Just when you think it can’t get any worse . . .
According to House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.), the immunity agreements struck by the Justice Department with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson, two top subjects of the FBI’s Clinton e-mail investigation, included “side agreements.” Pursuant to these side agreements, it was stipulated that (a) the FBI would not scrutinize any documents dated after January 31, 2015 (i.e., about five weeks before the most disturbing actions suggestive of obstruction of justice occurred); and (b) the FBI — in an investigation critically involving destruction of documents — would destroy the computers after conducting its search.
For anyone who worked in the Justice Department for any length of time, the striking of side deals with a defense lawyer (in this instance, Beth Wilkinson, who represents both Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson) is bracing. Written agreements with the Justice Department (regarding, for example, guilty pleas and cooperation) customarily include a clause explaining that the four corners of the document contain the entirety of the understandings between the parties. This is done precisely because defendants often claim they were enticed into signing the agreement because of this or that side deal purportedly agreed to by the government. The Justice Department likes to be able to say, “We don’t engage in those sorts of shenanigans. The agreement is the single agreement as written.” Why did the Justice Department make side deals in this case (which we’ve been told was treated like any other case . . . except, alas, when it wasn’t)?
More fundamentally, as I’ve been arguing since we learned of the immunity agreements, why did the government grant immunity in the first place? Unfortunately, the question, at this point, is rhetorical. Immunity was granted because the Justice Department would not use the grand jury against Mrs. Clinton.
As I’ve explained, the computers were physical evidence. The law empowers the government to compel production of physical evidence by subpoena (or by search warrant if there is suspicion that the evidence will be tampered with or destroyed). Importantly, however, the power to compel production of evidence derives from the grand jury. In the Clinton e-mails case, unlike virtually every other criminal case, the Justice Department apparently declined to convert the FBI’s investigation into a grand-jury investigation. This meant grand-jury subpoenas would not be issued.
Patently, the highly politicized Obama Justice Department did this because commencing a grand-jury investigation suggests that a matter is very serious and an indictment (which only the grand jury can issue) is likely. In this case, the Justice Department was determined to maintain the illusion that Clinton and her underlings hadn’t committed crimes, so the grand jury was avoided. That is how you end up with such inanities as the Justice Department’s leaking to the Washington Post that Cheryl Mills was regarded as nothing more than a very cooperative witness, not a suspect, even though we now know that (a) Mills falsely denied that, while serving as then-secretary of state Clinton’s chief of staff, she knew about the homebrew server system; (b) the evidence indicates that Mills is the one who directed Platte River Networks (PRN) to destroy the e-mails stored on Clinton’s server (although there are salient questions about when this happened); (c) the private laptop Mills used to vet Clinton’s e-mails contained mounds of classified information; and (d) Mills was sufficiently worried that her lawyer sought — and obtained — immunity from prosecution before Mills surrendered her computer to the FBI.
The Justice Department was determined to maintain the illusion that Clinton and her underlings hadn’t committed crimes.
In his House testimony last week, FBI director James Comey tried to deflect the government’s failure to use the grand jury by rationalizing that the FBI was very anxious to examine the Mills and Samuelson computers, and that it is often more efficient in a criminal investigation to make informal agreements with the subjects’ lawyers than to rely on grand-jury compulsion. As I countered in this past weekend’s column, this claim is unconvincing. Use of the grand jury and negotiations with defense lawyers are not mutually exclusive. They happen concurrently all the time. Indeed, it is fear that the government might resort to compulsion that induces defense lawyers to negotiate reasonably. Take the grand jury off the table and investigators are apt to get taken to the cleaners.
That is what happened here. With no resort to the grand jury, the FBI was reduced to relying on the Justice Department, which was working closely with Team Clinton’s defense lawyers, to cut immunity deals. These deals gave away the store in exchange for physical evidence the government actually had the power to demand without making concessions, much less extraordinary concessions like immunizing Mills and Samuelson from any prosecution based on the contents of the computers.
According to Goodlatte, those concessions were even more astonishing than they seemed at first blush because of the newly revealed side deals.
First, there is the time-restriction. As noted above, Goodlatte says the Justice Department agreed that the FBI’s investigative team would not inspect any documents on the laptops dated later than January 31, 2015. What conceivable justification is there for this limitation? It is quite easy to conjure relevant evidence post-dating January 31, 2015, that could have been on the computer. Let’s just consider the crucial events of March 2015:
In early March 2015, the New York Times broke the story about Mrs. Clinton’s homebrew server.
