White House will ‘neither defend nor criticize’ FBI director for Clinton email announcement

White House Press secretary Josh Earnest speaks to the media on Monday. (Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

President Obama’s top spokesman deflected numerous questions on Monday about the firestorm surrounding FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that investigators were looking at new emails in connection with the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

“My lack of independent knowledge about that decision-making prevents me from weighing in,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said during a media briefing.

“I’ll neither defend nor criticize what Director Comey has decided to communicate to the public about this investigation,” he added.

On Friday, Comey sent shock waves through the presidential race by writing a letter to congressional leaders announcing that investigators were reviewing new emails that appear “pertinent” to the FBI’s investigation into the private email server Clinton exclusively used as secretary of state. Last July, Comey criticized Clinton’s email server setup for risking the security of classified information, but he recommended no charges against Clinton or her aides.

Democrats, including officials in Clinton’s campaign, fiercely criticized Comey for releasing the letter so close to the Nov. 8 Election Day. Some former Department of Justice officials from both George W. Bush’s and Obama’s administrations agreed. Former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in an op-ed piece on Monday that Comey’s letter was a “serious mistake.”

During a White House briefing Monday, reporters repeatedly pressed Earnest on how President Obama views the controversy. Obama appointed Comey in 2013 to lead the FBI. Earnest insisted that he would not weigh in one way or the other.

“I just don’t have independent knowledge of the decisions that [were] made to release this information. And there are other people that have had the luxury of being able to opine, writing op-eds or serving as as anonymous sources for reporters,” he said. “But when I’m standing here representing the institution of the presidency, I don’t have that luxury.”

Earnest did heap praise on Comey, however. He said Obama believes the FBI director is a “man of integrity, “a man of principle” and “a man of good character.” Earnest also said he did not believe Comey was trying to hurt Clinton’s chances in the November election.

“He’s in a tough spot, and he’s the one who will be in a position to defend his actions in the face of significant criticism,” Earnest said of Comey.

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