Near the beginning of a recent interview, an FBI investigator broached a topic with longtime Hillary Clinton aide Cheryl Mills that her lawyer and the Justice Department had agreed would be off limits, according to several people familiar with the matter.
Mills and her lawyer left the room — though both returned a short time later — and prosecutors were somewhat taken aback that their FBI colleague had ventured beyond what was anticipated, the people said.
Investigators consider Mills — who served as chief of staff while Clinton was secretary of state — to be a cooperative witness. But the episode demonstrates some of the tension surrounding the criminal probe into possible mishandling of classified information involving the leading Democratic presidential candidate. In the coming weeks, prosecutors and FBI agents hope to be able to interview Clinton herself as they work to bring the case to a close.
The incident was described to The Washington Post by several people, including U.S. law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing and those involved could face professional consequences for discussing it publicly.
It is not completely unknown for FBI agents and prosecutors to diverge on interview tactics and approach, and the people familiar with the matter said Mills answered investigators’ questions. Mills and her lawyer, Beth Wilkinson, also asked for breaks more than once to confer, the people said.
The questions that were considered off limits had to do with the procedure used to produce emails to the State Department so they could possibly be released publicly, the people said. Mills, an attorney herself, was not supposed to be asked questions about that — and ultimately never was in the recent interview — because it was considered confidential as an example of attorney-client privilege, the people said.
So far, investigators have found scant evidence tying Clinton to criminal wrongdoing, though they are still probing the case aggressively and charges have not been ruled out. In recent weeks, they have been interviewing Mills and other aides. One former State Department staffer who worked on Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Bryan Pagliano, was granted immunity so he would cooperate as part of the probe.
There is no indication a grand jury has been convened in the case.
In response to this story, Wilkinson said, “Ms. Mills has cooperated with the government.” The Clinton campaign also did not provide a response, but spokesman Brian Fallon has said repeatedly that Clinton is willing to answer investigators’ questions, and he added in a recent statement that “we hope and expect that anyone else who is asked would do the same.”
Clinton herself said on CBS’s “Face The Nation” Sunday that she has “made it clear I’m more than ready to talk to anybody, anytime” and that she looked forward to the inquiry being “wrapped up.”