The Slatest

The Most Newsworthy Part of ABC’s Comey Interview Was an Unaired Detail About His Infamous Hillary Email Letter

George Stephanopoulos and James Comey filming their interview.
George Stephanopoulos and James Comey filming their interview. Ralph Alswang/ABC via Getty Images

ABC’s highly anticipated 20/20 episode on former FBI director James Comey, which was centered on an interview Comey gave to George Stephanopoulos, aired Sunday night. Given that Comey has already spoken in detail about many of the issues that were discussed—and given that his retelling of a surreal conversation he had with Trump about the pee tape was released in advance as a promo clip—there wasn’t a lot in ABC’s broadcast that made news. But the network also released an enormous unedited transcript of Stephanopolous’ conversation with Comey, and there’s a section therein that reveals what (I think is) new information about Comey’s pre-election 2016 letter to Congress announcing that the FBI had reopened the Hillary Clinton email investigation.

The context here is that Comey and other FBI officials had decided (and announced) in July 2016 that Clinton shouldn’t be prosecuted for using a private email server to discuss classified information as secretary of state, because her case involved a relatively small amount of classified material and did not involve intentional mishandling of information, evidence of disloyalty to the U.S., or efforts to obstruct justice. As Comey explained to Stephanopoulos, prosecutors “are very unlikely to prosecute a case unless you can show the person … clearly knew they were doing something they shouldn’t do.” Later, he said that the FBI’s 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 somehow there’s an indication of her obstructing justice, the case was unlikely to be prosecuted.”

What the FBI would discover in October 2016 was that it had inadvertently located a cache of Clinton emails on her aide Huma Abedin’s computer during the unrelated investigation of Abedin’s husband Anthony Weiner for sending obscene material to a minor. The detail that Comey explained to Stephanopoulos—which he had alluded to previously but never, to my knowledge, explained at this length—is that the Abedin cache specifically included emails from the period of Clinton’s State tenure just before she set up the private server. That period would have been the exact time, Comey explained, when Clinton was most likely to have been warned not to set up a private server, because it would constitute mishandling classified material:

What [FBI investigators] told me was, “We have found, for reasons we can’t explain, hundreds of thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. And something much more important than that. Thousands of emails from Hillary Clinton’s Blackberry domain.”

She used a Blackberry for the first three months or so of her tenure as secretary of State before setting up the personal server in the basement. And the reason that matters so much is, if there was gonna be a smoking gun, where Hillary Clinton was told, “Don’t do this,” or, “This is improper,” it’s highly likely to be at the beginning.

In other words, the Abedin cache wasn’t just a random sampling of Clinton emails that weren’t expected to differ in any relevant way from the thousands that had already been reviewed, but were rather from the exact period most likely to contain explicit, actionable content that could have convinced the FBI to reverse its recommendation that she should not be prosecuted.

Of course, after review, the FBI did not find grounds to reverse its decision in the new cache, and there’s a case to be made that Clinton lost the election because of Comey’s much-ado-about-what-turned-out-to-be-nothing announcement that the investigation had been reopened. Your mileage may vary as to whether the additional context Comey explained to Stephanopoulos makes his decision more justified in retrospect, but I’m sure we can all agree that we should keep arguing about it until at least 2020!