WASHINGTON — Under fire from Democrats, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday it would have been “catastrophic” to keep Congress in the dark about developments in the Hillary Clinton email investigation that emerged close to Election Day.
Comey, in the most impassioned and public defense of how he handled the case, also said it made him feel “mildly nauseous” to think his actions in October might have influenced the race won by Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Clinton.
But he told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI cannot take into account how its actions might benefit or harm politicians.
“I can’t consider for a second whose political futures will be affected and in what way,” Comey said. “We have to ask ourselves what is the right thing to do and then do it.”
The persistent questions from senators, and Comey’s testimony, made clear that the FBI director’s decisions of last summer and fall continue to roil national politics.
On Tuesday, Clinton said Comey’s disclosure to Congress was partly to blame for her loss, but Trump tweeted that Comey “was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!”
Speaking at times with a raised voice, Comey said he faced two difficult decisions when agents told him they had found emails potentially connected to the Clinton case on a laptop belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who was married to close Clinton aide Huma Abedin.
The FBI obtained a warrant to search the laptop and sifted through thousands of emails, Comey said, including ones that had been forwarded to Weiner’s laptop and that contained classified information. But there was nothing found that changed the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges.
‘Catastrophic’ to keep silent
Comey said he knew it was unorthodox to alert Congress to that discovery 11 days before Americans picked a new president. But he said he decided it would have been “catastrophic” to keep silent, especially when he had testified under oath that the investigation had been concluded.
“I sat there that morning and could not see a door labeled, ‘No action here,’” Comey said.
Later in the hearing, under questioning from Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Comey maintained that he did not treat disclosures about investigations into Clinton’s emails differently than potential connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The FBI began a counterintelligence investigation last July into whether Russia had coordinated with Trump campaign associates to influence the American election, but he did not disclose that until a hearing in March, after Trump had been elected and taken office.
That prompted Democrats to complain of a double-standard in the way the investigations were treated.
But Comey said that other than confirming the Clinton investigation existed, he did not discuss it until after it concluded last year. And he said the FBI does not expect to have anything to say about the Russia investigation until that one was over.
The FBI director also said Russia is still involved in American politics.
Comey agreed that Russia provides safe haven for cyber criminals. When asked by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, Comey said that he does believe Russia is still involved in American politics.
The questions came as the South Carolina lawmaker pressed Comey on the dangers that Russia poses and could pose both to the U.S. and other nations.
The FBI is investigating the possibility of contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia. Comey also says Russia is responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee.
Trump has raised doubts about those assertions. Russian officials also have denied involvement.
Comey also condemned the secret-spilling website WikiLeaks and says he doesn’t see its work as similar to journalism.
He said he believes a large portion of WikiLeaks’ work “has nothing to do with legitimate newsgathering.” He likened what the website does to “intelligence porn.”
Comey says he believes WikiLeaks will push out information to damage the United States. But he says responsible journalists with sensitive information will approach the FBI before publication to make sure that the news won’t put people’s lives in danger.
WikiLeaks last year published emails from Democratic email accounts that U.S. intelligence officials believe were hacked by Russia.
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange tweeted in response that Comey misled the Senate when he said WikiLeaks doesn’t inform the FBI it is about to publish sensitive information. Assange said on Twitter: “We did” about the records on CIA hacking tools and “I know he knows it.”