Sunny Hostin

James Comey: The Man at the Center of the Clinton Email Investigation

Andrew Harnik / AP Photo

by MaryAlice Parks for ABC News

ABC News | November 1, 2016 - FBI Director James Comey’s long and colorful career took another memorable turn last week with his decision to inform congressional leaders just 11 days before Election Day that investigators are reviewing newly-found emails in connection to the probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server.

Comey chose to send the letter despite concerns of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other senior Justice Department officials that such a disclosure would go against Justice Department tradition of making major investigative decisions so close to an election, sources told ABC News.

The towering 6-foot-8 Comey, who served Republican presidents prior to his work for the Obama administration, has never shied away from controversy.

Comey is drawing heat now from Democrats for the letter informing congressional leaders last Friday that new information had prompted additional review of Clinton's emails as secretary of state, even though the agency had closed its probe in July.

"In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation," Comey wrote, adding that he doesn’t know how long the additional review will take or whether the “material may be significant.”

Comey also wrote an email to FBI employees, saying, "Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations.”

He explained that he felt the need to update Congress and the American people.

"In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it," Comey wrote.

Comey was also criticized in July -- though largely from Republicans -- when he announced that there was no basis for criminal charges against Clinton despite her “extremely careless” handling of emails.

How He Became One of America’s Top Cops

President George W. Bush appointed Comey deputy attorney general in 2003, at the height of tough legal questions surrounding the war on terror and the Patriot Act. Prior to that post, he served as the top federal prosecutor in New York City, where he took on a number of major terrorism and criminal cases.

“He is known as a straight shooter and fairly non-partisan, which is reflected in the fact that he was confirmed for his current position as FBI director by 93-1 vote [in the Senate],” ABC News senior legal analyst Sunny Hostin said.

His High-Profile Case Load and a Bedside Drama

Over the course of his career, Comey, 55, has been involved in a number of blockbuster cases. He prosecuted businesswoman Martha Stewart and mobster John Gambino, and handled the investigation and indictments of the suspects in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia. He appointed the special investigator to lead the probe into the leaking of CIA officer Valerie Plame’s name, a politically charged inquiry that resulted in the conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney’s adviser Scooter Libby.

And, most famously, Comey reportedly rushed to John Ashcroft’s hospital bedside in 2004 to stand up to White House officials who were allegedly trying to obtain an extension of a controversial warrantless wiretapping program from the attorney general. Ashcroft had been hospitalized after gall bladder surgery, and Comey was serving as the acting A.G. in his place and had refused to extend the program.

“Jim always demonstrated great integrity and political independence from the White House, even if it made him unpopular,” John Bellinger, former legal adviser to the National Security Council during the Bush Administration, told ABC News.

His Connection to the Clintons

Comey’s past head-to-head encounters with presidential administrations perhaps made him uniquely qualified to oversee the investigation into Clinton’s controversial email practices, and it was not the first time he weighed in on matters relating to the Clinton’s. In 1996, Comey served as deputy special counsel to the Senate special committee on the Whitewater investigation, chaired by Republicans at the time, which linked Hillary Clinton to the mishandling and destruction of documents.

Comey was also involved at both ends of the case of Marc Rich, a billionaire oil trader indicted for tax fraud and trading with Iran during the hostage crisis, who was later pardoned by President Bill Clinton during his final day in office in 2001. In a letter to the U.S. Senate, Comey describes working as both the lead prosecutor in New York on the original case against Rich in 1983 and then later, in 2002, overseeing criminal investigations into Clinton’s last-minute pardons.

The investigations concluded there was no wrongdoing on the president’s part, despite public outcry over evidence that Rich’s ex-wife had donated to Hillary Clinton’s senate campaign.

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