WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton may avoid criminal charges, but the searing rebuke of her “extremely careless” email practices Tuesday by FBI Director James B. Comey is likely to reverberate through the November election and, if she wins, well into her presidency.
In a methodical, 15-minute statement bringing an end to the FBI investigation of Clinton’s personal email system while secretary of state, Comey laid bare a litany of facts that amounted to a searing admonishment of her judgment, management and stewardship of state secrets.
Even as Comey lifted a legal cloud by announcing that the FBI would not recommend criminal charges, he systematically obliterated many of the key defenses Clinton and her advisers have offered to reassure the public in the 15 months since the discovery that she used a private email system. For instance, Clinton had insisted that she did not send or receive classified materials, but Comey said the FBI found that 110 of her emails contained classified information.
For weeks now, Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has been arguing that her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, is unfit to be president and cannot be trusted in the Oval Office. She had hoped that a rally Tuesday afternoon in Charlotte with President barack Obama – their first joint appearance of the campaign – would underscore that contrast with Trump.
Instead, the remarks by Comey – a Republican with a sterling reputation among leaders of both parties – delivered from a lectern at FBI headquarters cast fresh doubt on Clinton’s own fitness and trustworthiness.
“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said.
The Clinton campaign had no advance warning of the precise timing or contents of Comey’s announcement, although an FBI interview conducted with Clinton on Saturday was widely viewed as a final step in resolving the investigation. Comey said he had not coordinated or reviewed his statement with any part of the government.
At Clinton’s New York campaign headquarters, staffers scrambled to gather around the large television screens arrayed in the office as Comey took the podium, not knowing what he would say. Clinton herself was poised to deliver unrelated remarks to a teacher’s union in Washington before boarding Air Force One with Obama to fly to North Carolina.
The specter of a criminal indictment had loomed over the final months of the outgoing president, who is enjoying some of the best approval ratings of his presidency. An unscheduled personal meeting at the Phoenix airport last week between former president Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, whose department will ultimately decide on charges, also garnered criticism from both sides of the aisle.
But Hillary Clinton and her Democratic allies breathed a sigh of relief after Comey all but erased the possibility that she might be indicted. Although he said the FBI was referring the decision to the Justice Department, Comey added that “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” It would be highly unusual for federal prosecutors not to follow the bureau’s counsel.
“We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the Department is appropriate,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said in a statement. “As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”
Democratic pollster Peter D. Hart said “it’s not a clean bill of health, but it’s a workable situation.” He said Clinton’s struggles with trustworthiness “are not going to just all melt away,” but that “it seems to me that ‘Crooked Hillary’ doesn’t have the same sort of sting that it would have had with an indictment.”
Republicans sought to swiftly capitalize on the situation. Trump assailed Clinton for what he called “illegal activities” and “bad judgment,” suggesting that the Obama administration was protecting her from prosecution.
“Folks – the system is rigged,” Trump said in a statement. “The normal punishment, in this case, would include losing authority to handle classified information, and that too disqualifies Hillary Clinton from being President. The final jury will be the American people, and they will issue the verdict on her corruption, incompetence, and bad judgment on November 8th.”
David Bossie, a conservative activist who chairs the Defeat Crooked Hillary super PAC, issued a statement calling Clinton “a serial liar who has a trust problem” and that the email episode “disqualifies” her from serving as president.
Public polls show that many voters do not trust Clinton and that the email controversy already has negatively impacted her political standing. Polls consistently show that roughly two-thirds of Americans do not consider Clinton “honest and trustworthy” – typically her lowest rating in a series of attribute questions.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll in June found that 56 percent of all adults disapprove of her handling of questions about her email use – 44 percent of them “strongly disapproving.”
It is unclear whether the FBI’s findings, delivered by Comey on Tuesday, will further erode Clinton’s standing with the public. GOP pollster Neil Newhouse described the FBI’s findings as “damning results, just not indictable,” and expects fallout in the polls.
“Very little of her explanations hold up, most are at odds with the facts, and it was much worse than she admitted,” Newhouse said in an email. “I’m not sure voters are going to be surprised, but when she’s already trailing on the key attributes of ‘honest and trustworthy’ to Donald Trump, today’s FBI findings are going to dig her hole even deeper.”
However, Clinton’s allies, including former congressman Barney Frank, D-Mass., believe the political fallout from the email controversy already has occurred.
“The criticism of her, the damage she suffered from having made a big mistake and having been irresponsible for using that server, has already happened,” Frank said in an interview. “She’s already paid a political price for it.”
Sen. Timothy Kaine, D-Va. – a potential Clinton running mate– told reporters in Richmond, “I never believed this was going to be something in the criminal realm or even close to it. I had expected to get to this place where this is in matter of lessons learned.”
Senior Democrats expect Trump and his allies to bang the drums about the email controversy for the remainder of the campaign, but believe the issue will have little currency with persuadable voters short of an indictment.
“Comey cut the legs out from under the only narrative that could have hurt her,” said Democratic strategist Robert Shrum. “I assume that Trump will continue to try to make hay out of this, and I think it will go about as well as the Republicans did on Whitewater or Benghazi or anything else. I just think it’s fundamentally over.”
The Washington Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman in Washington and Jenna Portnoy in Richmond, Virginia, contributed to this report.