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Friday, 5 June 2020

The untold story of how a lone FBI agent forced the agency to reopen its investigation into Hillary Clinton days before her election loss to Trump


Two days after the FBI received the Steele dossier, on September 21, the London tabloid Daily Mail ran a front-page "exclusive":
"Anthony Weiner carried on a months-long online sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl during which she claims he asked her to dress up in 'school-girl' outfits for him on a video messaging application and pressed her to engage in 'rape fantasies,' DailyMail.com can exclusively report.
"The girl, whose name is being withheld by DailyMail.com because she is a minor, said the online relationship began last January while she was a high school sophomore and before Weiner's wife, Hillary Clinton's aide Huma Abedin, announced she was ending their marriage.
"Weiner was aware that the girl was underage, according to DailyMail.com interviews with the girl and her father, as well as a cache of online messages."
In just three paragraphs, the British tabloid had laid out all the elements of a crime defined by New York Penal Law 235: disseminating indecent materials to minors. Because it involved a minor, this incident was exponentially more threatening to Weiner than his prior much-publicized sexual escapades, which had ended his once-promising career in Congress, shattered his 2013 run for New York City mayor, and — after he sent lurid photos while in bed with his 4-year-old son — finally caused Huma Abedin to leave him and file for divorce.
Through it all Clinton had loyally stood by her top aide. They were so close that Clinton referred to Abedin as a "second daughter." Bill Clinton officiated at her 2010 marriage to Weiner, then an up-and-coming Democratic congressman. Clinton had firmly rebuffed suggestions to distance herself from Abedin as the Weiner scandals mounted and Abedin loyally and painfully stood by her husband. Abedin was vice-chair of Clinton's campaign and by the candidate's side at a Hamptons fund-raiser when the Daily Mail story broke.
As The New York Times noted, Weiner's behavior "threatens to remind voters about the troubles in the Clintons' own marriage over the decades, including Mrs. Clinton's much-debated decision to remain with then-President Bill Clinton after revelations of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Ms. Abedin's choice to separate from her husband evokes the debates that erupted over Mrs. Clinton's handling of the Lewinsky affair, a scandal her campaign wants left in the past."
In what would prove to be a spectacular miscalculation, The Times reported that Clinton's advisers "were confident Mr. Weiner's actions would not hurt Mrs. Clinton."
Following the Daily Mail article, the New York field office and the Manhattan US attorney, Preet Bharara, took the lead in the Weiner investigation. On September 26, the government asked for and was granted a search warrant and seized Weiner's iPhone, iPad, and laptop computer the same day. One of the FBI's digital extraction technicians noticed within hours that there were about 340,000 emails on the laptop. Among the domain addresses were Yahoo.com, State.gov, Clintonfoundation.org, Clintonemail.com, and Hillaryclinton.com. "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?" the technician wondered.
At the technician's request, the computer was looked at by another agent, who described it as an "oh shit" moment and agreed they needed to report the discovery "up the chain" immediately. They also drafted an email that began, "Just putting this on the record because of the optics of the case."
Two days later, on September 28, the New York FBI office's assistant director, Bill Sweeney, relayed news of the discovery during a weekly teleconference with FBI headquarters in Washington. Ordinarily, then-FBI Director James Comey would have been presiding, but he was testifying that afternoon on Capitol Hill, so Andrew McCabe, Comey's deputy, handled it. One participant said that Sweeney's revelation was like "dropping a bomb in the middle of the meeting" and stated that "everybody realized the significance of this, like, potential trove of information." He said Sweeney "very much emphasized the significance of what he thought they had there."
But McCabe later had only a hazy memory of Sweeney's remarks. Later that day, he told Comey, in passing, "Hey, Boss, I just want you to know that the criminal squad in New York has got Anthony Weiner's laptop and I think it may have some connect to Midyear"
the name of the team of Justice Department officials investigating Clinton's emails — or something to that effect, and he might have mentioned Abedin. But McCabe's comments didn't sink in. Comey didn't make the connection that Weiner was married to Abedin or that Clinton's emails had been found on his laptop.
Peter Strzok, the FBI agent in charge of the Clinton email investigation, texted Lisa Page, a bureau attorney, that evening: "Got called up to Andy's earlier ... hundreds of thousands of emails turned over by Weiner's atty to sdny, includes a ton of material from spouse. Sending team up tomorrow to review ... this will never end." Strzok even considered going himself: "So I kinda want to go up to NY tomorrow, coordinate this."
A team was dispatched but didn't get very far. The search warrant used to seize Weiner's laptop covered only child pornography and disseminating indecent materials — not Hillary Clinton's emails. The US attorney's office had told the agents they couldn't open and read the Clinton-Abedin emails without another search warrant, though it was OK to read the headers.
At this juncture, the New York agents thought the Midyear team in Washington was going to ask for guidance about getting a search warrant and get back to them. Strzok and others on the Midyear team were under the impression that agents in the New York office would continue processing the laptop and get back to them with more information about what was on it, a task that could easily take months — in "January, February 2017, whenever it gets done," according to Strzok. Others, too, thought the legal and technical issues involved in gaining access to the emails would take months to resolve, well after the coming election.
Any sense of urgency drained away. While sporadic discussions of the Weiner laptop continued within lower ranks at FBI headquarters, it wasn't even on Comey's radar. Strzok got back to the all-consuming task of the Russia investigation.
McCabe alerted the Justice Department about the Weiner laptop the first week in October and told a Justice Department lawyer he was sending an agent to review the emails. But both thought they would mostly be duplicates of what they'd already seen, given how thorough the investigation had been.
That was as far as it got. A few days later, on October 7, The Washington Post published a video showing Donald Trump on his way to tape a 2005 episode of "Access Hollywood" in which Trump boasted to the host Billy Bush: "I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything." In the midst of the resulting furor, WikiLeaks released another batch of thousands of emails hacked from a Gmail account belonging to John Podesta, chair of the Clinton campaign. The Department of Homeland Security and the director of national intelligence issued a joint statement blaming the hack on Russia, noting that "only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these activities."
Two days later, FBI agents contacted Podesta, who told reporters on Clinton's campaign plane that he'd spoken with the FBI that weekend. "Russian interference in this election and apparently on behalf of Trump is, I think, of the utmost concern to all Americans, whether you're a Democrat or independent or Republican," Podesta said. And he suggested the Trump campaign might have been in on the leaks, noting that the Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone had boasted about his ties to the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. "So I think it's a reasonable assumption to — or at least a reasonable conclusion — that Mr. Stone had advance warning and the Trump campaign had advance warning about what Assange was going to do," Podesta said. He also cited Trump's perplexing "bromance" with Russian President Vladimir Putin and added that Trump's foreign policy positions "are more consistent with Russian foreign policy than with US foreign policy."
Podesta had just publicly revealed, perhaps inadvertently, the closely guarded secret that the FBI was indeed investigating Russian election interference and ties to the Trump campaign. 

