Sоrting Thrоugh The Clintоn Email Case And What The F.B.I.’s Optiоns Are

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James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, announced in July that he would not recommend criminal charges against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Cliff Owen/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — A week ago, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, jolted the presidential race by sending a letter to Congress saying the bureau had discovered new emails that might be relevant to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server. The disclosure set off widespread criticism of Mr. Comey and unleashed a hurricane of news about Mrs. Clinton’s family foundation, Russia and F.B.I. infighting. Let’s sort it all out.

What exactly is the F.B.I. investigating?

The F.B.I. obtained a search warrant this weekend to begin analyzing emails from one of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aides, Huma Abedin. Agents seized a laptop belonging to Ms. Abedin’s estranged husband, Anthony D. Weiner, on Oct. 3 as part of an investigation into whether he exchanged illicit text messages with a 15-year-old girl. Investigators want to know if Ms. Abedin’s emails will change the conclusion Mr. Comey announced in July: No one in Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle should be prosecuted for mishandling classified information.

Agents and analysts have loaded Ms. Abedin’s emails into a computer program that allows them to identify those they have already read and whether any they have not seen before might contain sensitive national security information.

Law enforcement officials say finding new classified information would not by itself change the outcome. Prosecutors would still need to prove that Mrs. Clinton or her aides intentionally mishandled classified information. In July, Mr. Comey said that although Mrs. Clinton and her aides were “extremely careless,’’ there was no evidence of intentional mishandling.

Huma Abedin, a longtime adviser to Mrs. Clinton, at a campaign event in July.

Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

When will Mr. Comey announce what the F.B.I. has found?

Predicting what Mr. Comey will do is difficult. Never before has the F.B.I. been so publicly entangled in presidential politics and his decisions thus far — holding a news conference in July and making this latest development public last week — have taken the F.B.I. into unchartered territory.

If Mr. Comey announces that agents have found nothing incriminating on the laptop, he is likely to be criticized for unnecessarily rattling an election and harming Mrs. Clinton. If he announces that agents have found incriminating evidence, it will appear that he is putting his thumb on the scale during a presidential race. Saying nothing before Election Day allows speculation to fester.

Mr. Comey felt obligated to keep the public and Congress up-to-date on the case because he testified about closing the inquiry and had pledged to be as transparent as possible about it.

Mr. Comey has provided no updates on the case since last week, and senior F.B.I. officials refuse to discuss details. Officials say it will be difficult to complete the review by Tuesday’s election as there are hundreds of thousands of emails on the laptop, although only a small fraction may be related to the Clinton investigation.

Why did it take Mr. Comey so long to tell Congress about this?

The F.B.I. has not explained why three weeks passed between the time the bureau obtained the laptop and when Mr. Comey told Congress about it. After an F.B.I. computer analysis response team in New York copied the laptop’s hard drive, bureau employees began examining the information on the computer.

That is when agents realized that Ms. Abedin’s emails were on the laptop, but they did not have the authority to view them without a warrant.

The F.B.I. needed custom software to allow them to read Mr. Weiner’s emails without viewing hers. But building that program took two weeks, causing the delay. The program ultimately showed that there were thousands of Ms. Abedin’s emails on the laptop.

Mr. Comey was not briefed in full on a plan to read the emails until last Thursday, Oct. 27. He informed Congress the next day. F.B.I. lawyers then had to obtain a second warrant to look at Ms. Abedin’s emails, which happened last weekend.

What does the Clinton Foundation have to do with the email inquiry?

Not much. The F.B.I. opened a preliminary investigation into the Clinton Foundation in 2015 after the publication of the book “Clinton Cash’’ by Peter Schweizer, a former fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution. The book asserted that some foreign entities gave money to former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation in return for State Department favors when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state. Mrs. Clinton has denied those claims.

During the investigation into the foundation, F.B.I. agents in New York wanted to take more overt steps, like conducting interviews and obtaining subpoenas. Agents had also developed two informants who they hoped could lead to additional information about the foundation’s dealings.

F.B.I. headquarters in Washington. The agency is not used to being in the middle of a political maelstrom.

Al Drago/The New York Times

But senior F.B.I. and Justice Department officials were wary of agents making any waves that could affect the election. Although the bar for opening a preliminary investigation is low — it can done on the basis of a public allegation — senior Justice and F.B.I. officials said there was not enough evidence to move the investigation forward. F.B.I. agents working on the case countered that they could not learn if a law was broken if they were not able to exhaust all investigative steps. Senior officials stood firm.

The investigation remains open but essentially dormant. Officials have told agents they can revisit the case after the election.

What’s the mood like at the F.B.I.?

Bad. The F.B.I. is not used to being in the middle of a political maelstrom. Democrats and Republicans have ripped into Mr. Comey over his handling of the new emails, and President Obama faulted him on Wednesday. Mr. Comey’s onetime boss, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., said the director was a good man who had made a terrible decision.

Agents say they will weather the political storm, but they wonder if the F.B.I.’s reputation for impartiality has been damaged. They are also wondering if Mr. Comey, who is widely admired by agents, will survive the crisis.

What do Mr. Comey’s defenders say?

They say a lot, but there are not many of them. The few people who have come forward to defend Mr. Comey have argued that because he told Congress that the investigation was completed, he was obligated to come back with any new information.


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