James B. Comey, the director of the F.B.I. Politically charged cases that the agency would normally keep secret have been thrust into public discussion during the presidential campaign. Credit Drew Angerer for The New York Times
The F.B.I. and Justice Department faced a hard decision in two investigations this past summer that had the potential to rock the presidential election. The first case involved Donald J. Trump’s campaign chairman,
Paul Manafort, and secretive business dealings in Ukraine. The second focused on Hillary Clinton’s relationships with donors to her family foundation.
At the urging of the Justice Department, the F.B.I. agreed not to issue subpoenas or take other steps that would make the cases public so close to the election, according to federal law enforcement officials.
Against this backdrop, the decision of the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to send a letter to Congress last week about a renewed inquiry concerning Mrs. Clinton’s emails is not just a departure from longstanding policy; it has plunged the F.B.I. and the Justice Department directly into the election,
precisely what Justice officials were trying to avoid.
Mr. Comey’s letter, which he sent over the objections of the Justice Department, stirred outrage across party lines.
It unleashed a torrent of news that laid bare the government’s internal deliberations and exposed the infighting and occasional mistrust between rank-and-file F.B.I. agents and senior department officials.
Since Mr. Comey’s revelation, the F.B.I. has hurried to analyze a cache of emails belonging to one of Mrs. Clinton’s aides, Huma Abedin.
It is increasingly unlikely that the review will be complete by Election Day, F.B.I. officials said, although they said there was a chance they could offer updates before Nov. 8.
The mood at the F.B.I. is dark, and nobody is willing to predict what the coming days will bring,
particularly if agents and analysts do not complete their review of Ms. Abedin’s emails by Election Day.
Officials said it would take something extraordinary to change the conclusion that nobody should be charged. But the absence of information has allowed festering speculation that the emails must be significant.
Daniel C. Richman, an adviser to Mr. Comey and a Columbia University law professor,
argued that despite the backlash, Mr. Comey’s decision to inform Congress preserved the F.B.I.’s independence, which will ultimately benefit the next president.
“Those arguing that the director should have remained silent until the new emails could be reviewed — even if that process lasted, or was delayed, until after the election — give too little thought to the governing that needs to happen after November,”
Mr. Richman said. “If the F.B.I. director doesn’t have the credibility to keep Congress from interfering in the bureau’s work and to assure Congress that a matter has been or is being looked into, the new administration will pay a high price.”
Former senior law enforcement officials in both parties, though, say Mr. Comey’s decision to break with Justice Department guidelines caused these problems.
Had he handled the case the way the F.B.I. handled its investigations into the Clinton Foundation and Mr. Manafort over the summer, the argument goes, he would have endured criticism from Republicans in the future but would have preserved a larger principle that has guided cases involving both parties.
In the Ukraine case, agents in Washington are investigating the relationship between foreigners and Mr. Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman from June until August. For a decade beginning in 2005,
Mr. Manafort advised Ukrainian politicians, including Viktor F. Yanukovych, who served as president from 2010 to 2014, when he fled the country amid protests.