By Jordan Fabian - 10-31-16 13:34 PM EDT
The White House on Monday said James Comey is not trying to tip the scales in the presidential election, amid criticism from Democrats over the FBI director's decision to inform Congress about a new probe into emails possibly related to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server.
"The president doesn't believe Director Comey is intentionally trying to influence the outcome of an election," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters. "The president doesn't believe he's secretly strategizing to benefit one candidate or one political party."
Earnest called Comey "a man of integrity" and a "man of good character" but acknowledged that "he's in a tough spot" when it comes to the Clinton email probe.
"I'll neither defend nor criticize what Director Comey has decided to communicate to the public about this investigation," he added.
Earnest said that the Justice Department's "expansive" investigative authorities should be tempered by "longstanding tradition, practice, and norms that limit public discussion of facts."
He declined, however, to say whether those norms were violated in this case.
"The president believes it's important for those norms and traditions and guidelines to be followed," he said.
Earnest's comments are a break with the Clinton campaign and top Democrats in Congress, who have fumed that the FBI director - a Republican - decided to send a letter to lawmakers informing them of the investigation.
Comey's action roiled the presidential race less than two weeks from Election Day.
It refocused attention on Clinton's controversial email setup as secretary of State at a time when she was already struggling to handle the fallout from emails stolen from her campaign chairman, John Podesta. Those emails were published by WikiLeaks.
While the news bolstered Republican nominee Donald Trump's campaign, nervous Democrats have pushed back hard against Comey.
Clinton's campaign circulated a release Sunday night signed by almost 100 former federal prosecutors, including former Attorney General Eric Holder, saying Comey's decision "breaks with longstanding practices" regarding the Justice Department's handling of sensitive cases around an election.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Sunday that Comey possibly violated a federal law barring government officials from using their position to influence an election.
The senator also accused Comey of sitting on "explosive information" about Trump's ties to the Russian government and implied he regretted supporting his nomination as FBI director in 2013.
"When Republicans filibustered your nomination and delayed your confirmation longer than any previous nominee to your position, I led the fight to get you confirmed because I believed you to be a principled public servant," Reid wrote in a letter to Comey. "With the deepest regret, I now see that I am wrong."
Earnest said that "the president thinks very highly of Director Comey and continues to have confidence in his ability to do the job."
In a note to staff, Comey said he felt obligated to alert Congress to a new development in the Clinton email probe even though it could set off a furor on her campaign trail.
"Of course, we don't ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record," he wrote in a memo to agency employees.
Comey on Friday told lawmakers the FBI is pursuing additional emails that could potentially be tied to its investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified information while using a private server while secretary of State.
The latest probe reportedly is about messages on a computer belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who is married to but now separated from longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Weiner is accused of sexting a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina.
-- This post was updated at 1:57 p.m.