The Weiner laptop investigation might have languished indefinitely but for the determined efforts of the New York case agent who examined the laptop's contents. (The FBI declined to identify the New York case agent who discovered the Clinton emails on Weiner's laptop and agitated to pursue the investigation.) As the sole proprietor of what he now knew to be hundreds of thousands of emails with Clinton's name on them, and the election just a month away, he was, as he later put it, "a little scared." Even though "I'm not political" and "I don't care who wins this election," he feared the revelation that the bureau sat on such a trove "is going to make us look really, really horrible."
As he put it, "Something was going to come crashing down." Even though "I didn't work the Hillary Clinton matter. My understanding at the time was I am telling you people I have private Hillary Clinton emails, number one, and BlackBerry messages, number two. I'm telling you that we have potentially ten times the volume that Director Comey said we had on the record. Why isn't anybody here?" He also worried that Comey hadn't been informed. "As a big admirer of the guy, and I think he's a straight shooter, I felt like he needed to know that we got this. And I didn't know if he did."
Feeling he "had nowhere else to turn," on October 19 he went outside the normal chain of command and met with two prosecutors from the Manhattan US attorney's office. He figured if they "got the attention of Preet Bharara, maybe they'd kick some of these lazy FBI folks in the butt and get them moving.
The prosecutors got the sense that the agent was stressed and worried he'd be blamed if nothing more were done and the existence of the emails became public. He worried that "somebody was not acting appropriately, somebody was trying to bury this." Concerned that the agent might "act out," they briefed Bharara. Although the Clinton email investigation lay outside the Southern District's jurisdiction, Bharara had someone get in touch with George Toscas, the deputy attorney general overseeing the Clinton investigation, in case "something had fallen through the cracks."
The news that his message had gotten through came as a relief to the agent. "Not to sound sappy, but I appreciate you guys understanding how uneasy I felt about the situation," he said in an October 21 email to the Southern District prosecutors he'd met with. And he wrote to his boss and another agent in New York: The prosecutors "understood my concerns yesterday about the nature of the stuff I have on Weiner computer (ie, that I will be scapegoated if it comes out that the FBI had this stuff). They appreciated that I was in a tight spot and spoke to their chain of command who agreed." He now felt reassured "I did the right thing by speaking up."

Two days later, on October 23, the Wall Street Journal reporter Devlin Barrett broke the news that the Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe's political action committee had given $467,500 to the unsuccessful state senate campaign of Jill McCabe, Andrew Mccabe's wife: "Clinton Ally Aided Campaign of FBI Official's Wife."
That came as news to McCabe, who, by design, had known nothing about contributions to his wife's campaign.
The FBI issued a statement, saying McCabe played no role in the campaign and at the time had no involvement in any Clinton investigations. The article also noted that McCabe had sought ethics guidance and had followed it.
Still, that McAuliffe had given such a large sum to Jill McCabe's campaign made Comey uneasy about the appearance of any influence or conflicts. He wished McCabe had told him (unaware that McCabe hadn't known). In that case, he would have assigned someone else to oversee the email investigation — not because he thought there was an actual conflict or that McCabe had done anything improper, but because it might be used "to undercut the credibility of the institution."
Those concerns were immediately borne out: Trump promptly tweeted a link to the article, and the Republican National Committee chair, Reince Priebus, issued a statement: "Given all we know about how the corrupt Clinton machine operates, it's hard not to see this as anything other than a down payment to influence the FBI's criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server."
Rudy Giuliani jumped on the news, calling the Journal story a "shot to the solar plexus" in an appearance on "Fox & Friends." He added, "We've got a couple of surprises left."

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