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Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., jumped to conclusions about former President Barack Obama’s involvement in the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server following the release of a tranche of FBI messages.
In one of the texts messages released in a report of the FBI’s handling of the Clinton emails by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., FBI lawyer Lisa Page told Peter Strzok, an FBI agent with whom she was romantically involved, that Obama wanted "to know everything we’re doing," on Sept. 1, 2016.
The unspecified subject Obama wanted to know everything about spurred Republican speculation.
Gaetz said in a since-deleted tweet that the message referenced the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email address while serving as secretary of state.
"On September 2, 2016, while the FBI was actively investigating @HillaryClinton’s use of a private email server, #Page said that ‘POTUS wants to know everything we’re doing.’ This assertion raises alarming questions about the extent of Obama’s involvement with FBI investigations."
But the Wall Street Journal reported that associates of Strzok and Page said the texts were about Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election, which they were then investigating.
We won’t speculate as to whether the Clinton emails were the subject of this text message. Instead, we were curious about the timeline of events at the FBI. Was the bureau "actively investigating" Clinton’s emails on Sept. 2, 2016, as Gaetz said? We found no indication of that.
Gaetz’s office did not respond to our initial requests for evidence, and then deleted the tweet. They later told us they had been referring to the State Department, not the FBI. The FBI declined to comment, and the State Department did not respond to our request for comment.
On July 5, 2016, then-FBI director James Comey announced of the Clinton email server investigation that, "After a tremendous amount of work over the last year, the FBI is completing its investigation and referring the case to the Department of Justice for a prosecutive decision."
"Although the Department of Justice makes final decisions on matters like this, we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate in this case," Comey said.
On Oct. 28, 2016, Comey made an unexpected announcement in a letter to several members of Congress.
"In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation," Comey wrote. "I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation."
Comey was referring to messages found on Anthony Weiner’s seized computer, where investigators were looking into whether Weiner had committed a crime by sexting a teenage girl.
They discovered that Huma Abedin, Clinton’s top aide and Weiner’s wife, also used that laptop to communicate with Clinton, so they decided to investigate whether there was any classified information in them.
Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who chaired the House Committee on Oversight in 2016, tweeted, "FBI Dir just informed me, ‘The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.’ Case reopened."
But Comey never used the word reopened because, as NBC News’ Pete Williams reported, the case had never been officially closed. But that doesn’t mean the case was being actively investigated.
"FBI officials told us that as a technical matter, it had not been closed," Williams told PolitiFact. "As I recall, some of the evidence had yet to be returned to the owners, for example, and there were other administrative issues. It would have been incorrect, we were told at the time, to say that the investigation had been ‘closed,’ which is something of a term of art at the FBI."
"But that is not to say that the email matter was still being ‘actively investigated’ when the emails were discovered," Williams added. "Just because it wasn’t formally closed didn’t mean it was being actively investigated. It wasn’t an either/or."
"Comey’s July announcement would mean that whatever those agents were doing, it was not working towards making the decision of whether or not to file charges," said Artin Afkhami, an associate editor at Just Security.
"The key point here, in other words, is not that Comey is ‘reopening’ a closed matter because of some bombshell," Benjamin Wittes, editor in chief of Lawfare, wrote at the time. "It is that he is amending his public testimony to Congress that the FBI is done while the bureau examines new material that may or may not have implications for investigative conclusions previously reached."
Gaetz’s office told us that after taking a closer look at our request for evidence, they deleted the tweet and corrected the statement to say the State Department, not the FBI, had been actively investigating the server on Sept. 2, 2016.
In that case, Gaetz’s office would be correct. The State Department reopened their investigation of Clinton’s emails on July 7, 2016, following a pause as the FBI investigated. We found no evidence they had finished their investigation at the time of the text message.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said it would not make sense for FBI agents to have been texting about the State Department investigation.
"The State Department and the FBI conduct separate investigations," Mariotti said. "The State Department has different personnel, different records and different reports. In other words, if an agent was assigned to the State Department investigation, their evidence and reports would be distinct from the FBI."
We found no evidence the FBI was actively investigating Clinton’s server on Sept. 2, 2016.
The case had not been officially closed, but reporting indicates the investigation had ceased until the Weiner emails were discovered through a separate FBI investigation.
Gaetz’s office since deleted the tweet and said they meant the State Department, not the FBI. The State Department investigation was active then, but it would have been strange for FBI agents to discuss a separate agency’s investigation.
We rate this statement False.
Matt Gaetz, Tweet, Feb. 7, 2018
Email interview with Jillian Lanewyant, Gaetz communication director, Feb. 11, 2018
Email interview with Steven Aftergood, director of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, Feb. 11, 2018
Email interview with Pete Williams, NBC News justice correspondent, Feb. 10, 2018
Phone interview with Artin Afkhami, associate editor of Just Security, Feb. 9, 2018
Phone interview with Renato Mariotti, former federal prosecutor, Feb. 12, 2018
Email interview with Asha Rangappa, senior lecturer at the Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and former Special Agent in the New York Division of the FBI, Feb. 9, 2018
Email interview with Mark Osler, law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, Feb. 8, 2018
The New York Times, Emails in Anthony Weiner Inquiry Jolt Hillary Clinton’s Campaign, Oct. 28, 2018
Lawfare, Memo to the Press: What Comey's Letter Does and Doesn't Mean, Oct. 28, 2018
Full Text: FBI letter announcing new Clinton review, Oct. 28, 2016
HSGAC.Senate.gov, The Clinton email scandal and the FBI's investigation of it Interim report, Feb. 7, 2018
The New Yorker, James Comey's October Surprise, Oct. 28, 2018
The Wall Street Journal, Text From 2016 Shows Obama’s Interest in FBI Employees’ Work, Feb. 7, 2018
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