By: Denise Simon | Founders Code
Under former FBI Director Comey, the Bureau actually did manipulate political cases in 2016. Get set and read on.
This article is adapted from “October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election,” which will be published Sept. 22 by PublicAffairs. The book is a comprehensive, revealing, and dramatic look inside the bureau’s role in the 2016 presidential election.
Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 — The pressure had been building on Special Agent John Robertson for weeks, and the case agent tasked with investigating former congressman Anthony Weiner’s digital correspondence with a 15-year-old girl felt a growing sense of alarm that the next casualty of this crazy presidential election would be his FBI career.
At first glance, Robertson did not look much like an FBI agent. He had long brown hair he often kept pulled back. He liked to say the long hair, combined with a frequent work wardrobe of jeans, flannel shirts, and T-shirts, softened his appearance and made it easier for victims of sex crimes to talk to him.
Among colleagues, Robertson was respected as a dedicated agent who had a knack for quickly developing a rapport with witnesses and victims. But this empathy also meant that at times he became emotionally invested in his cases.
After six years working organized and white-collar crime, Robertson had switched over to the FBI New York office’s C-20 unit, investigating sex crimes against children. These cases require the mental fortitude to sift through thousands of images of grotesque and often sadistic treatment of children. For that reason, the members of the C-20 squad are essentially volunteers. Under FBI rules, agents working those cases can raise their hands at any time and ask for a new assignment.
“They do say, before you come on this squad, be ready to lose your faith in humanity,” Robertson told the television show “Inside the FBI: New York.” But he added, “There’s a sense of satisfaction that I have not had anywhere else.”
Working out of his cubicle in an office building in Lower Manhattan, Robertson was pursuing allegations in September 2016 that Weiner had sent sexually explicit messages to a teenage girl in another state. The case was another major setback for Weiner, a politician who once seemed to have a bright future after rising from New York City councilman to leading member of Congress. He had already immolated his political career with not one but two separate sexting scandals — the second as he tried to make a comeback with a run for mayor of New York. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, had worked as a close aide to Hillary Clinton for years. After the texting allegation surrounding a teenage girl surfaced, Abedin announced she was separating from Weiner.
Longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, right, and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, in 2013. Reuters
For Robertson, the Weiner case was not the problem. Or at least, it was not the biggest problem. The more pressing issue was the hundreds of thousands of Abedin’s emails, including many that were to or from Clinton, that Robertson had found on Weiner’s laptop in late September when he had gotten a search warrant to look for possible images of sex crimes involving children.
While the full role of Robertson in the investigation into Clinton’s emails is being described here for the first time, in 2018 RealClearInvestigations reported that he was the only male agent listed in court filings on the Weiner case and that Robertson worked on a New York squad investigating crimes against children.
After flagging the issue of the Abedin emails to his supervisors at the end of September, he had heard nothing.
“The crickets I was hearing was really making me uncomfortable because something was going to come down,” Robertson later told internal investigators. “Why isn’t anybody here? Like if I’m the supervisor of any [Counterintelligence] squad … and I hear about this, I’m getting on with headquarters and saying ‘hey some agent working child porn here may have [Hillary Clinton] emails. Get your ass on the phone, call [the case agent], and get a copy of that drive,’ because that’s how it should be.
And that nobody reached out to me within, like, that night, I still to this day don’t understand what the hell went wrong.”
Robertson was hoping to get some real answers or at least some assurance that the issue was not being swept under the rug. He wondered if the prosecutors on the Weiner case, Amanda Kramer and Stephanie Lake, could get the attention of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara. Robertson thought Bharara might “kick some of these lazy FBI folks in the butt and get them moving.”
When he got to Kramer’s office on Oct. 19, she asked him, “What’s up?” Sitting in a chair, Robertson exhaled deeply and began talking, his knee pumping much of the time. He had told his bosses about the Clinton emails weeks ago. Nothing had happened. Or rather, the only thing that had happened was his boss had instructed Robertson to erase his computer work station. Ostensibly, that was to ensure there was no classified material on it. But it also meant there was no record of what Robertson had done, or had not done, with the laptop information. He was starting to feel like he was going to be made a scapegoat, and he was freaking out. He had already talked to a lawyer.
The prosecutors tried to both calm him down and warn him that going outside regular channels could destroy his career.
“I’m a little scared here,” he told Kramer and Lake. “I don’t care who wins this election, but this is going to make us look really, really horrible.” Chief among his concerns was that James B. Comey’s testimony to Congress in July and September about the number of Clinton emails at issue was now outdated and incorrect.
A big admirer of Comey, Robertson worried the FBI director had not been told what was going on, and that ignorance would come back to bite not just him but the entire FBI. And Robertson feared that when that happened, he, the lowly case agent, would be blamed.
The prosecutors, Kramer and Lake, thought Robertson was getting paranoid. They also gave him a blunt warning: If Robertson decided to tell outsiders about the emails, he could be prosecuted. The legal rationale behind such a scenario is faulty at best — the fact of the emails’ existence on the laptop was not classified. If Robertson had decided to tell a lawmaker or a reporter about them, that could be a fireable offense, but probably not a criminal one.
Rather than having his doubts and suspicions quelled by the prosecutors, he left the meeting even more alarmed.
The next day, the two prosecutors on the Weiner case were still worried about their case agent, and they thought he might act out in some way. So they went to see their bosses to talk about the laptop issue and Robertson’s concerns. Joon Kim, the second-in-command at the U.S. attorney’s office, decided to bring the issue to his boss Bharara. They wanted to take some action that would satisfy Robertson, but they also did not want to meddle in the FBI’s internal chain of command. Kim thought it was not really SDNY’s business.
