Excerpt: E-mail Decision Ignites GOP Ire

Published April 16, 2018

Reprinted below is Chapter 51 of The Great Divide. It describes FBI Director James Comey’s initial decision during the 2016 presidential race not to recommend charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server.

Former president Bill Clinton was at the airport in Phoenix preparing to embark on a seven-state fundraising trip for his wife. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch was also there, in a private plane on the tarmac. Having known Lynch for close to 20 years – he named her U.S. attorney for New York’s Eastern District in 1999 – the ex-president supposedly wanted to say hi. Lynch was on the plane with her husband, members of the Secret Service and a few staffers. Clinton was allowed to board and allegedly chatted with Lynch for about 20 minutes.

This would all be very innocent if Lynch weren’t the final say in a possible indictment against Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified information while secretary of state. The FBI investigation into Clinton’s e-mail practices was still ongoing. The ex-president and attorney general allegedly just exchanged pleasantries but the meeting had “impropriety” written all over it.

Donald Trump implied a bribe may have been offered. Some Republicans demanded that Lynch recuse herself. At the very least, the meeting gave Republicans a reason to scream foul if Lynch ended up not indicting Hillary. Lynch said she would make her decision solely on the basis of the FBI’s recommendation once the Bureau’s investigation was complete.

Just days after what some were calling “tarmac-gate,” the FBI questioned Hillary Clinton for more than three hours. A few days after that, FBI Director James Comey announced that while Clinton was “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information, she should not face criminal charges.

“We did not find clear evidence that Hillary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information,” Comey said. “There is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” But the FBI concluded that “no reasonable prosecutor would” bring charges in “such a case.”

The next day, Lynch said she accepted the FBI’s “recommendation that the thorough, yearlong investigation be closed and that no charges be brought against any individuals within the scope of the investigation.”

Done! That was easy. Within a week of Bill Clinton’s chance tarmac meeting with Lynch, the prospect that Hillary Clinton would be indicted – the thing the GOP had been praying for and virtually hanging its hat on – was gone, poof.

Clinton issued a statement saying she was “pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate” and she was “glad this matter is now resolved.”

Resolved? She couldn’t possibly have believed that, or she was a victim of some very wishful thinking. The GOP was not about to let this go so easily.

“The system is rigged,” tweeted Donald Trump. “FBI Director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow!”

Trump was correct in that the FBI did conclude that Clinton should not have been using her private e-mail server to handle classified information. Her server was less secure than a government server and, thus, more susceptible to hacking by foreign enemies. Early on, Clinton had said that no classified information was handled on her server. This turned out to be false. The FBI said Clinton sent or received 110 e-mails in 52 chains containing classified material.

Republicans demanded an opportunity to grill Comey on Capitol Hill for a better explanation. The day after the Justice Department dropped the case, Comey testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He reiterated there was no evidence that Clinton knowingly sent classified information despite displaying “great carelessness.” Why not charge her with gross negligence then? Comey said the only time that had been done the person had been guilty of espionage. “We don’t want to put people in jail unless we prove that they knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do.”

Comey noted that only three e-mails were actually marked classified, and none had “headers” marking them but rather a “C” in parentheses within a confidential paragraph, the lowest level of classification. And even those may not have been confidential but instead improperly marked.

There was another hearing scheduled for the following week with Attorney General Lynch. The State Department also announced that it would do an internal review of Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server to conduct government business now that the Justice Department investigation was over. The Republicans would do all they could to keep this in the public eye.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said Clinton should be denied classified briefings during the general election campaign because of her recklessness. The presidential and vice presidential nominees in each party receive briefings containing classified information to help prepare them for office should they win the election.

The idea that Clinton could not be trusted with such information because of her handling of classified information as secretary of state made sense until you thought about it. Was this to say Ryan was okay with Sarah Palin receiving classified information in 2008? He was comfortable with Trump having access to classified information but not Clinton? Let’s not pretend the GOP’s indignation over Clinton skating free was based on concerns over national security.

I tried to picture how Trump would have handled classified information had he been secretary of state but I couldn’t picture him as secretary of state, just as I couldn’t picture him teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. The argument that Trump was more qualified to be president than Clinton because of the e-mail thing was weak. If anyone could picture Trump as secretary of state, the thought that he would have been more careful and discerning was absurd.

The GOP had wanted an indictment against Clinton. Now the party appeared screwed. Party leaders cried that this case torpedoed our whole system of justice. They were not just overreacting. They were in need of a reality check. They needed a reminder of what true injustice is. They were about to get one.