Comey's Clinton draft statement heavily edited to water down private email server impact
A release of documents reveals former FBI Director James Comey's draft statement on the Hillary Clinton email probe was edited several times before he went public with his findings in a way that downplays the impact of the case.
FBI documents obtained by Fox News on Thursday show that one of several edits to Comey’s original draft statement written in advance of his interview with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Comey initially wrote that Clinton and her colleagues' handling of classified information was “grossly negligent.” This was later changed to say “extremely careless,” in relation to how Clinton handled the information while she used a private email server during her tenure as the top US diplomat.
According to the Chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin), the documents also reveal that Comey emailed a draft statement to a top FBI official, clearing Clinton of any wrongdoing two months prior to his official conclusion in the case.
In an early draft of his statement, Comey said that it was “reasonably likely” that “hostile actors” gained access to Clinton's private email server. That was later altered in the final statement to say it was “possible” the hostile actors gained access, Fox News reported.
The documents also show that Comey's final statement removed a reference to the “sheer volume” of classified information discussed on Clinton's private email server, according to Fox News.
Senator Johnson referred to these same documents when he sent a letter to FBI Director Chris Wray on Thursday, inquiring about the edits to Comey’s initial draft statement.
In Johnson's letter to Wray, he said: “While the precise dates of the edits and identities of the editors are not apparent from the documents, the edits appear to change the tone and substance of Director Comey’s statement in at least three respects.”
Johnson also mentioned to Wray the legal ramifications related to the edits of Comey’s draft statement in the Clinton probe.
The language Comey used when he determined gross negligence “could be read as a finding of criminality in Secretary Clinton’s handling of classified material,” Johnson said, according to Fox News. “The edited statement deleted the reference to gross negligence – a legal threshold for mishandling classified material – and instead replaced it with an exculpatory sentence.”
Further edits showed that references to specific potential violations of statutes on “gross negligence” regarding classified information and “misdemeanor handling,” had also been removed before Comey’s final statement concluding the investigation.
Johnson noted “repeated edits to reduce Secretary Clinton’s culpability in mishandling classified information.”
Johnson also raised concerns to Wray about text messages from 2016, showing discontent for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, exchanged between former FBI agent, Peter Strzok, who had worked on both Comey’s Clinton probe, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged ties between Trump and Russia, and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Page had also worked on both Mueller and Comey’s probes.
Strzok was the individual who changed the language in Comey’s draft statement from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless,” Fox News reported.
Strzok exchanged the messages with Page while he was working on the Mueller probe, but it should be noted that at the time of the text exchange, Page was not working on Mueller’s probe with Strzok.
“This effort, seen in light of the personal animus toward then-candidate Trump by senior FBI agents leading the Clinton investigation and their apparent desire to create an ‘insurance policy’ against Mr. Trump’s election, raise profound questions about the FBI’s role and possible interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Johnson wrote, according to Fox News.
The White House deputy press secretary Hogan Gidley said Friday morning that the edits done to Comey’s statement are “deeply troubling” and show “extreme bias against this president.”
The Republican senator also mentioned the time frame in which the edits were made to Comey’s statement.
“In summary, the edits to Director Comey’s public statement, made months prior to the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation of Secretary Clinton’s conduct, had a significant impact on the FBI’s public evaluation of the implications of her actions,” according to Fox News.
Johnson also mentioned to Wray his claim that Comey emailed a draft statement to a top FBI official, clearing Clinton of criminal wrongdoing in May of 2016, two months ahead of the completion of two dozen interviews the FBI had to finish in relation to the probe, including with Clinton herself.
The documents show that the at the top of Comey’s May 2016 email, he wrote: “I’ve been trying to imagine what it would look like if I decided to do an FBI only press event to close out our work and hand the matter to the DOJ,” according to Fox News.
The former FBI director continued the email: “To help shape our discussions of whether that, or something different, makes sense, I have spent some time crafting what I would say, which follows. In my imagination, I don’t see me taking any questions. Here is what it might look like.”
The Johnson-led Senate Homeland Security Committee is overseeing the Justice Department's Office of Special Counsel's probe into whether Comey violated the Hatch Act with his July 2016 statement. The purpose of the Hatch Act is to limit the political activities of federal employees.