DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – A fiercely defiant Hillary Clinton demanded answers today about what she suggested is a politically motivated renewal of a previously shuttered federal inquiry into her email with just days to go in the presidential election.
“It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with so little information right before an election,” Clinton said as a supportive crowd cheered her on and booed the mention of FBI Director James Comey.
Clinton’s speech came as Republican rival, Donald Trump, seized on Comey’s letter notifying Congress about the inquiry and floated his own theories about it, shifting focus away from his own controversies in the hope of scoring a last-minute surge in an race that even his staff admits he’s losing.
The Democratic nominee’s strongly worded response to the new email inquiry capped a hectic scramble by Democrats to head off further political damage from a development that left them sputtering, both inside and outside the campaign.
Clinton stopped just short of accusing Comey, once a registered Republican, of partisan interference in the Nov. 8 election she is favored to win. She did not attempt to conceal her anger, although she went on to urge unity and optimism.
Other Democrats went much further, issuing scathing assessments of Comey’s motives and timing, as the potential for new legal jeopardy involving the Democratic nominee roiled an already tumultuous campaign.
The assault signaled a decision to go fully on offense against Comey and confront the email issue and Republican attacks head on.
The congressional black and Hispanic caucuses organized a news conference to denounce Comey, at least three Democratic senators drafted a letter of complaint Saturday and the Democratic National Committee issued a tartly worded statement.
“By releasing a letter within sixty days of the presidential election, FBI Director James Comey broke with long-standing department tradition that is meant to prevent any influence on the electoral process,” the DNC statement said.
“The letter did not offer enough detail that would allow Americans a full understanding of the development and whether or not it is even significant, which has led to speculation on the part of the media and irresponsible claims by Republican leaders. The FBI must move quickly to release additional clarifying information.”
The approach was particularly notable given the kid-glove treatment accorded Comey by Clinton and her campaign before now, and the long silence that followed the initial news about Comey’s letter on Friday. Several hours passed before either Clinton or anyone on her staff weighed in on the issue, at which point her campaign chairman John Podesta called on Comey to provide more information about what he was after.
Of chief concern to Democrats now is whether the development, and the uncertainty surrounding it, will cause supporters to disengage or stay home. Meanwhile, the development has been a political gift to Trump, who drew huge applause Saturday when called Clinton corrupt and untrustworthy.
Clinton received a boisterous reception from a racially mixed crowd estimated at 900 packed into a warm community center gym in an African-American neighborhood here. As she walked on stage, she was greeted with chants of “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary” that reverberated off the walls.
There were calls of “We love you!” as her speech continued.
Comey had sent a letter to eight congressional committee chairmen and ranking Democrats on Friday stating that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into the potential mishandling of classified information when Clinton was secretary of state.
That inquiry ended in July without criminal charges, which Clinton’s campaign hoped would sweep away some of the cloud of suspicion around the candidate over her decision to use a separate, non-governmental communication system for her government work.
Voters continue to tell pollsters they disapprove of her handling of the email issue, with many doubting that she has been fully truthful. But until now, the email issue seemed to be receding, and Clinton had sounded increasingly confident as she maintained a lead in most national polls over the past several weeks.
Polls had begun to tighten even before the FBI development, and it is unclear what effect it will have.
In his letter, Comey said, “The FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information.” Comey said it is unknown if the information “may be significant.”
“In fact it’s not just strange, it’s unprecedented and it’s deeply troubling,” Clinton said Saturday. “We call on Director Comey to explain everything right away and put it all out on the table.”
The top leaders of Clinton’s campaign complained today that Comey acted unfairly and perhaps improperly by announcing further inquiry into the former secretary of state’s email use, and they demanded a swift explanation.
Podesta, a longtime Clinton family confidant, sounded agitated and angry during a conference call with reporters early Saturday afternoon as he said Comey’s surprise announcement Friday was “long on innuendo and short on facts,” allowing Republicans to “distort and exaggerate” its message.
In addition to the unusual firepower – Podesta does not brief the press regularly – the campaign took the additional step of providing a transcript after the fact, the better to reap any benefit from Podesta’s strong language.
Podesta said questions about whether Comey was acting in a partisan fashion are best directed to Comey himself. But Podesta and Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook were unsparing in their criticism of the bare-bones explanation from Comey and the timing of the announcement less than two weeks before Election Day.
“Director Comey was the one who wrote a letter that was light on facts heavy on innuendo, knowing full well what Republicans in Congress would do with it,” Podesta said .
Both Podesta and Mook cited news coverage of the development in which government officials and others have said Comey’s actions were unusual or inconsistent with Justice Department practice in an election year.
Trump devoted some of a noontime rally in Golden, Colorado, today to telling his supporters about the FBI letter and detailing the controversy over the private email server that Clinton used while secretary of state.