The House Benghazi committee quickly issued a subpoena for Clinton’s e-mails.
Between the Times report and March 25, Mills (and perhaps other Clinton-related lawyers and staffers) had a number of communications with Paul Combetta, the PRN technician who ultimately destroyed the e-mails.
According to a March 25 e-mail, there was a call that day between Combetta and unidentified Clinton personnel as to which Combetta told the FBI “he could not recall the content of the call or the reference to backups in the e-mail.” (Scroll to Combetta FBI interview, May 3, 2016, p.5.)
Nevertheless, sometime on or after March 25, Combetta had his “‘oh shit’ moment” and deleted the files containing Clinton’s e-mails from the server. (Same Combetta interview, pp.5-6.)
On March 27, Clinton’s principal lawyer David Kendall informed Benghazi Committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) by letter: “I have confirmed with the Secretary’s IT support that no emails from [Clinton’s private e-mail address] for the time period [of Clinton’s 2009-2013 tenure as secretary of state] reside on the server or on any back-up systems associated with the server.” Kendall made no mention of when the “IT support” (Combetta) may have removed the e-mails.
A PRN work ticket dated March 31, 2015, references a conference call between Combetta, Kendall, and Mills, but when the FBI asked about it, Combetta refused to answer, citing his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. (Scroll to Combetta FBI interview, February 18, 2016, p.5.)
On March 31, Combetta used the BleachBit program to “shred” any copies of Clinton e-mails remaining on the server. (May 3, 2016, Combetta interview, p.6).
Combetta was obviously in contact with Mills and other Clinton team members from early February through the end of March 2015 — the period the FBI was barred from examining under the computer side deal. Combetta tells the highly unlikely story that, during this time frame, he destroyed Clinton’s e-mails on his own initiative, without any encouragement from Mills or others in the Clinton camp.
Why would the FBI agree to destroy the computers?
When asked during last week’s House hearing how he could believe Combetta, FBI director Comey pointedly replied that it was not a matter of believing Combetta; the problem was not having evidence that disproved Combetta’s story. So if the FBI was interested in finding such evidence, why would it agree (or at least abide the Justice Department’s agreement) to an arrangement under which it was denied the ability to review documents on Mills’s computer from March 2015, when Combetta, while in frequent communication with Mills, destroyed the e-mails?
Finally (at least until the next shoe drops), why would the FBI agree to destroy the computers after conducting the (apparently highly limited) examination that was agreed to? The Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure explicitly provide (in Rule 41) that, when the government has taken custody of property for investigative purposes, a person who is somehow aggrieved by this deprivation may petition the court for the return of that property. The rule empowers the court to order the return of the property if it is not relevant to an ongoing investigation; and, if the court grants such relief, it “may impose reasonable conditions to protect access to the property and its use in later proceedings.”
That is, the law encourages the preservation of materials that may have future investigative relevance. By simply following the law, the FBI and Justice Department can ensure that, if evidence is improperly destroyed, the government will not be at fault.
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If Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson were bent on destroying potential evidence, that is a highly disturbing risk they should have been made to run on their own. No good could come from the FBI’s participating in the destruction. We are not talking here about illegal narcotics or explosives — items that could be dangerous to the public if needlessly preserved after their investigative relevance has been exhausted. We’re talking about laptop computers. Even if the FBI and Justice Department truly were convinced (against what appears to be the weight of the evidence) that there is no prosecutable case against anyone in the Clinton e-mail scandal, it is always possible that new information could emerge that would revive the case. Under such circumstances, the computers could have had renewed relevance and their destruction would have been highly problematic. How would it help the FBI to have had a hand in that?Moreover, as the FBI and the Justice Department well knew, Clinton’s private e-mails are the subject of congressional oversight inquiries and Freedom of Information Act claims against the government that are being litigated in federal court. Again, why under those circumstances would the Justice Department and FBI agree not only that the evidence should be destroyed but, reportedly, that the FBI itself would do the destroying?
We are repeatedly told that Mrs. Clinton and her underlings were not given special treatment, that this investigation was handled like any other. Are there other cases in which the Justice Department and FBI make such agreements?
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior policy fellow at the National Review Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.