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Obama’s Comments About Clinton’s Emails Rankle Some in the F.B.I.

by Matt Apuzzo and Michael S. Scmidt     •     New York Times

Hillary ClintonFederal agents were still cataloging the classified information from Hillary Rodham Clinton’s personal email server last week when President Obama went on television and played down the matter.

“I don’t think it posed a national security problem,” Mr. Obama said Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes.” He said it had been a mistake for Mrs. Clinton to use a private email account when she was secretary of state, but his conclusion was unmistakable: “This is not a situation in which America’s national security was endangered.”

Those statements angered F.B.I. agents who have been working for months to determine whether Mrs. Clinton’s email setup did in fact put any of the nation’s secrets at risk, according to current and former law enforcement officials.

President Obama last month. In an interview broadcast on Sunday, he said Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state had been “ginned-up” into a political attack.

Investigators have not reached any conclusions about whether the information on the server was compromised or whether to recommend charges, according to the law enforcement officials. But to investigators, it sounded as if Mr. Obama had already decided the answers to their questions and cleared anyone involved of wrongdoing.

The White House quickly backed off the president’s remarks and said he had not been trying to influence the investigation. But his comments spread quickly, raising the ire of officials who saw an instance of the president trying to influence the outcome of a continuing investigation — and not for the first time.

A spokesman for the F.B.I. declined to comment. But Ron Hosko, a former senior F.B.I. official who retired in 2014 and is now the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, said it was inappropriate for the president to “suggest what side of the investigation he is on” when the F.B.I. is still investigating.

“Injecting politics into what is supposed to be a fact-finding inquiry leaves a foul taste in the F.B.I.’s mouth and makes them fear that no matter what they find, the Justice Department will take the president’s signal and not bring a case,” said Mr. Hosko, who maintains close contact with current agents.

Several current and former law enforcement officials, including those close to the investigation, expressed similar sentiments in separate interviews over several days. Most, however, did so only on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.

The White House said Thursday that Mr. Obama had not been commenting on the merits of the investigation, but rather had been explaining why he believes the controversy over Mrs. Clinton’s emails has been overblown. The president, officials said, was merely noting that the emails that have been publicly released so far have not imperiled national security.

“There’s a debate among national security experts, as part of their ongoing, independent review, about how or even whether to classify sections of those emails,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “But, as the president said, there is no evidence to indicate that the information in those emails endangered our national security.”

Whether Mr. Obama’s remarks have a lasting effect beyond upsetting some F.B.I. officials depends on the investigation’s outcome.

Since the email inquiry began this past summer, investigators have been scrutinizing everyone who came in contact with Mrs. Clinton’s server and trying to determine whether anyone sent or received classified information, whether that information was compromised and whether any of this amounted to a crime.

Tensions among career F.B.I. agents, the political appointees who run the Justice Department and the White House are commonplace. In deciding whether to bring charges in a case, F.B.I. agents are often more bullish. Prosecutors, with an eye toward trying to win at trial, tend to be more cautious and have the final say. As such, no administration, Democratic or Republican, is immune from the suspicion that politics has influenced case decisions.

But Mr. Obama’s remarks in the Clinton email case were met with particular anger at the F.B.I. because they echoed comments he made in 2012, shortly after it was revealed that a former C.I.A. director, David H. Petraeus, was under investigation, accused of providing classified information to a mistress who was writing a book about him.

“I have no evidence at this point, from what I’ve seen, that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security,” the president said at a 2012 news conference, as the F.B.I. was trying to answer that very question about Mr. Petraeus.

At the time, the Obama administration was leading a historic crackdown on government officials who discussed national security matters with reporters, even when that information was never disclosed publicly. But Mr. Petraeus was a four-star general, a White House adviser and the most celebrated military leader of his generation. F.B.I. officials were concerned that he would receive preferential treatment.

The F.B.I. ultimately concluded that Mr. Petraeus should face felony charges and a possible prison sentence. He had not only provided highly classified information to his biographer, including notes about war strategy and the identity of covert officials, but also lied to agents about it. James B. Comey, the F.B.I director, made the case to the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., that Mr. Petraeus deserved to face strenuous charges.

But the Justice Department overruled the F.B.I., and this year, the department allowed Mr. Petraeus to plead guilty to a misdemeanor. He was spared jail time and remained an informal White House adviser.

Although current and former senior officials at the Justice Department who were involved in the case said the decision was not influenced by the White House, F.B.I. agents came to view Mr. Obama’s remarks about Mr. Petraeus as a harbinger of the ultimate outcome.

Presidents typically decline to comment on cases under investigation or in the courts, citing the need to avoid prejudicing legal proceedings. Often, that tradition is politically convenient, offering them an easy excuse when they would rather not answer questions about the behavior of allies and aides.

Mr. Obama has skirted that line on a few occasions. In 2013, he proclaimed that troops who commit sexual assault should be “court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged,” which provided ammunition to defense lawyers who argued that the commander in chief had prejudiced proceedings.

Mr. Obama is not the first president to generate criticism for weighing in on cases. George W. Bush was criticized when he told an interviewer that he believed Representative Tom DeLay of Texas was innocent of illegal fund-raising charges. Mr. DeLay’s conviction was overturned last year.

The federal law used against Mr. Petraeus prohibits officials from knowingly taking classified information “with the intent to retain” it at “an unauthorized location.” A second, more serious charge makes it a felony to remove classified information through gross negligence. Officials at both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department acknowledge that those laws set a high bar for criminal charges in the email case.

Mr. Obama said he had no impression that Mrs. Clinton had purposely tried “to hide something or to squirrel away information.” In doing so, Mr. Obama spoke directly to a core component of the law used against Mr. Petraeus, intent, and said he did not think it applied in Mrs. Clinton’s case.

Since the existence of Mrs. Clinton’s account was revealed in March, she has provided a series of different explanations about whether she sent or received classified information from the account.

Mrs. Clinton is to testify next week before the Republican-controlled House committee investigating the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya. The committee, which has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks after two Republican lawmakers said it was created to harm the political fortunes of Mrs. Clinton, is expected to ask her about her unorthodox email arrangement.

Mr. Comey, the F.B.I. director, acknowledged this month the difficulties posed by the investigation. He said one reason he had a 10-year term was “to make sure this organization stays outside of politics.”

“If you know my folks,” he said, “you know they don’t give a rip about politics.”

Peter Baker and Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed reporting.