WASHINGTON — The FBI recommended Tuesday that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton should not face criminal charges over her use of private email servers as secretary of State, even though she and aides were "extremely careless" in handling classified information.
While FBI Director James Comey offered a harsh rebuke of Clinton and her aides for mishandling classified, top-secret information, he said there is no evidence Clinton intended to do so, the basis for criminal charges.
"Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information," Comey said in a 15-minute statement explaining the investigation, "our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case."
Comey said his agency acted apolitically and went where the facts took them. While, technically, the FBI makes recommendations to Justice Department prosecutors over potential charges, Attorney General Loretta Lynch has said she would accept the bureau's views in this case.
"In looking back at our investigations into mishandling of removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts," Comey said.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump criticized the FBI's decision, tweeting that "the system is rigged" and citing charges brought against Gen. David Petraeus over handling of classified information.
"General Petraeus got in trouble for far less," Trump said. "Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment."
In another tweet, Trump noted that the FBI director "said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow."
The Clinton campaign said it was pleased with the decision made by "career officials" at the FBI.
"As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again," said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. "We are glad that this matter is now resolved."
Clinton, who campaigned later in the day with President Obama in North Carolina, did not address Comey’s statement or the FBI’s findings during a morning speech at the National Education Association in Washington.
While opting against recommending charges, Comey did take Clinton and State Department officials to task for their procedures in handling sensitive information.
"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," he said.
Comey said that, of the 30,000 or so Clinton emails provided by the State Department, 110 messages in 52 email chains were determined to have contained classified information at the time they were sent or received.
Eight of those email chains contained information that was top secret at the time they were sent or received, the FBI reported; 36 of the email chains contained secret information at the time; and eight contained lesser confidential information.
Part of the investigation dealt with whether foreign adversaries tried to hack Clinton's private email system, Comey said. In recent years, the Chinese and Russian governments are among those who have been accused of prying into American secrets.
It is possible that “hostile actors” were able to access Clinton’s personal email account, Comey said, but there was no “direct evidence."
The director said that the yearlong inquiry, which has shadowed Clinton throughout the primary season, was made "more complicated'' because the former secretary used several different email servers and administrators during her tenure at the State Department. The reconstruction of those networks, Comey said, was akin to making sense of a "huge jigsaw puzzle'' whose pieces had been scattered across the floor.
"The effect was that millions of email fragments end up unsorted in the server's unused or slack space,'' Comey said, describing the task as Clinton's different servers were decommissioned and software removed. "We searched through all of it to see what was there, and what parts of the puzzle could be put back together.''
Comey said the evidence supports the conclusion that "any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton's position or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation."
David Axelrod, a longtime political adviser to Obama, said Clinton's email was "ill-conceived and reckless," but "no indictment and no indication of criminal intent is an important line of demarcation."
The issue will remain political, he added.
Citing Comey's "rebuke," Axelrod said "the Republicans will use it as a cudgel."
The case is now "part of the record voters will consider," Axelrod said. "But the conclusion lifts the cloud of indictment no candidacy could have sustained."
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., meanwhile, said the FBI decision "defies explanation," and could undermine the rule of law.
"No one should be above the law," Ryan said.
The director's statement also was roiling some in the ranks of the FBI, said one official who is monitoring reaction. The official, who declined to be identified, said some agents were disappointed with both the conclusion and the timing of the announcement, coming just three days after Clinton's 3 1/2-hour interview with federal investigators.
After the Saturday interview, Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said the former secretary of State was "pleased to have had the opportunity to assist the Department of Justice in bringing this review to a conclusion."
Federal officials said the timing of the director's announcement — an unprecedented publicly released recommendation in the midst of an investigation — was not related to Clinton’s campaign appearance with Obama or last week's disclosures about the unplanned meeting between Bill Clinton and Lynch on the tarmac of Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, which Republicans protested. Lynch said they discussed personal matters, not the investigation.
Disclosure of the meeting prompted Lynch to announce Friday that she would accept the recommendation by the FBI director and career prosecutors. The Justice Department declined to comment on the timing of a final announcement in the matter.
"I know there will be intense public debate in the wake of this recommendation, as there was throughout this investigation,'' Comey said. "What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly and independently. No outside influence of any kind was brought to bear.''
As the political implications of Comey's announcement played out Tuesday, legal analysts also weighed in, with some suggesting that the FBI director could have used the same narrative to support charging the former secretary of State with mishandling classified information.
Robert Cattanach, a former federal prosecutor, said it was difficult to reconcile why Clinton's "extremely careless'' conduct, as described by Comey, did not trigger the statute's provision for "gross negligence.''
"To me and most people on the street, those terms connote the same thing,'' Cattanach said. "That's a hard one to pass the smell test on.''