Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has criticized FBI Director James Comey’s revelation that investigators would be looking at new emails potentially pertinent to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while secretary of state, calling Comey’s move “incorrect” and saying it “violated long-standing Justice Department policies and tradition.”
In an op-ed published late Sunday by The Washington Post, Holder – a Democrat nominated by President Barack Obama to hold the attorney general’s post in 2009 – said he was “deeply concerned” about Comey’s disclosure. In a letter Friday, Comey informed members of Congress that the FBI had learned in a separate investigation of other emails that appeared to be “pertinent” to the probe involving Clinton’s email server.
While the content of the emails is unknown, they reportedly were discovered during a federal investigation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner over allegations he sent sexually explicit messages to an underage girl. Weiner is the estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
Comey’s decision to write “a vague letter to Congress” “ran counter to guidance that I put in place four years ago laying out the proper way to conduct investigations during an election season. That guidance, which reinforced established policy, is still in effect and applies to the entire Justice Department – including the FBI,” Holder wrote.
Holder, replaced by Obama nominee Loretta Lynch as attorney general last year, also harshly criticized Comey’s decision to hold a press conference in July to discuss the findings of the FBI probe into Clinton’s server and whether she improperly handled classified information.
The FBI chief then said investigators would not recommend pursuing criminal charges against Clinton, but that there was evidence she and her aides had been “extremely careless.”
Holder said instead of publicly sharing the information, Comey should have made a private recommendation to the attorney general.
“That was a stunning breach of protocol. It may set a dangerous precedent for future investigations. It was wrong,” Holder said.
Holder also took great pains to express his respect for Comey, calling him “a man of integrity and honor.”
“But good men make mistakes,” Holder said. “In this instance, he has committed a serious error with potentially severe implications. It is incumbent upon him – or the leadership of the department – to dispel the uncertainty he has created before Election Day. It is up to the director to correct his mistake – not for the sake of a political candidate or campaign but in order to protect our system of justice and best serve the American people.”
Holder’s op-ed follows Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., telling Comey in a scathing letter he may have violated federal law, and Holder joining dozens of former federal prosecutors in signing a separate missive critical of Comey’s actions.
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, a Republican nominee of President George W. Bush, also knocked Comey on Monday, telling CNN Comey made an “error in judgment” and that delaying the announcement would have given voters “the opportunity to vote on Election Day without information that may in fact be incomplete or untrue.” And ex-attorney general Michael Mukasey – a Republican who succeeded Gonzales – wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that Comey acted outside his authority back in July, while also acceding “to the apparent wish of President Obama that no charges be brought.”
“He’s in a tough spot, and he’s the one who will be in a position to defend his actions in the face of significant criticism from a variety of legal experts, including individuals who served in senior Department of Justice positions in administrations that were led by presidents in both parties,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters Monday. Earnest said he would “neither defend nor criticize” Comey’s action.
In a letter to FBI employees explaining his decision, Comey said he felt “an obligation” to notify lawmakers of the potentially pertinent emails because he previously had testified that the Clinton server probe was complete. According to The Washington Post, officials familiar with Comey’s decision said he also believed news of the Weiner-related emails would come out in the media, sparking allegations that authorities had tried to keep them under wraps as part of a cover-up.
In 2014, Holder deployed a similar defense of federal prosecutors alleging that then-D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray had knowledge of an illegal fundraising effort aimed at helping Gray win the office in 2010. The disclosure, implicating the mayor in the scheme, came weeks before a Democratic primary election. Gray would go on to lose that election, but prosecutors ultimately brought no charges against him. Critics point to the law enforcement disclosure as the key reason for his defeat.
“If you look at it in reverse, if the Justice Department had put it under seal and waited until after the election and then revealed the information, we would have been charged with withholding information that would have been relevant to the election,” Holder told House lawmakers during a Judiciary Committee hearing, according to The Huffington Post.
“So what we do is simply bring cases when they are ready to go, and sometimes it is awkward, but it is the best way to do these things irrespective of what the fallout is going to be,” he said.
Updated on Oct. 31, 2016: This article has been updated to include additional information.