(CNSNews.com) - President Barack Obama’s public comments about Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server – while the FBI was still investigating it -- raised “a suspicion” among some at the FBI that “there was a political bias...going on from the Executive Branch,” as one official told the Justice-Department inspector-general.
Several FBI officials told the inspector general they were concerned about "the potential impact on the investigation" after Obama told CBS's "60 Minutes" that Hillary made a "mistake" but she did not endanger national security. (See transcript of Obama's comments on CBS below.)
According to the report:
Former EAD [Executive Assistant Director] John Giacalone told the OIG, “[W]e open up criminal investigations. And you have the President of the United States saying this is just a mistake.... That’s a problem, right?”
Former AD [Assistant Director] Randy Coleman expressed the same concern, stating, “[The FBI had] a group of guys in here, professionals, that are conducting an investigation. And the...President of the United States just came out and said there’s no there there.” Coleman said that he would have expected someone in FBI or Department leadership to contact one of Obama’s national security officials, and “tell [him or her], hey knock it off.”
Michael Steinbach, the former EAD for the National Security Branch, told the OIG that the comments generated “controversy” within the FBI. Steinbach stated, “[Y]ou’re prejudging the results of an investigation before they really even have been started.... That’s...hugely problematic for us.”
Department prosecutors also were concerned. Responding to an email from Laufman about Obama’s 60 Minutes interview, Toscas stated, “Saw this. And as [one of the prosecutors] and I discussed last week, of course it had no -- and will never have any -- effect whatsoever on our work and our independent judgment.”
Prosecutor 4 told the OIG that Obama’s statement was the genesis of the FBI’s suspicions that the Department’s leadership was politically biased. This prosecutor stated, “I know that the FBI considered those [statements] inappropriate. And that it...[generated] a suspicion that there was a political bias...going on from the Executive Branch.”
According to the IG report, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she "never spoke to the President directly about it, because I never spoke to him about any case or investigation. He didn't speak to me about it, either."
Lynch also told the IG she did not think Obama should have made the comment on "60 Minutes."
"She stated, 'I don’t know where it came from. And I don’t know, I don’t know why he would have thought that either, to be honest with you. Because, to me, anyone looking at this case would have seen a national security component to it. So I don’t, I truly do not know where he got that from.'”
(Rush Limbaugh is among the conservatives who say Obama, in the interview, was signaling the DOJ and FBI which way he expected the Clinton email investigation to go.)
The OIG report noted that Obama's Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a press briefing on January 29, 2016 that DOJ prosecutors would make the decision on whether to indict Clinton, but "it does not seem to be headed in that direction." Earnest also said Clinton was not a "target" of the FBI investigation.
Melanie Newman, director of the FBI's Office of Public Affairs, said she spoke to Earnest later that same day:
"Newman said that Earnest told her that he had based his comments on what he had read in news stories, not conversations with anyone in the Department. She said that no one in the White House ever reached out to her about the Midyear (Clinton email) investigation, nor was she aware of White House staff reaching out to anyone else in the Department, noting, 'They were very, very, very careful about engaging with us on that topic.'"
The IG quoted other FBI officials as saying that the White House "never" received a briefing on the Midyear (Clinton email) investigation.
Lynch's chief of staff told the IG that Justice Department officials were "very upset" about Earnest's statement, because "as far as we knew, no one at Department of Justice had spoken to anyone in the White House about it.” Lynch's Chief of Staff told the IG, "[A]nytime there was ever any suggestion that the White House, or that DOJ had improperly done something in an investigation, or discussed something of...a political nature, she would not be happy about it.”
(Note: The IG report faults Lynch for "failure to recognize the appearance problem” created by her private meeting with President Bill Clinton at a Phoenix airport in June 2016.)
President Obama publicly commented on the Clinton email investigation a second time on April 10, 2016. This interview followed the discovery that some of Clinton's emails contained classified – in some cases, top secret -- information.
Obama told "Fox News Sunday," "I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America's national security. Now what I've also said is that -- and she has acknowledged -- that there's a carelessness, in terms of managing e-mails, that she has owned, and she recognizes.
"But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective. This is somebody who has served her country for four years as secretary of state, and did an outstanding job. And no one has suggested that in some ways, as a consequence of how she's handled e-mails, that that detracted from her excellent ability to carry out her duties."
Obama also said, "I guarantee that there is no political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, or the F.B.I.-- not just in this case, but in any case.” (See transcript below.)
Elsewhere in the report, the IG says former FBI Director Comey, in April 2016, mulled the appointment of a special counsel to take over the Clinton email investigation "because there was no way the Department could credibly finish the investigation once former Secretary Clinton was the Democratic Party nominee."
"According to Comey, (Deputy Attorney General Sally) Yates reacted to his comment about the possible need for a special counsel with concern, and that he responded, “[L]ook I’m not saying we have to do it, but the deeper we get into this summer, the more likely it’s going to be that I’ll feel that way."
