“I should've worked harder to find a way to convey that it's more than just the ordinary mistake, but it's not criminal behavior, and find different words to describe that,” Comey said.
The former FBI director rehashed the syntax situation during his exclusive interview with ABC News’ chief anchor George Stephanopoulos ahead of the April 17 release of his book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership.”
Comey said people may occasionally “mishandle” a classified document, but he described the former secretary of state’s use of emails as “really sloppy.”
“This was over the course of four years, dozens of conversations on email about secret topics,” Comey said of Clinton’s handling of emails. “And I think eight about top secret topics…. So if I'm gonna be honest, I have to say somehow it's more than ordinary sloppiness.”
In the statement he delivered on July 5, 2016, he described her email practices as “extremely careless.” He initially considered using “gross negligence,” but told Stephanopoulos that was a “lawyer term.”
“My staff convinced me that that's just gonna confuse all kinds of people, if you start talking about statutes and what the words mean,” he said. “What's a colloquial way to explain it? And elsewhere in my statement I had said ‘extremely careless.’ And so they said, ‘Just use that.’ And so that's what I went with.”
He said that he would not use the words “extreme carelessness” if he were to do it again.
“I don't know what it would be, sitting here. [I'd] find some other way to convey, 'cause I wanted to be honest and transparent. This wasn't your ordinary bureaucrat who just mishandles one document. This was something more than that. But not something that anybody would prosecute,” Comey said.
He said that while he regrets some of the language, he stands by his view of the level of seriousness involved.
“Hillary Clinton's conduct on that personal email server was extremely careless. It just was. And if I wasn't honest about that, how am I achieving the goal of showing the American people this is your justice system working in the right way?” he told Stephanopoulos.
Taking a page from American Idol, to his detriment
In addition to taking criticism from varying sides of the political aisle, he also received flak from his family after the July 5 news conference.
He told Stephanopoulos that his children told him, “You Seacrest-ed it, dad.”
“They explained to me was a reference to Ryan Seacrest, the TV host, who I guess will frequently say -- he's about to announce a result and then say, ‘But first, this commercial,’” Comey said. “And what they meant was I made people wait till the very end to say what the conclusion was we were reaching, when folks wanted to hear that at the beginning. And I actually think that's fair feedback.”
“I think that's an example of my ego sneaking through. That I thought I knew the best way to present this was not to give them the headline up front 'cause I thought then they won't listen to the rest of it,” Comey said.
In retrospect, Comey apologized for how he handled some of the communication in relation to the investigation.
“I'm sorry that [I] ‘Seacrest-ed’ the announcement. I'm sorry that I caused all kinds of confusion and pain with the way I described her conduct that led people into all kinds of side roads,” he said of Clinton. “I'm deeply sorry that I was involved at all, but that's something I can't avoid,” he said.
“And I'm sorry there wasn't an opportunity, especially with the second one, to explain more,” he continued, referring to the Oct. 28 letter to Congress in which he announced the reopening of the investigation.
Countering calls for a grand jury and putting Clinton under oath
Two popular criticisms that were used by Donald Trump and others were that Clinton should have been brought in front of a grand jury or at least put under oath during her questioning. Comey told Stephanopoulos that he understands why people ask that, but still thinks the way it was handled was more conducive to finding the answers they needed.
“Most people haven't been in front of a grand jury. We would prefer with a subject of an investigation to do an informal interview. Lot more flexibility there. You can bring a lot more people and have a lot more people involved in the questioning. And it offers us an opportunity in a less formal setting to poke at someone,” Comey said.
He also noted that while much emphasis is put on the desire for someone to be formally under oath, he said that wasn’t needed.
“It's still a crime to lie to the FBI and federal prosecutors, whether or not you're under oath. It doesn't matter. If you knowingly tell a false statement to the FBI, as Martha Stewart did, as David Petraeus did, as so many others have, you will be prosecuted for it. It doesn't matter whether you're under oath or not,” Comey said.
Another point of criticism that Comey dismissed was the talk of how Clinton and her team destroyed their Blackberries and acid washed the server, which some, including Trump, implied was done to cover their tracks. Comey saw it more as a standard form of digital management.
“I think a fair number of people do to make sure that if [an old Blackberry is] resold, someone doesn’t end up with your information,” Comey said.
“They used a software program to clean the server to make sure there was nothing on it, or clean laptops to make sure there's nothing on them. They did that. But as investigators, our question is, when they did that, are they trying to obstruct justice in some ways? And we could never establish … evidence that anybody who did that did it with a corrupt intent. And most importantly, any indication that Secretary Clinton knew that was happening and knew that it was an effort to obstruct justice,” he said.
No direct interaction with Hillary Clinton
In spite of the amount of talking that Comey and Clinton have done about each other during the election and in the wake of her defeat, they have never met in person, Comey says.
“I've never met her,” he said, adding that while he worked on the Whitewater case during the Clinton administration his “engagement was very limited.”
Still, Comey described Clinton to Stephanopoulos as appearing to be “a very smart person” and “very hardworking.”
He says that sometimes the perception of what the FBI director does – and part of the reason why he wouldn’t be the one to interview Clinton directly – is overhyped in pop culture.
“Only on TV is the director jumping out of helicopters and conducting interviews. My job is to make the final decisions. The pros will do the interview, the agents who had actually been investigating her and crawling all around her life for a year. And that's the way it should be,” Comey told Stephanopoulos.
Comparing the Clinton case to the Petraeus scandal
The Clinton case came to the center of public attention a year after Gen. David Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for mishandling classified information in 2015.
Comey told Stephanopoulos, however, that he didn’t believe the Clinton case was comparable.
“Well, the David Petraeus case was, to my mind, not a close case at all,” Comey said. “He was the director of the CIA. He was having a romantic relationship with a woman who was also an author, gonna write a book about him. “
Comey added that Petraeus had taken home and stored notebooks filled with government secrets, including conversations with then-President Barack Obama.
“And he had given these notebooks to this person who had neither a need to know, nor the appropriate clearance,” Comey added. “And he'd actually allowed her to photograph pages containing top secret information. And then, when the F.B.I. interviewed him about it, he lied about it.”
Petraeus, the former director of the CIA, committed obstruction of justice, Comey said.
“It was not a close call,” he told Stephanopoulos, noting that he believed Petraeus should have been prosecuted for lying to the FBI, too.
Comey said a major difference between Petraeus’ case and Clinton’s is that Comey knew from the beginning of the latter investigation that Clinton was unlikely to be prosecuted.
He said that his critics, including Trump, who say that such assertions indicate that he prejudged the case, are “wrong.” He added that investigators know what the Department of Justice will prosecute.
“They'll prosecute cases like David Petraeus'. But they're very unlikely to prosecute a case unless you can show the person, like Petraeus, clearly knew they were doing something they shouldn't do,” Comey said. “There's evidence of obstruction of justice or disloyalty to the United States.”
Clinton’s case didn’t rise to that level, Comey said.
“Sloppiness -- even extreme sloppiness -- is handled through administrative discipline,” he said. “Somebody is not prosecuted.
“And I've gone through 50 years of cases. I don't know of a case where anyone has ever been prosecuted for just being careless, even extremely careless,” he added.
“And so the investigators knew that unless they found something that was a smoking gun, where someone told Secretary Clinton, "You know, you shouldn't be doing this," or where she acknowledged it or where … there's an indication of her obstructing justice, the case was unlikely to be prosecuted,” he said.