the server. Someone was trying to hack us…’
Cheryl Mills: Cleared despite telling untruths
Mills was chief of staff and counselor to Clinton when she was Secretary of State.
Strzok summarized the interview with her which he conducted in April 2016, saying: ‘Mills did not learn Clinton was using a private server until after Clinton’s tenure. Mills stated she was not even sure she knew what a server was at the time.’
In fact a series of emails from the time demonstrated that neither assertion by Mills could be true.
‘hrc email coming back — is server okay?’ Mills emailed to Justin Cooper, the IT aide in February 2010.
Despite that email, Strzok accepted that she did not know what a ‘server’ was at the time.
In August 2011 she received a email from Stephen Mull, a State Department IT official, which said Clinton had asked for a new Blackberry which was malfunctioning ‘possibly because of her personal email server is down’.
Abedin was also sent the email.
Hillary Clinton: Cleared her of criminal level gross negligence by removing term from critical Comey memo
Then FBI Director James Comey sent a message to three top officials in the bureau on May 2, 2016, summarizing the latest position on the Clinton probe.
It included the damning sentence: ‘There is evidence to support a conclusion that Secretary Clinton, and others, used the private email server in a manner that was grossly negligent with respect to the handling of classified material.’
The phrase ‘grossly negligent’ was critical as that is the standard which needs to be reached to bring a federal prosecution for mishandling classified intelligence. In other words, Comey was saying that she should be charged.
But the language was changed on June 10 and the phrase ‘grossly negligent’ replaced by Strozk with ‘extremely careless’ – below the standard for prosecution.
The memo then formed the basis for James Comey’s July statement on Clinton which said she would not be charged.
THE RUSSIA PROBE
After Robert Mueller was appointed Special Counsel to look into allegations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Strzok was assigned to his team. He was removed when his anti-Trump texts to his mistress came to light. Here is what us known and what is still unknown of his actions
Mike Flynn: Oversaw interviews where he lied to FBI
Strzok was the official overseeing FBI interviews of Mike Flynn, the former general who was Trump’s first national security adviser.
It is unknown exactly how many times Flynn was interviewed by the FBI but he dramatically pleaded guilty last Friday to lying to the feds in an interview in January when he was still in office.
Flynn admitted lying about his dealings with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
He was interviewed at least once more and now faces a sentence of up to five years in prison for his crime.
However it appears likely he will receive a far lighter sentence as he is a co-operating witness with the Mueller investigation and has even agreed to take part in covert evidence-gathering for the FBI.
Jared Kushner and other Trump officials: Did he oversee interviews and charges?
Mugshot: George Papadopolous, first Trump aide to plead guilty in the Mueller probe
As the FBI’s most senior counter-intelligence agent on the Mueller taskforce, it appears certain that Strzok would also have overseen the interviews it is known the FBI has conducted so far, but his involvement has not been confirmed.
One of those questioned by FBI agents includes Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
Others known or reported to have been interviewed include Hope Hicks, now Trump’s White House director of communications.
She had been his campaign spokeswoman and steamed his suits while he wore them on his plane.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign director, was interviewed by the FBI after his home was raided in a dramatic pre-dawn entry, and has now been charged with counts including conspiracy.
Also charged was Rick Gates, Manafort’s aide in the campaign and Manafort’s long-time right hand man.
And the first guilty plea in the Mueller probe was by George Papadopolous, a campaign aide who admitted lying to the FBI. Again Strzok’s role is still to be made public.