Why is the FBI continuing to release documents days before the election?

The FBI said it was just following the law, but the Clinton campaign continues to accuse of it of unfair play that favors Donald Trump. 

Susan Walsh/AP
FBI Director James Comey prepares to testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2015. Mr. Comey's announcement that his bureau was reviewing new emails possibly relevant to Hillary Clinton's private email server investigation has thrust him into the public spotlight again just days before Election Day.

The FBI released on Tuesday an archive of documents from a long-closed investigation into former-President Bill Clinton, just as his wife’s presidential campaign upped the pressure on the bureau to divulge more information about its inquiries into both emails from a Hillary Clinton aide and Donald Trump’s ties to Russians.

The documents the bureau released the week before the election were part of an investigation it closed in 2005 concerning Mr. Clinton’s presidential pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich. The bureau said it released the heavily redacted 129 pages in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act.

The bureau and the Justice Department have had a longstanding policy to not do anything to influence an election. But the bureau’s discovery of emails on the Clinton aide’s computer forced it and its director, James Comey, between a rock and a hard place, as the Christian Science Monitor’s Mark Sappenfield wrote:

What if, after weeks or months of review, the FBI eventually finds nothing at all wrong with the emails – yet they dramatically damage Clinton, who currently holds a steady lead, according to most polls?

Comey risks changing the course of an enormously consequential election for nothing.

Yet, what if he chose to wait and not disrupt the election at a crucial time – only for his investigation to find criminal wrongdoing by a woman who was now the president of the United States?

He would risk very real charges of political conspiracy in an election season that has been rife with them. 

It appears Mr. Comey and the FBI have chosen the former route. When asked by the Associated Press why it released the documents on Tuesday, it said that under the law, documents requested three or more times are made public "shortly after they are processed." The processing, it continued, is on a "first in, first out basis."

The newly released documents pertain to a federal investigation into Mr. Clinton’s pardon at the end of his administration of Mr. Rich. Rich was indicated in 1983, evaded prosecution in Switzerland, and died in 2013. The files briefly cite the Clinton Foundation in connection with a larger donation in support of Clinton’s presidential library. The bureau appeared to be interested in a New York dinner in which the Rich pardon may have been discussed. But the investigation did not lead to federal charges, and the case was closed in 2005.

Still, the Hillary for America campaign has questioned the timing of the release.

"Absent a [Freedom of Information Act] deadline, this is odd," Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted. "Will FBI be posting docs on Trumps’ housing discrimination in the 70s?"

Mr. Fallon was referencing media reports of a 1973 federal housing discrimination lawsuit against Mr. Trump that the now-Republican presidential candidate later settled.

Fallon’s criticism of the bureau’s actions on Tuesday come as the Clinton campaign is on the defense about a letter Comey sent to Congress on Friday in which he wrote that the bureau has discovered a new batch of Clinton emails on a device aide Huma Abedin shared with her estranged husband, former Congressman Anthony Weiner. The FBI is taking steps to "determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation," wrote Comey.

The Clinton campaign responded by accusing the bureau of unfairly publicizing its inquiry into Clinton’s email practices while not revealing its probes into Trump. The FBI opened a preliminary inquiry into allegations Trump or his associates might have had dealings with Russian people or business under US or international sanctions. The bureau found no evidence to warrant a full investigation, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.

As the investigation has given Trump and Republicans new fodder to attack Clinton, some experts say the bureau’s actions could put Clinton into a position she likes best – back against the wall.

"There is something to be said about Hillary Clinton as a fighter," Mo Elleithee, who worked on Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign, told the Associated Press. Mr. Elleithee said Clinton's performance improved substantially after she slipped behind in the Democratic primary eight years ago. When faced with a challenge, Clinton tends to "kick it into a different gear and she starts humming," he said.

Of course, Clinton lost to President Obama. But this time around, she retains a slight lead in the polls over Trump six days before the presidential election on Nov. 8.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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