Obama faults FBI on emails, citing ‘incomplete information’
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — President Barack Obama threw the power of the White House behind Hillary Clinton on Wednesday. He faulted how the FBI director, James B. Comey, handled new emails related to the investigation into Clinton’s private server, and then shouted out to college students here in a pivotal battleground state that it was crucial that they vote because the “fate of the world is teetering.”
Obama’s comments about Comey, broadcast early in the day as recent polls showed a tightening race, were striking for a president who has insisted he does not comment on FBI investigations. But Obama appeared to be doing exactly that in implicitly criticizing Comey’s decision to send a vague letter last week to Congress — and by extension, the public — informing lawmakers about a discovery of new emails related to Clinton’s use of a private server as secretary of state.
“We don’t operate on incomplete information,” Obama said in an interview with NowThis News. “We don’t operate on leaks. We operate based on concrete decisions that are made.”
Without mentioning Comey by name — although it was clear whom he meant — Obama suggested that the FBI had violated investigative guidelines and trafficked in innuendo by alerting Congress last week. Obama’s remarks, which followed searing criticism of the FBI director from both parties, make it harder for Comey to defuse the worst crisis of his tenure at the bureau.
At the same time, the president expressed confidence in Clinton.
“I trust her,” Obama said. “I know her. And I wouldn’t be supporting her if I didn’t have absolute confidence in her integrity and her interest in making sure that young people have a better future.”
The president’s stop later in the day in this liberal college community was aimed at galvanizing two pillars of his political coalition, African-Americans and young voters, who Democrats say are not turning out to vote in the same numbers as they once did for Obama. If Donald Trump loses here and in Florida, where Obama was heading on Thursday, he has virtually no path to the White House.
“You, North Carolina, are going to have to make sure that we push it in the right direction,” Obama exhorted about 16,000 cheering supporters at the University of North Carolina. It was Obama’s second stop on a weeklong swing through four pivotal states and demonstrated a new level of urgency among Democrats about the race as well as the personal stakes for Obama, who wants Clinton to carry on his agenda.
He was, he made sure to add, not joking. Obama’s language, here and in the interview, reflected how determined he was to defeat Trump and betrayed how nervous some in his own party have become over Clinton’s prospects.
The president also lashed out at Republicans for vowing to create gridlock in Washington if Clinton is elected, saying that “you’ve got some Republicans in Congress who are already suggesting they will impeach Hillary. She hasn’t even been elected yet.”
“How does our democracy function like that?” Obama asked.
In Washington, Obama’s criticism of Comey was only the latest blow to the FBI, where the mood is grim as agents continue to review emails belonging to Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton. The emails were discovered in an unrelated investigation into her estranged husband, Anthony D. Weiner, a former congressman from New York. The FBI is investigating whether Weiner sent illicit text messages to a teenage girl in North Carolina and seized his laptop in early October.
The FBI concluded the case into Clinton’s private server in July with no charges, but Comey’s letter to Congress has renewed an inquiry that Clinton thought was behind her.
For Comey, the short time left before the election now offers no easy options. If, over the next few days, agents find no evidence to change their July conclusion in the emails of Abedin that they are able to review — law enforcement officials say the FBI will not be able to complete the inquiry by Tuesday — publicly saying so would open the FBI to criticism that it was prejudging an open investigation.
If agents do find potentially damaging evidence, publicly saying so would taint Abedin — and by extension Clinton — before the investigation is complete. Either move would amount to a change in practice for the FBI, which typically says only what it believes it can prove, and only in court.
“The risk of harm is greater if he comes out without all the facts,” Chris Voss, a former FBI agent, said of Comey.
Saying nothing, however, allows suspicion to hang over Clinton’s campaign in the final days of the race. Trump has already capitalized on the FBI review at his rallies, calling it evidence of what he calls Clinton’s corrupt and criminal behavior.
Comey’s letter has also put Obama into a delicate position at a crucial time in the race, essentially forcing him to choose between his own institutional imperative to refrain from meddling in a federal law enforcement matter and his political impulse to fiercely defend Clinton.
White House officials later played down Obama’s remarks about the FBI and insisted he had not meant to criticize Comey.
“The president went out of his way to say he wouldn’t comment on any particular investigations,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, told reporters on Air Force One while Obama was en route to North Carolina to campaign for Clinton.
Schultz characterized Obama’s remarks as mirroring those made in recent days by the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, who had said that while the White House would not criticize Comey’s decision to update Congress on the status of a continuing investigation, Obama believed that rules intended to keep such investigations confidential were good ones and should be followed.
Much is unknown about the newly discovered emails, including why they were on Weiner’s laptop in the first place. Abedin, through her lawyers, has adamantly denied using that laptop. One theory of how the emails ended up there, according to several of the people, is that they may have been inadvertently backed up or downloaded onto an older computer and then transferred from the older computer to the laptop’s hard drive when the older computer was replaced.
Obama, affecting a bit of the local accent, repeatedly said he had come to do “bidness,” name-dropped the Tar Heels basketball team, and could barely contain his laughter as he described some of Trump’s more provocative remarks.
But he also directed the millennials in the audience to pay attention as he described the ugly history of the struggle for black voting rights and North Carolina’s more recent effort to make it harder to cast a ballot. Alluding to a 100-year-old black woman and lifelong resident of the state whose voting eligibility was recently questioned, Obama said North Carolinians would be complicit in what he called “voter suppression” if they did not show up at the polls.
“If you don’t vote you’ve done the work of those who would suppress your vote without them having to lift a finger,” the president warned. He referred to Trump’s repeated allegations of voting fraud in “certain areas,” making it clear that he thinks the Republican was talking about black communities. “Where are those ‘certain areas’ he’s talking about?” Obama asked with a knowing tone.
Obama left little doubt about the implications in the state Clinton has the best chance to turn from red to blue. “If Hillary wins North Carolina,” he said, “she wins.”
In North Carolina, which Obama narrowly lost in 2012, early voting rates among African-Americans and young voters have so far been below the level of four years ago. Democrats have seen improvements in these numbers in recent days as more early voting locations have opened up and they were able to drive out African-American voters at “souls to the polls” events last weekend.
On Thursday, Obama is to campaign in Miami and Jacksonville, two of Florida’s most heavily African-American cities. He is scheduled to return to North Carolina on Friday, when he will appear in Charlotte and Fayetteville, both with sizable black populations, before going back to Orlando on Saturday for the final day of early voting in Florida.