On Friday, FBI Director James Comey sent a letter to Republican members of Congress informing them that he had obtained emails that may be relevant to the investigation into Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. The details were vague, and information is still slowly trickling out as to what these emails might contain and whether they were even sent or received by Clinton herself.
But her Republican rival Donald Trump wasted no time in commenting on the news. At a rally in New Hampshire shortly after it broke, he told a crowd that it’s “bigger than Watergate.”
The Watergate scandal in the 70s involved burglars connected to President Richard Nixon’s reelection campaign getting arrested for breaking into Democratic National Committee offices while trying to steal documents and wiretap phones. Nixon himself attempted to cover up the operation and stop the FBI investigation, including paying off the people who were arrested so they wouldn’t talk, destroying evidence, and firing staff who wouldn’t go along.
The incident eventually brought to light a much larger campaign of espionage and sabotage that Nixon had waged against his political opponents, deploying illegal FBI surveillance, forging and manufacturing stories, stealing documents, and planting provocateurs and other actors in their midst. When the full extent of the scandal became public, Nixon became the first and only U.S. president to resign.
It’s difficult to see how the new FBI revelation about Clinton’s emails could compare to those events. The new emails in question were reportedly discovered on a laptop shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband Anthony Weiner, unearthed as part of the FBI’s investigation into charges that Weiner sent sexually explicit texts to an underage girl.
Much is still not known about the emails. But media outlets reported that they may be simply duplicates of ones the FBI has already reviewed, while the Los Angeles Times reports that they weren’t even addressed to or from Clinton. The FBI now has to reportedly get court permission to look through the emails to determine whether they are relevant and, if so, if they show any mishandling of classified information while Clinton was Secretary of State.
At the same rally on Friday, Trump claimed that the FBI is “reopening the case into [Clinton’s] criminal and illegal conduct that threatens the security of the United States of America.”
Nothing in that sentence is true. Comey’s letter said nothing about reopening the case, as it had never been officially closed. Instead, emails are being reviewed to determine whether they are relevant to the investigation.
Meanwhile, in July, Comey announced that he would recommend against criminal charges for Clinton because “no reasonable prosecutor” could determine that they are warranted. To have brought them, Comey would have needed evidence that Clinton knowingly mishandled classified emails or acted in gross negligence and bad faith with information that could have harmed the country. That would be true of the new emails as well: to change Comey’s decision, they would have to prove that Clinton knew she was violating laws about classified emails.