On Thursday July 7, FBI Director James Comey participated in a four-and-a-half-hour hearing with the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, following Comey’s announcement on Tuesday July 5 that the FBI was recommending to the Department of Justice that no criminal indictment be pursued against Democratic 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her use of a “personal email system” during her tenure as Secretary of State.
In his briefing, Comey stated,” 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.” He further commented that, “Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” He concluded by recommending to the Department of Justice “that no charges are appropriate in this case.”
The House Oversight Committee’s hearing with FBI Director James Comey was an attempt to better understand how Comey could arrive at a recommendation that “no charges are appropriate” in a situation where the FBI had tangible evidence that Clinton and her staff misused classified information. Much of the testimony centered on the question of whether Clinton knowingly mishandled classified information or did it out of ignorance. Here are my key take-aways from the hearing:
1. Hillary Clinton has once again lied to the American public.
Hillary Clinton has repeatedly stated over the past year that she has never sent nor received classified information over the email system housed in her Chappaqua home. Comey’s testimony revealed that at least 110 emails were classified. Hillary Clinton also lied about deleting emails, the number of email devices she was using and about sharing classified information with staff members who did not have clearance for classified information.
2. Hillary Clinton’s sophistication is called into question
Throughout the interview, there were several instances where Hillary Clinton’s knowledge and understanding of classified information and markings were called into question. During an exchange where Representative Mark Meadows (R-NC) inquired as to whether Clinton was not “sophisticated enough to understand a classified marking”, Comey responded by saying that he thought it was possible that Clinton may not recognize a (c) when she saw it in the body of an email. Meadows pressed the issue inquiring as to whether a reasonable person would assume that someone of Clinton’s stature would understand these markings. Again Comey conceded with a caveat that “this is a conclusion a reasonable person would draw… it may not be accurate.”
A similar dialogue took place between Representative Ron De Santis (R-Florida) and Comey. When Comey commented that “I don’t think that our investigation established she was actually particularly sophisticated with respect to classified information and the levels and treatment,” DeSantis asked, “Isn’t she an original classification authority though?”, to which Comey responded, “Yes, Sir, yes, Sir.” DeSantis cried out, “Good grief” and yielded back his time. Again, these exchanges underscore how difficult it is for the American public to fathom that a woman who was a lawyer, a first lady, a U.S. senator from New York and the Secretary of State would not be sophisticated enough to understand classified document markings. It goes back to the same question. Extreme carelessness vs. gross negligence. Either she knew she was doing something wrong with setting up the private email server in her home and the subsequent email transactions or she didn’t. Which is worse, a dishonest presidential candidate or an ignorant one?
3. Double justice system and the question of precedent
During the hearing, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the Chair of the House Oversight Committee asked Comey what the consequences would be “if Hillary Clinton or anybody had worked at the FBI under this fact pattern.” Comey responded that there would be “a security review” and “a range of discipline could be imposed from termination to reprimand and in between, suspensions, loss of clearance.” This of course begs the question as to why Hillary Clinton is being treated differently than an FBI employee would be treated. This perception hurts Hillary Clinton in the general election against Republican nominee Donald Trump. After all, he has already stated that the system was “rigged” for “Crooked Hillary”.
During the hearing, Representative Trey Gowdy from South Carolina raised the issue that, “There’s nothing to keep a future secretary of state or president from this exact same email scheme or their staff”; and also highlighted that this precedent could be creating and reinforcing “a double-track justice system” which lets connected and high-ranking individuals like Hillary Clinton get away with policy violations for which others would be reprimanded or relieved of their positions. It also further reinforces the growing perception that the Clintons are “above the law” and have the ability to escape the legal and other consequences of their actions.
The hearing also included several attempts to demonstrate how the Clinton case differed from that of General David Petraeus who in May 2013 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information. At the time Comey was FBI Director. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland), a ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, directed Comey to delineate the differences between the two situations. Cummings made the point that Petraeus kept highly classified information in eight personal notebooks and was also caught on audiotape telling his biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell that the notebooks included information which was “highly classified”. Cummings’ commentary was clearly intended to demonstrate that there was not a similar direct statement from Clinton acknowledging that she was sending and receiving classified information on her server or sharing it with others.
4. Republicans and Democrats towed the party line.
It seemed like the Republicans and the Democrats came at the hearing from two different perspectives. While both Republicans and Democrats were complimentary of Comey and acknowledged the difficult position that he was in, the approach to the interviews with Comey conducted by Republicans varied greatly from those conducted by Democrats. Republican after Republican asked hard hitting questions, trying to get an understanding as to how the FBI could find that Hillary Clinton had misused classified information and put national security at risk through using the server for international communications, but not perceive her actions as intentional. By contrast, Democrats were throwing out softball questions such as New York Representative Carolyn Maloney asking Comey if he had integrity. Other Democrats went off topic in their questioning, most notably Rep. Lacy Clay (D-MO), who used his time to inquire as to the FBI Director’s familiarity with a white supremacist groups and the hashtag #whitegenocide. Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), scolded the entire committee for its “political theater” and then also threw in a few attacks against Donald Trump who he described as a “narcissist”. Interestingly enough, Connolly is also the Committee Member responsible for asking the question that revealed that James Comey is no longer a registered Republican.
5. There are still many unanswered questions.
Even after the exhaustive House Oversight Committee Hearing, there are still a lot of unanswered questions for congress and for the American people. On Thursday July 7, the State Department spokesperson John Kirby announced that the State Department is re-opening an internal investigation of “possible mishandling of classified information” by Hillary Clinton and her top staff.
It will be interesting to see the timing of the release of the State Department report. Will it be before or after the November election?
Image: By Federal Bureau of Investigation – http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/executives/image/director-james-b.-comey/view, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29484479