White House press secretary Josh Earnest on Monday said President Obama does not believe FBI Director James Comey was meddling in the presidential election by announcing Friday that his agency discovered new emails that may be related to its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private server.
In his daily press briefing, Earnest said Obama believes Comey “is a man of principle and good character,” and “doesn’t believe that Director Comey is intentionally trying to influence the outcome of the election.”
Earnest also said he knew little about Comey’s decision to inform Congress about the new emails, and said Comey himself would have to justify his decision in light of the impending presidential election.
“I have made clear that the White House will be scrupulous about avoiding even the appearance of political interference in prosecutorial and investigative decisions,” Earnest said. He was responding to a question about Comey’s vague letter announcing the discovery of emails that “appear to be pertinent” to the email probe, despite saying the FBI “cannot yet assess whether or not the material may be significant,” and breaking the norm of the FBI not commenting on ongoing investigations within 60 days of an election.
“I don’t have independent knowledge of how the decisions were made. I don’t know what factors were considered,” Earnest said, echoing the surprise of many, including officials in the White House and Justice Department, at Comey’s announcement.
“The fact is my lack of independent knowledge about the decision-making prevents me from weighing in,” Earnest said. “But I will neither defend nor criticize what Director Comey has decided to communicate to the public about the investigation.”
Earnest dodged a question about whether Comey had followed the “norms and traditions” which he said normally curb the FBI’s expansive authority.
“Again, think you’d have to–I know there’s been discussion about this, and by discussion I mean a lot of public reporting based on anonymous sources at the Department of Justice. There are responsibilities the Department of Justice and the FBI must fulfill,” he said.
Referring to anonymous leaks from the FBI and Department of Justice with regard to the investigation in recent days, Earnest said that, while he could not offer his view on Comey’s decision, “there are other people with the luxury of being able to opine, writing op-eds or serving as anonymous sources for reporters to weigh in with their view.”
He also said the political whirlwind surrounding the vague letter proves the danger of an overly-partisan Congress abusing its oversight authorities.
“Congress is indeed independent of the executive branch, but they are far from impartial,” he said. “Congress is made up of 535 politicians, Democrats and Republicans, and we have already seen just in the last 72 hours the kind of risk associated with communicating to them sensitive information.”
“There is one senior Republican official who previously endorsed the Republican nominee for president, who let it slip his party is considering impeaching president Clinton before she’s been elected if she’s elected. I think that’s a clear indication that congress is not at all impartial,” Earnest said, referring to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who said “there probably ought to be” impeachment hearings against Clinton if she is elected president.
This story has been updated.