The Investigation Into the FBI's Handling of the Clinton Email Probe Explained

PHOTO: FBI Director James Comey testifies before the House Judiciary Committee on "Oversight of the Federal Bureau of Investigation" in Washington, DC, October 22, 2015. PlayJim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
WATCH FBI's Handling of Clinton Email Investigation Under Review

The investigation into the FBI’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe will focus on whether FBI Director James Comey broke Department of Justice “policies and procedures” by going public with details of the Clinton case, and announcing publicly that the investigation was being re-opened just days before the presidential election, according to the DOJ Inspector General.

You might say it’s an investigation of the investigation, and it is going to dig into whether politics, or any “improper considerations" influenced decisions during the course of the investigation.

Why the Investigation?

The DOJ Inspector General probe comes after a torrent of criticism about Comey’s actions during the Clinton email investigation, beginning with a July 5, 2016, news conference in which he announced that Hillary Clinton would not be prosecuted for using a private server for State Department business.

The fact that he made the announcement clearing Clinton was not considered controversial. However, the FBI director spent much of the news conference criticizing the former secretary of state and her team, saying, “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton intended to violate laws ... they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Stephen Saltzburg, a former assistant deputy attorney general, said Comey’s criticisms of the subject of a closed investigation were unusual and “inappropriate.”

Then just 11 days before the election, Comey sent a letter to Congress, saying that more emails had been found, and the FBI was reopening the Clinton investigation. The story of the renewed investigation dominated the headlines in the days just before the election. Just two days before the nation voted, Comey announced that the emails contained no damaging information, and he closed the case for a second time.

The Clinton campaign claims Comey’s actions in part cost her the election, and Saltzburg believes Comey may have violated DOJ policy.

“DOJ is not supposed to do anything close to an election with respect to releasing information, or even bringing charges, that might, in fact, effect the election,” Saltzburg said.

“Department policy has always been don’t do it close to an election," said Saltzburg, who served under Republican administrations. "You don’t want anyone to think the Department is acting to influence the election.”

The Inspector General will also investigate any possible leaks surrounding the case, and see whether the FBI was in violation of DOJ rules by releasing documents relating to a closed investigation of former President Bill Clinton on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2016. The IG’s announcement also noted that it will look into allegations that the department’s assistant attorney general for legislative affairs, “improperly disclosed non-public information to the Clinton campaign and/or should have been recused from participating in certain matters.”

James Comey and Loretta Lynch's Responses

In a statement in response to the IG's announcement of an investigation, Comey said, "I am grateful to the Department of Justice's IG for taking on this review. He is professional and independent and the FBI will cooperate fully with him and his office. I hope very much he is able to share his conclusions and observations with the public because everyone will benefit from thoughtful evaluation and transparency regarding this matter."

Comey was left to make the decisions on the Clinton case because Attorney General Loretta Lynch recused herself after it was discovered she had met with former President Bill Clinton during the investigation. Both said they did not discuss the email case, but Lynch recused herself, saying she did not want to create the appearance of a conflict.

Today, Lynch was asked by ABC News if she still had confidence in the FBI director.

“Well, as you know, our IG is going to look at that. They are going to do an independent, thorough review and everyone is going to cooperate thoroughly with that," Lynch said. "So, we don’t comment further on that. I certainly think that if you look at the tremendous work the FBI has done across the country ... you will see we have confidence in them.”

What Trump May Do

One question left unanswered today is whether Trump and his attorney general could shut down the IG’s investigation after Trump takes office.

The short answer is yes.

While there is a long-standing tradition of the inspector general being an independent actor who continues to serve regardless of which party wins the White House, the IG is a political appointee, and political appointees can be fired by the president.

So far, the Trump team has not commented on what actions, if any, the president-elect may take regarding the IG’s investigation.