‘October Surprise’: New details emerge about FBI delay on Weiner laptop in 2016
New details have emerged about 2016’s “October Surprise,” during which the FBI found emails belonging to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on disgraced New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s laptop, with the FBI official who found the emails speaking out for the first time.
FBI agent John Robertson, who worked in its New York office’s child sex crimes unit and was later cited (though not named) in Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s 2018 report on the handling of the investigation of Clinton’s unauthorized private email server, spoke with the Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett for his upcoming book, October Surprise: How the FBI Tried to Save Itself and Crashed an Election. Robertson unearthed tens of thousands of Clinton emails in late September 2016 on the laptop belonging to Weiner, the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, in a sex crimes case involving underage girls, but for weeks after being alerted, top FBI leaders (including fired FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, fired FBI agent Peter Strzok, and former FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap) took little to no action to investigate.
A letter from fired FBI Director James Comey to Congress in late October about the email discovery, shortly after he was finally briefed on it, disrupted the election — and would be blamed by some for President Trump’s victory.
“The crickets I was hearing was really making me uncomfortable because something was going to come down,” Robertson said he later told Justice Department investigators. “Why isn’t anybody here? Like if I’m the supervisor of any [counterintelligence] squad … and I hear about this, I’m getting on with headquarters and saying, ‘Hey, some agent working child porn here may have [Hillary Clinton] emails. Get your ass on the phone, call [the case agent], and get a copy of that drive,’ because that’s how it should be. And that nobody reached out to me within, like, that night, I still to this day don’t understand what the hell went wrong.”
Robertson wrote a “Letter to Self” in late October after an Oct. 19, 2016, meeting, during which he implored Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kramer of the Southern District of New York to push FBI leadership to look at the thousands of emails he had unearthed.
“I have very deep misgivings about the institutional response of the FBI to the congressional investigation into the Hillary Clinton email matter … Put simply: I don’t believe the handling of the material I have by the FBI is ethically or morally right. But my lawyer’s advice — that I simply put my SSA on notice should cover me — is that I have completed CYA [Cover Your Ass], and I have done so,” Robertson wrote. “Further, I was told by [Kramer] that should I ‘whistleblow,’ I will be prosecuted.”
Robertson continued: “I possess — the FBI possesses — 20 times more emails than Comey testified to. … While Comey did not know at the time about what I have, people in the FBI do now, and as far as I know, we are being silent. … If I say or do nothing more, I am falling short ethically and morally. And later, I may be accused of being a Hillary Clinton hack because of the timing of all this. … But if I say something (i.e., whistleblow), I will lose my reputation, my career, and risk prosecution. I will also be accused of being a Donald Trump hack.”
He wrote that “nothing could be further from the truth” because “I am apolitical.”
Horowitz’s 2018 report on the Clinton email investigation noted a federal search warrant was obtained on Sept. 26, 2016, for Weiner’s devices and that the “Weiner case agent” (Robertson) noticed “within hours” that there were “over 300,000 emails on the laptop,” including between Clinton and Abedin. The FBI New York Field Office’s William Sweeney was alerted two days later, and key FBI executives such as McCabe were informed by Sweeney.
Text messages show McCabe, Strzok, and Priestap discussed the Weiner laptop on Sept. 28, 2016, and Strzok said he initially planned to send a team to New York to review the emails, but a call with the FBI’s New York office was scheduled next day instead. Horowitz wrote that “after October 4, we found no evidence that anyone associated with the Midyear investigation, including the entire leadership team at FBI Headquarters, took any action on the Weiner laptop issue until the week of October 24, and then did so only after the Weiner case agent expressed concerns to SDNY, prompting SDNY to contact the Office of the Deputy Attorney General on October 21 to raise concerns.”
Horowitz said that the FBI’s explanations were “unpersuasive justifications for not acting sooner” and “the fact that Strzok and several other FBI members of the Midyear team had been assigned to the Russia investigation … was not an excuse for failing to take any action.”
The DOJ watchdog also unearthed anti-Trump texts between Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an affair. In one Aug. 6, 2016, exchange, Page said, “Trump should go f himself.” Strzok responded, “F Trump.” Two days later, Page texted, “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!” Strzok replied, “No. No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” Strzok was removed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in 2017 after the texts were disclosed and was later fired from the bureau.
“In assessing the decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop, we were particularly concerned about text messages sent by Strzok and Page that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions they made were impacted by bias,” Horowitz wrote, adding that “we did not have confidence that Strzok’s decision to prioritize the Russia investigation over following up on the Midyear-related investigative lead discovered on the Weiner laptop was free from bias.”
Horowitz did conclude, however, that “we found no evidence in emails, text messages, instant messages, or documents that suggested an improper purpose.”
“There was simply no equivalence between Midyear and Crossfire,” Strzok claimed in his new book, Compromised, referring to the Clinton emails investigation and the Trump-Russia investigation. “At its core, Midyear was a glorified (because it involved Hillary Clinton) mishandling case, the type that but for the celebrity subject rolls throng WFO on a weekly basis. Crossfire was a first-of-its-kind, enormous investigation into complex, ongoing attacks on our presidential elections and Russian interactions with members of one of the candidate’s campaigns. Of course, I had prioritized that.”
Horowitz wrote that “the FBI’s inaction had potentially far-reaching consequences” because Comey told Horowitz that “had he known about the laptop in the beginning of October and thought the email review could have been completed before the election, it may have affected his decision to notify Congress.” Comey told Horowitz, “I don’t know [if] it would have put us in a different place, but I would have wanted to have the opportunity.”
Comey announced Clinton was “extremely careless” in handling classified emails during a July 2016 speech, adding that he would not recommend criminal charges. Clinton’s IT team had deleted 33,000 supposedly non-work-related emails.
Comey sent a letter to Congress on Oct. 28, 2016, revealing that “the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation” and that the FBI would “allow investigators to review these emails.” On Nov. 6, 2016, he sent a follow-up letter that “we have not changed our conclusions” about not charging Clinton.
Trump defeated Clinton 304-227 in the Electoral College two days later.