WASHINGTON — Senior Justice Department officials warned the FBI that director James Comey's decision to notify Congress about renewing the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server was not consistent with long-standing practices of the department, the Washington Post reported Saturday, citing unnamed officials familiar with the discussions.
FBI officials who work closely with Comey on Thursday contacted attorneys at the Justice Department. Their message: Comey intended to inform lawmakers of newly discovered emails potentially connected to the Clinton email investigation.
Justice Department officials reminded the FBI of the department's position that it does not comment on an ongoing investigation and does not take steps that will be viewed as influencing an election, said one Justice Department official who spoke to the Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to describe the high-level conversations.
Comey's decision less than two weeks before the presidential election has stunned former and current law enforcement officials and rocked the Clinton campaign, which appeared to be coasting to victory. Comey said in a memo to FBI employees he felt obligated to update lawmakers after testifying under oath that the investigation into Clinton's private email server was complete. And he feared that word of the newly discovered emails — found in the course of a separate investigation into former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-New York —- would leak to the media and suggest a coverup, according to officials familiar with his thinking.
FBI officials said Comey and those advising him were well aware of Justice Department policy, but considered it guidance, rather than an ironclad rule, on how to handle such sensitive information so close to an election.
During a vigorous discussion at the FBI among about 10 officials, lawyers and staffers, different options were discussed, one official with knowledge of the discussion told the Post. In the end, Comey felt the Justice Department guidance about elections did not pertain to this extraordinary situation, the official said.
But the day after Comey's surprise announcement, anger at the FBI director from Democrats had only intensified.
Campaign chairman and longtime Clinton family confidant John Podesta said on a call with reporters Saturday that Comey's announcement was "long on innuendo and short on facts," allowing Republicans to "distort and exaggerate" its message.
"There's no evidence of wrongdoing, no charge of wrongdoing, no indication that this is even about Hillary," Podesta said.
Comey's decision to ignore the advice of Justice Department leadership is "stunning," said Matt Miller, who served as department spokesman under then-Attorney General Eric Holder. "Jim Comey forgets that he works for the attorney general."
"I think he has a lot of regard for his own integrity. And he lets that regard cross lines into self-righteousness," Miller said.
With his letter to lawmakers Friday, Comey managed to unite traditionally polarized Democrats and Republicans in Congress who asked the FBI director to immediately release more information and explain his actions.
Department officials said Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Comey did not have a direct conversation about his decision to inform lawmakers.
The FBI director is considered a quasi-independent law enforcement official, though the role still falls under the attorney general.