White House spokesman Josh Earnest declined to give his opinion Monday on FBI Director James Comey’s decision to notify Congress that the bureau had reopened its investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server except to say that Comey was in a “tough spot.”
Comey has faced criticism for sending the letter despite a longstanding precedent of the FBI declining to comment on ongoing investigations. He said in a letter to his employees that he felt an “obligation” to tell Congress about the investigation because he “testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed.”
But Earnest signalled a bit of a departure from the Democratic line, saying Comey was a “man of integrity” and that President Barack Obama doesn’t believe he would try to influence an election.
“He’s in a tough spot,” Earnest said of Comey at a White House press briefing Monday. “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 of both parties.”
Earnest defended Comey even as he said he could not “defend or criticise” his decision to write the letter to Congress.
“What I have observed in the past is that Director Comey is a man of integrity, he’s a man of principle,” Earnest said. “He’s a man who’s well-regarded by senior officials of both parties.”
Earnest also made clear that Obama doesn’t think that Comey is trying to compromise the election.
“The president’s assessment of his integrity and his character has not changed,” Earnest said. “For example, the president doesn’t believe that Director Comey is intentionally trying to influence the outcome of an election. The president doesn’t believe that he’s secretly strategising to benefit one candidate or one political party.”
Earnest also noted that Congress isn’t exactly unbiased.
“There is a tendency to say, ‘Well, Congress is independent and they have their own independent oversight responsibilities to exercise over the Department of Justice.’ … Congress is indeed independent of the executive branch, but they’re far from impartial,” Earnest said. “Congress is made up of 535 politicians, Democrats and Republicans. And we’re already seen just in the last 72 hours the kind of risk that’s associated with communicating to them sensitive information.”
Comey announced last week that the FBI is now reviewing new documents it said were “pertinent” to its investigation of Democratic presidential nominee Clinton’s private email server. Comey had previously announced in July that the investigation was closed.
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