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Understanding James Comey’s Letter

Everything we know about the FBI director’s decision to address Hillary Clinton’s emails

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On Friday, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Congress informing legislators of the discovery of more emails relating to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Though the letter was short and vague, the fallout was predictable: Donald Trump and the Republicans jumped on the attack, Clinton and her campaign called for more details, and many Democrats began bed-wetting all over again. On the latest Keepin’ It 1600, NBC News Justice Department correspondent Pete Williams joined Dan Pfeiffer, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor to talk through everything we know about Comey’s bizarre letter.

Check out the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Don’t Expect Comey to Expand on His Letter

Dan Pfeiffer: Comey is obviously under tremendous fire from Democrats but also some nonpartisan or less partisan legal experts. Do you have a sense of how he plans to respond to this wave of criticism?

Pete Williams: Not at all. I believe he won’t respond to it at all. But after this weekend of intense criticism for him from former attorney general Eric Holder (who worked with him), a lot of other former prosecutors, people in politics, [and] members of Congress, he’s not going to say anything further. He’s not.

My understanding is he’s not going to come out and, as they say in Congress, revise and extend the remarks he made on Friday. The only point at which the FBI would say something is if they get some [new] results. Let’s assume for example that this process can go fairly fast, or that they don’t find any additional documents that are classified [in the emails]. Then he would come out and say, “OK, we’re done.” They would do that. If they can do that before the election, they would. That is their goal. But it’ll have to be something substantive. The current thinking is he’s not just going to come out and make a statement in response to the criticism or amplify his remarks in the letter from Friday.

The Letter Is Unprecedented — Just Ask the Justice Department

Tommy Vietor: Is this sort of FBI-DOJ feud normal? Are critics right who say this is really an unprecedented disclosure?

P.W.: I think they could probably be right about that. It sort of depends on what your boundaries for unprecedented are, but it’s almost like everything else in this campaign: It’s unprecedented.

But there was a genuine dispute between the Justice Department and the FBI about whether he should send that letter on Friday, and the Justice Department strongly urged him not to. They didn’t forbid him to, and remember, the FBI is part of the Justice Department, so in theory, the Justice Department could have said, “We forbid you to send that letter,” but they did not want to be in the position of limiting the kind of information that went to Congress.

So once he decided to send it, they strongly advised him against it. But they didn’t try to stop him. But it does appear to contravene the policy against doing anything: taking investigative steps that could influence election or making public steps in an election. But again, they were well aware of that.

They decided that they either had to say [something] before or after the election and that neither [option] was good, and that this was the least troubling of all the alternatives.

The FBI Memo Is All the Clarification We’ll Get

Jon Lovett: And so on Friday, a little while after the letter to Congress was released, there was also a memo that went around inside the FBI from Comey that had a little bit more detail. Was that something he sent to clarify what he had done in the letter? Was he always planning on doing something like that?

P.W.: Yes.

He was planning on sending that. They always intended to send it and they knew it would leak out, as indeed it did. And what he says in it, he says basically says the same thing that he says in the letter to Congress, but in a little different way. And there were some people who were saying [that] maybe if he had sent his memo as the letter to Congress, it would have been better.

What he says is, “We don’t ordinarily tell Congress about [ongoing] investigations,” but he felt obligated to do so, because he had testified before that they were done. It would be misleading were we not to supplement the record. And then he says, “At the same time, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression.”

Comey Believed He Was Between a Rock and a Hard Place

J.L.: Do you have any sense that they’re surprised by how this has been received? I can’t imagine that he sent this letter and then planned to spend the weekend at the center of a firestorm.

P.W.: They knew that they would be criticized. I’m not sure that they realized to what extent. And how widespread the criticism and how strong it would be. But they knew that they would catch hell for it. They felt that they would do so either way.

Their logic was, or their thinking was, that this [could have come] out after the election, and we’ve got a candidate here who’s saying the system is rigged. So if it comes out after the election that they were looking for these emails and didn’t tell anybody, then they thought there would be hell to pay. They knew there would be hell to pay if they said beforehand. They had to decide which to do, and now we know their choice.