For 15 minutes on Tuesday morning, Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was on some very rocky footing. FBI Director James Comey was listing off his bureau’s findings from its now-concluded investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, and it wasn’t looking good.
By the end, though, after running through a laundry list of things that are very unhelpful for Clinton’s effort to become the next president, Comey dropped the big news: He said that no “reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges against Clinton for her handling of the server.
It was the announcement Clinton had been hoping for, but it didn’t come without plenty of uncertainty – and ammunition for her political opponents (in case they needed any more).
Below, the eight most important lines from Comey’s announcement:
1. “I have not coordinated this statement or reviewed it in any way with the Department of Justice or any other part of the government. They do not know what I am about to say.”
Comey took extreme caution at the top of his remarks to try and depoliticize his announcement as much as possible. Given the furor last week over Bill Clinton’s private meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the appearance of impropriety, Comey is making clear Lynch, the Clinton campaign and even the White House were not aware of what he was about to announce.
2. “Our investigation looked at whether there is evidence that classified information was improperly stored or transmitted on that personal system in violation of a federal statute that makes it a felony to mishandle classified information either intentionally or in a grossly negligent way, or a second statute, making it a misdemeanor to knowingly remove classified information from appropriate systems or storage facilities.”
Comey emphasizes here the high bar that exists for a criminal prosecution – not just to mishandle classified information, but to do it in “intentionally or in a grossly negligent way.” That latter clause – “grossly negligent” – is what winds up being the term of art in this particular case, because it’s the standard Comey doesn’t think a “reasonable prosecutor” could say Clinton violated.
3. “From the group of 30,000 emails returned to the State Department in 2014, 110 emails in 52 email chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was top secret at the time they were sent; 36 of those chains contained secret information at the time; and eight contained confidential information at the time. That’s the lowest level of classification.”
This is when things started looking really bad for Clinton. For months, her message has been some variation “I’m confident that this process will prove that I never sent nor received any email that was marked classified.” At other times, Clinton has stressed that she never “knowingly” sent or received classified information on the server. Here, Comey says that classified information did cross her server on many occasions. Expect Republicans to point to this as a smoking gun – “Clinton lied!” Of course, Clinton used very precise language for a reason. Her past comments will undoubtedly be mined for contradictions, and you can expect to see these numbers in a GOP attack ad, well, right about … now.
4. “I should add here that we found no evidence that any of the additional work-related emails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them in some way.”
Again, Comey is getting at the lack of intention. He’s being careful to specify not only what Clinton did and didn’t do – but what she did and didn’t do intentionally.
5. “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
If not for the lack of charges recommended here, “extremely careless” would have been the big headline. As it stands, it’s the sub-headline. It’s also, as noted above, likely to be the subject of plenty of GOP attack ads, and it will give life to the continued examination of just how appropriate her conduct was in this case. Comey’s job is to determine whether Clinton might have broken the law. He decided she hadn’t. But that doesn’t mean what she did was good, and he made that very clear in this case.
6. “There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position or in the position of those with whom she was corresponding about the matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
See above. This is Comey making clear this was a bad, bad thing (just not a criminal thing).
7. “Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal email account.”
Again, this is a very tough statement for Clinton. At the core of her argument against Donald Trump is that he doesn’t have the judgment to be president; this calls into question her own judgment. Trump himself has alleged – with no evidence, mind you – that foreign entities could be blackmailing Clinton with the information they obtained by hacking her account. Again, there is no evidence of that, but Comey isn’t ruling out her account having been hacked either. And it’s not hard to see Republicans using this line to argue that Clinton might have put American national security in jeopardy with her server.
8. “Although there is evidence of potential violation of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
Comey concluded by basically saying that Clinton’s conduct didn’t rise to the level of “grossly negligent” – even as it was “extremely careless.” And he said not only that he wasn’t recommending charges – but that no “reasonable prosecutor” would do so. Comey makes clear this is a no-doubter for him. After a very long 15 minutes, Team Clinton had to be overjoyed to hear it.
The FBI’s statement on Hillary Clinton’s emails, in 3 minutes.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Aaron Blake