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Reports: FBI Director Comey gave false testimony about Huma Abedin’s emails

It is unclear how Comey ended up misdescribing the situation to a Senate committee last week.

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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.

In an effort to defend his handling of the Hillary Clinton email scandal in the closing days of the 2016 campaign, FBI Director James Comey gave some eyebrow-raising testimony to a Senate committee last week.

Comey claimed that Clinton aide Huma Abedin appeared "to have had a regular practice of forwarding emails" to her husband, Anthony Weiner, "for him I think to print out to her." He added that she "forwarded hundreds and thousands of emails, some of which contain classified information." This, Comey suggested, explained why the late discovery of emails on Weiner’s laptop was serious enough to justify his extraordinary October 28 letter to Congress announcing that he was reviewing new emails.

According to two new reports, this testimony wasn’t actually true.

ProPublica’s Peter Elkind reported Monday night that "according to two sources familiar with the matter," Abedin in fact only forwarded a handful of Clinton emails for printing and does not at all seem to have made "a regular practice" of it. Elkind added that the FBI was currently "undecided about what to do" to correct the record, and that "it could not be learned how the mistake occurred." (The bulk of the emails, Elkind continues, appear to have landed on Weiner’s computer because Abedin backed up her BlackBerry there, not because of constant forwarding.)

The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett confirmed this account, citing "people close to the investigation." None of the emails Abedin forwarded were marked classified, Barrett writes, but "a small number" had "information that was later judged to contain classified information."

It’s the latest Clinton email-related embarrassment for the FBI director, who has faced harsh criticism for his handling of the matter and particularly for that late-October letter to Congress. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver has argued at length that, according to his interpretation of polling data, Comey’s letter and the ensuing media coverage of it "probably cost Clinton the election." (The Upshot’s Nate Cohn, in contrast, isn’t as sure.) The late email discovery, of course, turned out to have no significant new information, as Comey clarified in another letter the weekend before the election.

A lengthy New York Times profile of Comey published last month essentially argued that much of his behavior in 2016 was driven by fear of criticism and reprisal from congressional Republicans. "Former agents and others close to Mr. Comey acknowledge that his reproach was also intended to insulate the F.B.I. from Republican criticism that it was too lenient toward a Democrat," the authors write.

Comey testified last week that he was "mildly nauseous" about the idea that his letter could have impacted the election’s outcome. And yet he still does not seem to have command of the underlying facts necessary to accurately describe the situation that drove him to send the letter. Did he somehow misremember, or was he mistaken about what the FBI had, and why, all along?

Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the FBI sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley to "supplement" Comey’s testimony. The letter states:

  • The FBI "believes it is reasonable to conclude" that "most of" the Clinton-related emails got to Weiner’s laptop "as a result of a backup of personal electronic devices."
  • Only "a small number" of emails on the laptop were there due to "manual forwarding by Ms. Abedin to Mr. Weiner."
  • According to investigators, "two e-mail chains containing classified information" were forwarded to Weiner, while ten more were on the computer "as a result of backup activity." However, all 12 of those chains had already been reviewed by FBI investigators earlier that year.