Comey told the IG that his comment to Yates about appointing a special counsel was partly motivated by concerns "about the appearance of political bias in the Department.” He said these concerns were based on the overall political environment; given President Obama’s comments about the investigation, he did not think the Department leadership could credibly complete the investigation without charges."
Portion of Obama's Oct. 11, 2015 "60 Minutes" interview with Steve Kroft:
Kroft: Did you know about Hillary Clinton's use of private email server--
President Barack Obama: No.
Kroft: --while she was Secretary of State?
[The IG report, however, notes that Clinton was communicating with President Obama using her private email, including "while in the territory of a foreign adversary.]
Kroft: Do you think it posed a national security problem?
President Barack Obama: I don't think it posed a national security problem. I think that it was a mistake that she has acknowledged and-- you know, as a general proposition, when we're in these offices, we have to be more sensitive and stay as far away from the line as possible when it comes to how we handle information, how we handle our own personal data. And, you know, she made a mistake. She has acknowledged it. I do think that the way it's been ginned-up is in part because of-- in part-- because of politics. And I think she'd be the first to acknowledge that maybe she could have handled the original decision better and the disclosures more quickly. But--
Kroft: What was your reaction when you found out about it?
Obama: This is one of those issues that I think is legitimate, but the fact that for the last three months this is all that's been spoken about is an indication that we're in presidential political season.
Kroft: Do you agree with what President Clinton has said and Secretary Clinton has said, that this is not-- not that big a deal. Do you agree with that?
Obama: Well, I'm not going to comment on--
Kroft: You think it's not that big a deal--
Obama: What I think is that it is important for her to answer these questions to the satisfaction of the American public. And they can make their own judgment. I can tell you that this is not a situation in which America's national security was endangered.
Kroft: This administration has prosecuted people for having classified material on their private computers.
Obama: Well, I-- there's no doubt that there had been breaches, and these are all a matter of degree. We don't get an impression that here there was purposely efforts-- on-- in-- to hide something or to squirrel away information. But again, I'm gonna leave it to--
Kroft: If she had come to you.
Obama: I'm going to leave it to Hillary when she has an interview with you to address all these questions.
Portion of Obama's April 10, 2016 "Fox News Sunday" interview with Chris Wallace:
Wallace: Last October, you said that Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server did not jeopardize national secrets…Since then, we've learned that over 2,000 of her e-mails contained classified material, 22 of the e-mails had top-secret information. Can you still say flatly that she did not jeopardize America's secrets?
Obama: I've got to be careful because, as you know, there have been investigations, there are hearings, Congress is looking at this. And I haven't been sorting through each and every aspect of this. Here's what I know: Hillary Clinton was an outstanding Secretary of State. She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy.
And what I also know, because I handle a lot of classified information, is that there are -- there's classified, and then there's classified. There's stuff that is really top secret top secret, and there's stuff that is being presented to the president or the secretary of state, that you might not want on the transom, or going out over the wire, but is basically stuff that you could get in open source.
Wallace: But last October, you were prepared to say, "She hasn't jeopardized."
Obama: Yes. Well --
Wallace: And the question is, can you still say that?
Obama: I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America's national security. Now what I've also said is that -- and she has acknowledged -- that there's a carelessness, in terms of managing e-mails, that she has owned, and she recognizes.
But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective. This is somebody who has served her country for four years as secretary of state, and did an outstanding job. And no one has suggested that in some ways, as a consequence of how she's handled e-mails, that that detracted from her excellent ability to carry out her duties.
Wallace: Mr. President, when you say what you've just said, when Josh Earnest said, as he did -- your spokesman -- in January, the information from the Justice Department is she's not a target, some people I think are worried whether or not -- the decision whether or not, how to handle the case, will be made on political grounds, not legal grounds. Can you guarantee to the American people, can you direct the Justice Department to say, "Hillary Clinton will be treated -- as the evidence goes, she will not be in any way protected."
Obama: I can guarantee that. And I can guarantee that, not because I give Attorney General Lynch a directive, that is institutionally how we have always operated. I do not talk to the Attorney General about pending investigations. I do not talk to FBI directors about pending investigations. We have a strict line, and always have maintained it, previous president.
Wallace: So, just to button this up --
Obama: I guarantee it.
Wallace: You --
Obama: I guarantee that there is no political influence in any investigation conducted by the Justice Department, or the FBI, not just in this case, but in any case.
Wallace: And she will be --
Obama: Full stop. Period.
Wallace: And she will be treated no different --
Obama: Guaranteed. Full stop. Nobody gets treated differently when it comes to the Justice Department, because nobody is above the law.
Wallace: Even if she ends up as the Democratic nominee?
Obama: How many times do I have to say it, Chris? Guaranteed.