WASHINGTON — The FBI reignited the political controversy over Hillary Clinton’s private e-mail server on Friday just 11 days before the election, telling Congress the agency was examining a newly discovered cache of messages for evidence of mishandled classified information.
James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, told Congress that the new e-mails “appear pertinent” to the agency’s yearlong investigation, which Comey said in July had been resolved without any evidence of criminal behavior.
The new e-mails were found on at least one electronic device owned by top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, former New York representative Anthony Weiner, as part of an investigation into sexual text messages Weiner allegedly sent to a 15-year-old girl, multiple news outlets reported, citing law enforcement sources.
Comey did not specify their origin in his letter to Congress.
The announcement jolted the presidential race, which has had Clinton maintaining a healthy front-runner position.
It’s unclear what impact the news will have on the race. The substance
behind the FBI’s statement remained hazy, but it thrust back into the headlines a story line the Democratic standard-bearer thought had been largely put to rest when Comey in the summer recommended that no criminal charges be brought against Clinton.
The news provided fresh ammunition to Donald Trump’s flagging campaign as well as to numerous down-ballot Republicans struggling to keep Congress under GOP control. A gleeful Trump pounced on the news while his opponent was still in the air on the way to an Iowa campaign stop.
“They are reopening the case into her criminal and illegal conduct that threatens the security of the United States of America,” Trump told a crowd in Manchester, N.H., exaggerating the contents of the letter Comey sent to congressional leaders.
The timing promised to keep the issue dangling over Clinton’s head through Election Day unless the FBI is able to conclude its revived investigation with extraordinary speed. Comey said in his letter that he couldn’t say how long it would take to complete the additional work.
On Friday night, Clinton called on the FBI to release more information about its review.
Speaking to reporters in Des Moines, Clinton said ‘‘the American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately.’’ She urged the FBI to ‘‘explain this issue in question, whatever it is, without any delay.’’
‘‘Let’s get it out,’’ she said.
The Democratic presidential candidate said she is confident investigators won’t find information that would cause the FBI to change its decision to close the investigation.
Earlier in the day, Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, called it “extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election.”
Podesta insinuated that Comey was responding to relentless criticism by Republicans unhappy with his decision.
“This would be an irresponsible action at any time,” said Donna Brazile, the interim head of the Democratic National Committee. “The FBI has a solemn obligation to remain neutral in political matters — even the faintest appearance of using the agency’s power to influence our election is deeply troubling.”
In his letter, Comey said the new
e-mails surfaced in an unrelated case and “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” into Clinton’s personal server, which she had used during her tenure as secretary of state.
Comey said he learned of the new e-mails Thursday and “agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these e-mails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
Comey said the FBI “cannot yet assess” whether the new e-mails would be significant.
The link to the Weiner investigation was first reported by The New York Times. The Washington Post reported that there were more than 1,000
e-mails and said they included correspondence between Abedin and Clinton, citing a law enforcement official.
Abedin, who announced in the summer that she was separated from Weiner, started working for Clinton while still a student at George Washington University in the mid-1990s and has been likened to a second daughter of the former first lady. Abedin also had an e-mail address that went through her boss’s controversial home server.
In July, the FBI director provided an unusually public and detailed summary of the investigation, saying that the agency recommended no criminal charges because the investigation found no intent to break the law. Comey, nonetheless, called Clinton and her colleagues “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
The high-profile case involving a major party candidate for president had always placed Comey and the FBI in a tough spot. While Democrats and other pundits blasted Comey for essentially taking this new development public, the criticism would have been just as harsh, if not more so, had he waited until after the election to reveal the e-mails had surfaced.
House Speaker Paul Ryan issued a statement renewing a call for the director of national intelligence to cease providing Clinton with classified briefings until the FBI settled its inquiry.
‘‘She was entrusted with some of our nation’s most important secrets, and she betrayed that trust by carelessly mishandling highly classified information,’’ Ryan said. ‘‘This decision, long overdue, is the result of her reckless use of a private e-mail server and her refusal to be forthcoming with federal investigators.’’
America Rising, an outside group supporting Trump, called upon Democrats locked in tight election races from Pennsylvania to Nevada to say whether they would continue to stand by Clinton.
The PAC circulated a memo pointing to previous statements candidates had made vouching for Clinton’s trustworthiness and dismissing her e-mail scandal as an issues voters don’t care about.
“Senate Democratic candidates can’t act as a check on Hillary Clinton because they’ll never stop buying her spin,” said Jeff Bechdel, America Rising spokesman.
Democrats and other observers called foul against Comey for an unusual public announcement that could influence voters in the closing days of the 2016 election.
“I just really find it troubling that the director of the FBI would feel the need to be so public about this investigation. It just flies in the face of longstanding Justice Department precedent that you do not comment publicly on ongoing investigations,” said Gregg Bernstein, a former assistant US attorney who is now with law firm Zuckerman Spaeder.
“It opens the door to rank speculation and innuendo about what may or may not have occurred,” he said.
Bernstein said Comey had no obligation to notify Congress of the new investigative step even though he had provided sworn testimony that the investigation was concluded.
Typically, if new evidence comes to light, investigators would run the new information down, decide what it means, “and then you tell Congress ‘We’ve got more information and here’s what we’ve concluded one way or the other,’ ” Bernstein said.