“As you have heard, it was just announced yesterday that the FBI is reopening their investigation in the criminal and illegal conduct of Hillary Clinton,” Trump said about 10 minutes into the rally. He then walked away from his podium and applauded the news along with his crowd, which began chanting: “Lock her up! Lock her up!”
“This is the biggest political scandal since Watergate, and it’s everybody’s deepest hope that justice, at last, can be properly delivered,” Trump said to more cheers. “Hillary has nobody to blame but herself for her mounting legal troubles. Her criminal action was willful, deliberate, intentional and purposeful.”
While Trump has repeatedly claimed Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state was illegal, Comey earlier this year said the FBI found nothing that would lead to a criminal charge.
Trump said that he thinks that some of the thousands of emails that Clinton deleted “were captured yesterday,” even though officials do not yet know what is in the emails. He also suggested, with no evidence, that there was “a revolt” in the FBI that led to the letter being sent on Friday.
“I’ll bet you, without any knowledge, there was a revolt in the FBI,” Trump said. “I’ll bet you there was a revolt in the FBI by what they allowed to happen with respect to Hillary Clinton. There was a revolt. And I can be pretty sure of it.”
According to two people familiar with the situation, the newly discovered emails were found on a computer seized during an investigation of former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner is separated from his wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
In his remarks, Trump mentioned Weiner for the first time since news broke that the emails were discovered in an investigation of the disgraced former congressman.
He called Weiner a “major, major, major sleaze” and bragged about predicting that something like this might happen. “If you check out the tweets,” Trump said, supporters would find that he warned about this.
Trump also attacked Weiner’s estranged wife. “Huma’s been a problem. I wonder if Huma’s gonna stay there,” Trump said, repeatedly mispronouncing Abedin’s name.
Trump started the day with a tweet: “I am in Colorado – big day planned – but nothing can be as big as yesterday!”
He is expected to hold a rally in Phoenix in the evening.
During the morning conference call, Clinton campaign manager Mook said the news has not dampened Democrats’ enthusiasm and would not interfere with Clinton’s priorities in the final days of campaigning. But the hastily-arranged telephone briefing for reporters is one sign of how the development has rocked Clinton’s campaign, which had been coasting toward Election Day with her leading in recent polls.
Clinton will return to Florida on Saturday for a pair of events: a late-afternoon rally in Daytona Beach and an evening “get out the vote” concert in Miami featuring pop superstar Jennifer Lopez, which is part of a series the Clinton campaign is staging in battleground states aimed at driving up turnout among different segments of the electorate, including Latinos.
Clinton is investing heavily in Florida, a state her aides say she doesn’t need to win but where a victory would almost certainly cut off Trump’s to 270 electoral votes.
Several of Clinton’s highest profile surrogates are also on the trail for her this weekend. Former president Bill Clinton will make several stops in Ohio on today, while Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to appear in Las Vegas and Reno. Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, is speaking in Michigan.
After the news broke Friday, Clinton’s campaign moved swiftly to try to counter the perception that the candidate is again in legal jeopardy.
Repeating statements made Friday, Podesta said the emails now at issue may be duplicates of those already reviewed by the FBI as part of its inquiry into Clinton’s use of a private email system while she was secretary of state, or they may be irrelevant to the investigation of potential mishandling of classified information closed without prosecution in July.
“The more information that comes out, the more overblown this entire situation seems to be,” Mook said.
Podesta and Mook did not confirm reports that the new emails were recovered from Abedin’s home computer. Podesta said Abedin had cooperated fully in the FBI inquiry “and, of course, we stand behind her.”
“There’s no evidence of wrongdoing, no charge of wrongdoing, no indication that this is even about Hillary,” Podesta said. “Even Director Comey said this may not be significant. If that’s all true, it’s hard to see how this amounts to anything, and we’re not going to be distracted and Hillary’s not going to be distracted in the final days of this election over nothing.”
In the call, Podesta also criticized House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, for characterizing the letter as the FBI reopening the investigation of Clinton’s private email server.
“This is someone who has already promised to launch years of new Hillary Clinton investigations when she’s president,” Podesta said.
Since the FBI letter landed on Friday, Clinton’s surrogates mostly have seemed to avoid the topic.
But Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley made an “October surprise” joke as he introduced former president Bill Clinton at a rally at Cleveland State University this morning.
“Now, I just want you to know, there might be an October surprise coming, and we should be aware of it,” Kelly said to a nearly silent room, joking about the thing few in the campaign are joking about.
Kelley then delivered the punchline: “Hillary has been quoted as being a Cubs fan. But we in Cleveland are forgiving people.”
A few people in the audience then laughed.
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan, Sean Sullivan, John Wagner