WASHINGTON ― If Daniel C. Richman, an adviser to James Comey, were writing this story about the FBI director’s recent disclosure that the bureau was reviewing newly discovered emails in the Hillary Clinton probe, it would include a sentence like this right up top:
“We don’t know what’s in them, and it’s entirely possible that there’s nothing in them. Don’t change your assumptions based on complete uncertainty.”
Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former federal prosecutor, told The Huffington Post he thinks media outlets have been “really poorly” covering the Clinton email news since last Friday. That’s the day Comey sent a short letter to members of Congress stating that the bureau had come across emails that may or may not be “significant” to the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email server as secretary of state.
Comey, in a note to FBI employees that day, acknowledged that his letter could “create a misleading impression” and that there was “significant risk of being misunderstood.” Six days later, it’s pretty clear that’s the case.
While Comey’s letter has been criticized for being too vague, and not plainly spelling out the fact that many of the emails obtained may be duplicates of those the bureau had already reviewed, Richman says he thinks the director was pretty clear, and that media outlets had “failed, utterly” in placing the letter in the proper context.
“I read the letter. It was in English. It said, ‘I don’t know what’s in here,’” Richman said, paraphrasing Comey.
“Everybody has their own views on what the letter said,” he continued. “In my view, as just a simple reader of the English language, it was dialed down as far as possible to convey the very odd position of there being emails that appeared to be related to this, without conveying anything about the contents, which of course he didn’t know at the time.”
“Could he have added an extra sentence saying, ‘I really mean it’? I guess,” Richman said. “It would be really nice if members of the media and members of the public realized that there’s a real possibility that there will be duplicates. Since they haven’t been checked, the bureau can’t say, but we can guess from the outside.”
While Richman maintains that no one could “possibly game out how the press in all its wonder can react to sorts of things like this,” it seems pretty obvious that from the moment Comey’s letter was released, it would be quickly seized upon by Clinton’s political opponents and become a major news story. But Richmond said he believes the director did what he needed to do, and was bound to leave people frustrated no matter what he decided.
“I think he found himself in a difficult position, faced with the choice of having people continue to believe that the FBI had completed its inquiry and there were no further emails to review, or correcting that with all the obvious risks that it would be at a time that is sensitive,” Richman said. “Either action has a political valence, either you do not correct or you do correct. Either way, there will be people happy or unhappy.”