WASHINGTON (Reuters) - FBI Director James Comey was under attack from some of his own agents and members of Congress on Monday over his handling of an inquiry into Hillary Clinton’s emails, but the White House was remaining supportive, for now.
In stunning fashion, Comey has injected the Federal Bureau of Investigation, meant to be politically neutral, into the thick of the 2016 U.S. presidential race, making a series of announcements on the inquiry.
The latest was on Sunday, when he said the FBI stood by a July decision not to recommend criminal charges against the Democratic presidential candidate. Sunday’s announcement came days after Comey disclosed the FBI was examining a trove of newly discovered emails.
With the election coming on Tuesday, Comey’s statements and the FBI’s overall handling of the emails controversy has drawn fire from congressional Democrats, who criticized the agency for clouding Clinton’s campaign so close to the election, while Republicans questioned why the new inquiry ended so quickly.
FBI “field agents have felt the derivative impact of the criticism fired at Director Comey as a result of the Clinton email scandal,” said Jon Adler, president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation, which represents more than 3,500 FBI agents.
He said some agents disapprove of Comey’s handling of the investigation and think he should resign, while others support him, but do not appreciate being in a political crossfire.
A spokesman for the FBI Agents Association said the more than 13,000 active and former special agents it represents have become the victims of “unwarranted attacks” on their integrity.
“Implications that agents do not respect the confidentiality of those investigations is simply false,” said the association’s president Thomas O’Connor.
Comey has so far kept the support of President Barack Obama, who has the power to fire the FBI director. “The president views Director Comey as a man of integrity, a man of principle,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in a briefing on Monday. “The president’s views of him have not changed ... he continues to have confidence in his ability to run the FBI.”
The White House has said it will not criticize or defend Comey over his handling of the Clinton email investigation.
Charles Schumer, a close Clinton ally and expected Senate majority leader should Democrats regain control of the chamber, said on Oct. 30 that he was “appalled at what Director Comey did” and owes an explanation to Clinton and the American people.
FBI directors are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate to serve 10 years unless they are fired or resign.
Only one FBI director in recent history has been fired. William Sessions was fired by President Bill Clinton in 1993 after a report emerged about Sessions using an FBI airplane for personal travel and other unethical practices.
FBI Director Louis Freeh resigned in 2001, two years short of the end of his term, amid a scandal over Robert Hanssen, a senior FBI official charged with spying for the Soviet Union and Russia undetected for 15 years.
If Clinton wins the election, as polls suggest, she would also be in the position to fire Comey, but might not do so to avoid being portrayed as seeking political retaliation.
“I don’t know what her view will be, but ... you just cannot have an FBI director in place who believes he is accountable to neither the rules nor the attorney general,” said Matthew Miller, former chief spokesman for the Obama Justice Department.
Under the federal Hatch Act, Justice Department employees may not engage in partisan political activity while on duty.
On Sunday, Democratic Representative Adam Schiff said Comey’s “original letter” telling Congress that Clinton’s emails were once again under investigation “should never have been sent so close to an election.”
Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Grassley called on the Justice Department’s inspector general on Nov. 2 to examine the FBI’s investigation.
Reporting by Julia Edwards, additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Mark Hosenball and Julia Harte; editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Tom Brown