Bharara was generally on the same page as Kim. If the agent was so agitated, the prosecutors should do something, but Bharara was wary of getting out of his lane on a high-profile case like the Clinton emails. Bharara’s office did not have a role in that investigation; he could not just go butting into it without potentially angering a whole slew of senior officials at both the Justice Department and the FBI. Better to reach out to Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates’s office just to be safe, Bharara decided.
Robertson, however, continued to privately boil at the apparent inaction all around him. That lunch hour, he sat down at a computer and wrote an email with the subject “Letter to Self.”
In the coming years and months, FBI and Justice Department officials far higher up the chain — including Comey — would write similar memos, seeking to document sensitive conversations in real-time and protect their reputations as they dealt with investigations of political figures. Robertson’s email — which has not been previously disclosed — was the first in that pattern, revealing a crisis of conscience that would repeat and reverberate throughout the FBI, the Justice Department, and the country in ways no one could predict.
“I have very deep misgivings about the institutional response of the FBI to the congressional investigation into the Hillary Clinton email matter,” Robertson wrote, adding, “however, I am not an institutional representative of the FBI. I do not have the authority (or competence, I suppose) to make determinations of this nature.”
Robertson’s lawyer had told him to tell his boss, a supervisory special agent, and leave any further action to his superiors.
“Put simply: I don’t believe the handling of the material I have by the FBI is ethically or morally right. But my lawyer’s advice — that I simply put my SSA on notice should cover me — is that I have completed CYA, and I have done so,” Robertson wrote, using the acronym for “cover your ass.”
“Further, I was told by [Kramer] that should I ‘whistleblow,’ I will be prosecuted, and she wished to ‘talk me out of it’ should I want to whistleblow. I was informed that this material” — the Clinton emails on Weiner’s laptop — “was obtained after the subpoena was served, and the subpoena is only for materials possessed at the time of service.”
He meant a Congressional subpoena for all Clinton emails in the FBI’s possession applied only to the original tranche of roughly 30,000 she had turned over from her server.
“I consider that lawyerly bulls—,” Robertson continued. “I possess — the FBI possesses — 20 times more emails than Comey testified to (approx. 30,000 I believe. I have 600,000+). While Comey did not know at the time about what I have, people in the FBI do now, and as far as I know, we are being silent. Further, while I have no authority in my warrant to look into the emails (and I have stuck to my limited search authority), the mere existence of these emails is sufficient to give me pause when I see that we (FBI) have been served with a subpoena for all materials related to HC.
“I am not going to whistleblow.
“If I say or do nothing more, I am falling short ethically and morally. And later, I may be accused of being a Hillary Clinton hack because of the timing of all this. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am apolitical.
“But if I say something (ie, whistleblow), I will lose my reputation, my career, and risk prosecution.
“I will also be accused of being a Donald Trump hack. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.”
“If this were for a cause greater than a politicized congressional investigation that will have no bearing on the outcome of a pathetic presidential race, I would consider speaking up against legal advice. But I suppose I shall lose sleep over this, and not my career and reputation.”
At 12:44, Robertson clicked Send on the email to himself. He had put it all down in writing, should someone come looking. He was certain someone would.
Despite Robertson’s doubts, or perhaps because of them, the wheels of bureaucracy were slowly starting to spin. The following week, a senior Justice official asked the FBI what was going on with the Weiner laptop.
At FBI headquarters, senior officials, having been told a month ago about the emails on the Weiner laptop and done little or nothing, scheduled a briefing for Comey for Thursday, Oct. 27.
Comey’s second-in-command, Deputy Director Andy McCabe, was out of town but called into the meeting, but after some prodding by Jim Baker, the FBI’s top lawyer, Comey suggested McCabe should back out of the discussion.
At the time, McCabe was under pressure over a story I had written about hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations that Virginia’s Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe, had made to McCabe’s wife’s failed 2015 run for political office. FBI officials also knew I was working on a follow-up piece about internal FBI concerns over McCabe’s role in an investigation of the Clinton Foundation.
Publicly, the FBI staunchly defended McCabe, saying there was no ethical issue and he and the Bureau had done everything right. Privately, Comey and his senior advisers felt McCabe should step away from the Clinton cases.
“I don’t need you on this call,” Comey said finally to McCabe who grudgingly accepted his boss’s determination and hung up.
Once Comey and the rest of his aides got down to discussing the issue, they quickly agreed they needed to seek a search warrant for the Clinton emails on the Weiner laptop. Comey felt there was another, larger issue to be tackled: He believed he had an ethical obligation to notify Congress that the case was being reopened. That view was not shared by everyone around the table.
Over the course of two meetings on consecutive days, the group considered a number of scenarios, most of which involved the FBI being blamed in one form or another for helping elect Hillary Clinton. By their own measure, they did not discuss the other possibility — whether Trump could benefit and win, and if the FBI might be blamed for that.
By his own telling, Comey explicitly ruled out even considering whether his actions might elect Trump, arguing it would be fatal for the FBI to consider the political consequences of their actions. “Down that path lies the death of the FBI,” he declared.
It was not just Comey who thought that way. Among his senior advisers, few gave much credence to the idea that Trump had a real shot of winning the election.
That Friday, Comey sent a short letter to Congressional leaders announcing the FBI “has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.”
Pandora’s box had been opened.
As news of the reopened investigation engulfed cable news, Special Agent Robertson wrote himself another email. The fear and anger of the past month had given way to satisfaction and relief.
“Someone in the chain of command had the sense to inform the director and I am elated to have learned that he did the right thing,” Robertson wrote at 4:30 that day. “I suppose I should have had greater faith in the FBI, but this is a different matter.”