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What the new FBI letter on Hillary Clinton’s emails means — and doesn’t mean

Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call Group / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

FBI Director James Comey dropped a big October surprise on the presidential campaign Friday by sending a brief, vague letter to several members of Congress in which he said the bureau has learned of new emails that “appear to be pertinent” to its previously completed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server, and would assess whether they contained classified information.

Immediately, the political world became consumed with feverish speculation about just what could have been uncovered and how bad it could be for Clinton and her campaign. Surely, some thought, Comey wouldn’t make such a dramatic statement without having discovered something damning. Right?

Yet by the time more details had emerged a few hours later, the most terrifying scenarios Democrats had imagined hadn’t come to pass — at least not just yet.

According to multiple reports, it turned out that the new emails at issue here weren’t from Clinton’s server, that they didn’t appear to have been deliberately withheld from the FBI, and that the separate investigation that turned up the emails wasn’t related to the Clintons themselves.

Instead, the emails came from a device owned by former Congress member Anthony Weiner and his wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, as the New York Times’s Adam Goldman and Alan Rappeport first reported.

The FBI is investigating Weiner over reports that he sexted with an underage girl. And according to NBC’s Pete Williams, the bureau found that on a laptop owned by Weiner, there were also “some emails” between Abedin and Clinton.

Furthermore, the FBI doesn’t even know if the new emails contain any meaningful information — the bureau hasn’t even gotten access to them yet. “We don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails,” Comey wrote in a note to employees Friday, reports the Washington Post’s Sari Horwitz.

So it does seem that Comey’s letter could be a fairly routine notification delivered to Congress, sent either for the simple purpose of updating his previous testimony or for the more self-interested purpose of shielding himself and the FBI from the political criticism that would result if he said nothing.

Now, it’s of course also possible that the letter could herald further damaging revelations about either Clinton or her top aides from the newly active investigation. But from the information we have so far, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that that’s the case.

What Comey might be thinking

The full text of the letter Comey sent to several members of Congress on Friday.

Director Comey must have known that his inconclusive letter would be received as a bombshell and dominate news coverage and lead to endless speculation. So why did he send it now, just 11 days before the election?

In the narrow sense, the answer seems pretty clear — Comey says he was briefed on the new emails yesterday, and he had previously testified to Congress that the investigation was essentially over, so he was obligated to inform them of the change.

“Because the new information followed his sworn testimony about the case, Comey was obligated by Department of Justice rules to keep the relevant committees apprised,” Newsweek’s Michele Gorman and Matt Cooper write.

They continue: “Under oath Comey had stated that the bureau had completed its review. Once he learned that there were new emails that required examination, Comey had to notify Congress that he had to amend his testimony because it was no longer true.”

Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare comes to a similar conclusion, writing that Comey’s letter suggests he isn’t “reopening a closed matter investigation because of some bombshell,” but rather that “he is amending his public testimony to Congress that the FBI was done while the bureau examines new material that may or may not have implications for investigative conclusions previously reached.”

More broadly, however, Comey has been in a very difficult political spot throughout this highly charged investigation, and this is could be his latest clumsy effort to try to preserve the FBI’s reputation for independence.

A Republican for most of his life who worked in George W. Bush’s administration, Comey has been harshly criticized by Republicans since he announced he wouldn’t recommend any charges in the investigation this July. Donald Trump, for instance, tweeted that the lack of charges revealed that the system was “rigged.” Furthermore, Comey has been dogged by anonymous reports in conservative outlets that at least some elements of the FBI are unhappy with his handling of the Clinton case.

Comey has responded by testifying extensively before Congress and handing over a huge amount of documentation, which is very unusual behavior for an investigation that resulted in no charges.

In this context, if it were later learned that the FBI had discovered new potentially relevant emails 11 days before the election and said nothing, Comey would surely be raked over the coals by Republicans. So he may also have sent the letter in part to protect himself from future criticism — even though he’s now opened himself up to criticism from Democrats.

Of course, there is also the possibility that the emails do contain damaging information about Clinton or her aides. Without knowing what they actually contain, we can’t know for sure.

In any case, though, we may not know before the election, the FBI reportedly hasn’t reviewed the emails yet and Williams reports “there’s absolutely no way that this is going to be resolved in 11 days” — unless Comey decides to dramatically accelerate his timetable.

This article has been updated with new developments.

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