CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The FBI may have spared Hillary Clinton the worst in wrapping up its investigation into her use of email as secretary of state. But the way in which Director James Comey did so makes it unlikely criticism of her judgment and character will fade before Election Day.
Giving little indication he was about to clear Clinton of wrongdoing, Comey on Tuesday delivered a blistering assessment of the Democratic nominee's missteps in using a personal email account run on private servers.
The FBI determined Clinton sent and received classified information on her private email set-up, he said, contradicting her months of public assurances she had not. He added that agents found "several thousand work-related emails" that Clinton's attorneys failed to turn over, and went on to raise the prospect that people hostile to the U.S. had snooped on her account.
"Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey said Tuesday in a rare public airing of a months-long investigation.
When the moment came that Democrats have been waiting on for months — Comey concluding his remarks by saying "no reasonable prosecutor" would bring a case against Clinton — it almost seemed to be afterthought.
It was a moment made all the more extraordinary by the political calendar — just three weeks before Clinton is scheduled to formally accept the Democratic nomination for president and four months before the November election. Not to mention only a few hours before President Barack Obama made his debut in the 2016 campaign, appearing at an event in the battleground state of North Carolina with his preferred successor.
For the millions of Americans who distrust Clinton and still cringe at the scandals that plagued her husband's presidency, there were unmistakably familiar echoes of a classic Clinton controversy.
Through Whitewater and Travelgate, Gennifer Flowers and Monica Lewinsky, opponents have cast the Clintons as politicians who do just enough to stay within the law — and use powerful connections to help them do so. Public polls show Clinton struggles mightily when Americans are asked about her honesty, even though she's viewed as experienced and competent.
That Comey's announcement came one week after former President Bill Clinton held a widely criticized impromptu meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch and just a few days after the FBI conducted its only interview with Hillary Clinton will likely do little to help the presumptive Democratic nominee change those perceptions.
While Clinton allies have long predicted she would avoid an indictment, campaign aides were visibly relieved Tuesday during the event with Obama in Charlotte. They sanguinely accepted the fact that Comey had upstaged the president's first foray onto the campaign trail, saying it was worth it to have the investigation complete.
Yet even amid their relief, Clinton aides conceded they fully expect Comey's sharp criticism to wind up in television ads. Democrats acknowledged the end of the investigation won't wipe away long-standing questions about Clinton's character, but said they didn't expect Comey's scathing critique to dramatically reshape the public's opinion of a woman who has been in the political spotlight for three decades.
"People have very set opinions already about both of those candidates. I don't think the event today will change any minds," said Evan Bayh, the former Indiana senator and Clinton backer.
On Comey's criticism of Clinton's email practices, Bayh said "you'd prefer that he hadn't used that language." But he said Republicans would try to paint Clinton as untrustworthy either way.
"Does it really change anything? They were going to run those ads anyway," he said.
The onus is now on Donald Trump to turn the investigation's conclusions into a winning argument. The same Clinton aides fretting about seeing Comey in TV ads this fall also noted the presumptive Republican nominee has yet to run his first spot in a battleground state.
Trump has struggled with consistency since clearing the Republican field, often getting consumed by controversies of his own making. Instead of spending the July 4 weekend focused on his opponent's meeting with the FBI, he was batting back accusations of anti-Semitism after sending a tweet that appeared to depict the Star of David, Clinton and a pile of cash.
At a Tuesday evening event, also in North Carolina, Trump repeatedly referenced the FBI's recommendation and mocked Obama and Clinton for acting "like a carnival act" on the trail. But he also meandered through a myriad of other topics in a speech that stretched on for more than an hour.
If Trump can use the email issue to refocus his campaign, it would be a welcome development for those Republicans still struggling to support a nominee whose policies and personality they find offensive.
They are instead united in their opposition to Clinton, and most are motivated by a desire to keep her out of the White House more than anything else. Comey's critique wasn't the indictment they had hoped for, but once their disappointment passes, they may end up finding comfort in his words all the same.
Associated Press writers Kathleen Hennessey in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
Julie Pace has covered the White House and politics for The Associated Press since 2007. Follow her on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jpaceDC