On September 1, President Donald Trump tweeted that it “looks like” former FBI Director James Comey “exonerated Hillary Clinton long before the investigation was over,” shortly after FoxNews.com and the president’s favorite television show, Fox & Friends, reported that Comey allegedly concluded HIllary Clinton was innocent in the email investigation “before the evidence was actually looked at.” On the September 1 edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Pete Hegseth referred to the story -- which had also been reported on FoxNews.com the night before and was based on a letter from two Republican U.S. senators -- and decried the “rigged system.” But according to sources that spoke to CNN, Comey drafted the statement because the FBI had found no evidence of a crime at that point, and he did not expect to uncover anything new in the interview with Clinton.
Fox News’ claim was sourced from a letter sent by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) alleging “James Comey drafted a statement exonerating former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton” before the investigation into her use of a private email server as secretary of state was complete. However, according to a source who spoke to CNN, the draft exoneration was simply a reference to the fact that “by April 2016 the FBI had reviewed most of the evidence and didn't find evidence suggesting that Clinton had violated federal law,” and Comey did not expect to find anything new in his interview with Clinton. The source also said that since Comey was not involved in the “day-to-day steps of the investigation,” even if he had concluded Clinton was innocent (which a second source flatly denied was the case), “it wouldn’t have affected the result of the investigation.” The second source concurred that “the FBI had already reviewed much of the evidence by spring and it was becoming more clear that it was not likely to support bringing charges.”
Despite the claim’s misleading nature, it has gained significant ground in right-wing and fringe media. The Washington Free Beacon wrote about Comey’s “premature exoneration” of Clinton, and Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze said it was sparking “outrage” on Capitol Hill. Fake news purveyors also ran with the misleading narrative; TruthFeed, explicitly citing Fox News, wrote breathlessly about the “bombshell report” that “exposes blatant Comey - Clinton corruption,” and RedStateWatcher claimed the letter shows that “Comey Knew All Along!” Liberty Writers claimed that the senators’ letter was “a real smoking gun, y’all,” and urged readers to “help get this shared everywhere [to] show Trump it’s time to Take Them Down.”
From the September 1 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:
PETE HEGSETH (GUEST HOST): There’s ongoing investigations, and now it’s big news that there’s investigations that -- where conclusions were being reached before the evidence was actually looked at. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley [(R-IA)] and [Republican] South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham wrote a letter this week to the FBI. This is part of what it said about the James Comey investigation of Hillary Clinton. They wrote in that letter in part: “It appears that in April or early May of 2016, Mr. Comey had already decided that he would issue a statement exonerating Secretary Clinton. That was long before FBI agents finished their work.”
BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): Or even interviewed her on July 4th.
JASON CHAFFETZ: There are evidently up to 17 people that had not yet been interviewed. And this is a very strong allegation. The FBI director, former FBI director, has a lot of explaining to do. He could have perjured himself. We asked him very directly. Remember he appeared before the House oversight committee, the House Judiciary Committee. How is it that you interviewed Secretary Clinton on, I believe it was a Saturday and then like Tuesday morning they suddenly had the report out there? And then you have other people like [former Clinton tech aide] Bryan Pagliano and some of these other people. Very nefarious types of activities out there. How is it that he’s already writing the conclusion if they haven’t even done the interviews?
HEGSETH: How does not every American look at this and say, “This is a rigged system”?
CHAFFETZ: Well, this is where you look at the deep state. And it comes right on the heels of a determination by the records division of the FBI saying we aren't going to release this information because there is a lack of public interest. Are you kidding me?
KILMEADE: I never heard that.
CHAFFETZ: There were congressional subpoenas, there were congressional inquiries, Freedom of Information Act requests. None of this information given to the congressional investigators, but hats off to Sen. Grassley and Lindsey Graham for going and getting this stuff.
KILMEADE: Right, and hopefully they find out and we get those records; popularity shouldn't play a role.