WASHINGTON – FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday that he would not pursue criminal charges against Hillary Clinton in her long-running email scandal, even as he rebuked the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as “extremely careless” in handling highly sensitive and classified information when she served as secretary of state.
Comey’s dramatic announcement – covered live from FBI headquarters by all the major television news networks – signaled the likely end of Clinton’s legal problems stemming from the controversy. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who drew criticism for a private meeting with former President Bill Clinton on an airport tarmac in Phoenix last week, said Friday that she intends to accept the recommendations of the FBI and of career prosecutors in the case.
Although she may have escaped a criminal indictment, Comey’s scathing criticism of Clinton’s private email servers and email habits during her tenure as secretary of state provided potent new political ammunition to Republicans hoping to thwart her White House bid.
Comey’s decision not to pursue criminal charges “showed the world what has long been believed: that Hillary Clinton is above the law,” said Republican Party of New Mexico spokesman Tucker Keene. “Clinton must be held responsible by the American public for jeopardizing national security, and the voters will reject her history of corruption, negligence, and self-interest.”
The state Democratic Party declined to comment and referred to a Clinton campaign statement.
Comey’s announcement concluded a yearlong FBI investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified information, either intentionally or through gross negligence. Investigators pored over tens of thousands of emails, but Comey said they found no proof that Clinton or her aides intended to break laws governing the handling of classified information.
But he said, “There is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” Comey said Clinton used multiple private servers and various devices that were not secure, and that she and her staff should have known better.
Comey directly contradicted many of Clinton’s own key explanations for her use of private email servers to conduct official national business, which could reinforce voters’ concerns about her trustworthiness.
She had said she turned over all her emails and that she had never sent or received any that were classified at the time.
The FBI chief said that in the course of the investigation, 113 emails were determined to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Emails in eight email chains were found to have been classified “top secret” at the time they were sent or received.
He also said investigators found that “several thousand work-related emails” were not among the group of 30,000 Clinton turned over in 2014. And he raised the possibility that people hostile to the U.S. had gained access to her personal email account.
Comey’s announcement came three days after the FBI interviewed Clinton in a final step of its yearlong investigation.
“There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position … should have known that an unclassified system was no place” for sensitive conversations, Comey said.
Clinton’s personal email server, which she relied on exclusively for government and personal business, has shadowed her campaign since the Associated Press revealed its existence in March 2015.
GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump said Comey’s statement provided more evidence against “Crooked Hillary” and showed anew that “the system is rigged.” Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said the decision not to prosecute simply defied explanation, while Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., called it “ridiculous.”
“The American people already have lost trust in government and the refusal to prosecute someone who had clear disregard for our national security gives them another reason why,” Pearce wrote on his Facebook page shortly after Comey’s announcement. “Secretary Clinton should not get special treatment. The investigation made it clear that when questioned about her actions, she deceived the American people.”
Despite criticizing Clinton, her aides and the State Department for their actions, Comey said that after analyzing similar circumstances in past inquiries, the FBI found no clear evidence she intended to break the law and that he believed “no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.”
He said, however, that people in similar circumstances face other measures, such as discipline or loss of security clearance
Comey began a 10-year term as FBI director in 2013, which means he will remain in the post if Clinton is elected president.
Brian Fallon, Clinton’s campaign spokesman, issued the following statement: “We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate. 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.”
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that Republicans had exploited the case for political gain, and that the FBI’s findings revealed a need to examine a confusing system of classifying government information.
“The efforts by Republicans over the past year to malign Secretary Clinton have been nothing short of shameful,” Feinstein said. “The email review process was repeatedly distorted by Republicans for political gain with little care for the facts.”
Comey said he had not shared the FBI’s findings with anyone before his announcement, which came just hours before Clinton traveled to North Carolina with President Barack Obama on Air Force One to campaign with him for the first time this year.
Trump had tweeted over the weekend that no charges would be forthcoming, and the timing of the Obama-Clinton trip on Tuesday drew scorn on social media from conservatives and media pundits who said the “optics” of Clinton’s flying to a political event on the president’s jet were unseemly. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the Clinton campaign will pay an ordinary share of the trip, through the Democratic National Committee.
“The White House of course follows all of the rules and regulations that apply to presidential travel,” Earnest said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.