The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation says it is recommending no criminal charges be brought against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, lifting a major political and legal hurdle for the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate.
FBI Director James Comey sharply condemned Clinton, who served as the country's top diplomat from 2009 to 2013, and her colleagues at the State Department for what he said Tuesday was their "extremely careless" handling of classified material they sent to each other via a private email server she established at her home in New York.
But Comey said FBI investigators in an extensive probe of thousands of Clinton's emails could not find evidence that she "clearly, willfully" sought to violate U.S. laws and that "no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case" against her based on the evidence uncovered in the weeks-long investigation.
The FBI's probe of her use of the private email server, instead of a government server with tight security controls, culminated last Saturday with investigators and government prosecutors questioning her for 3 1/2 hours at FBI headquarters in Washington.
Comey's statement came a week after a political uproar over an encounter Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, had with the country's top law enforcement official, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, on an airport tarmac in Phoenix, Arizona. Both Bill Clinton and Lynch said they chatted for half an hour, although not about the email case, but subsequently regretted doing so while Lynch was overseeing the email investigation, with purview over the FBI.
WATCH: FBI Director James Comey discusses investigation
Clinton campaign pleased
Following Comey's announcement, Hillary Clinton's spokesman said the campaign is pleased the FBI will recommend no charges. Brian Fallon says the campaign is "pleased that the career officials overseeing the investigation" have determined that no further action by the department is appropriate. He added the campaign is "glad that this matter is now resolved."
Shortly after learning of Comey's conclusion, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced it on Twitter.
He said former CIA director David Petraeus, who leaked classified information to a woman who was his lover and biographer, "got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair. As usual, bad judgment."
Republicans want criminal charges
Many Republicans have called for criminal charges against Clinton, but Comey said, "No charges are appropriate in this case." He said he could assure the American public that the investigation was carried out "honestly, competently and independently ... in an entirely apolitical way."
Clinton, when she first acknowledged use of the private email server more than a year ago, said she did so for "convenience," so she would not have to carry two phones, one to handle government business and one to use for personal matters, such as planning for her daughter Chelsea's 2010 wedding. But she quickly acknowledged that mixing official State Department business with personal emails was "a mistake."
Well after she left office in early 2013, she deleted about 30,000 emails she and her lawyers deemed to be personal and turned another 30,000 official government-related emails over to the State Department, as she was required to do in any event because of government record-keeping regulations. But Comey said many more emails were discovered as well.
Clinton said she never sent or received emails that were marked as classified documents. But Comey said "any reasonable person in her position should've known that an unclassified system was no place" for conversations about certain documents because of the subjects being discussed.
Comey said FBI investigators concluded that the "security culture at the State Department was generally lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the federal government."
Classified, top secret emails
In all, the FBI chief said the agency's investigators found 110 emails in 52 email chains contained classified information at the time they were sent, with eight of the chain having top secret information; 36 of them carrying secret information, the second level of security, and eight confidential information, the lowest security classification. In addition, he said that as investigators rechecked her emails with the government agencies that sent them, another 2,000 emails were "upclassified" to give them a confidential rating.
He said it was likely that as she deleted her personal emails, some additional work emails were also deleted and thus could no longer be examined.
Comey said investigators do not believe that Clinton's emails were hacked by hostile, foreign interests, but that "we would be unlikely to see such evidence."
He said, however, that "hostile actors" gained access to private commercial interests that Clinton corresponded with and that her extensive use of personal email outside the United States and in the territories of "extensive adversaries" makes it possible they gained access to her personal accounts.
Polls favor Clinton
National polling shows Clinton with about a five percentage point edge over Trump four months before the November 8 election to pick the successor to President Barack Obama, who leaves office in January.
Key dates in email case
Jan. 13, 2009: Clintonemail.com domain is established.
Jan. 21, 2009: Senate confirms Clinton as secretary of state.
Feb. 17, 2009: National Security Agency and tech experts warn Clinton chief of staff Cheryl Mills against boss using private BlackBerry and server, citing hacking risks.
March 18, 2009: Date Clinton later says marks start of her using server.
Sept. 11, 2012: Extremists attack U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, killing four Americans including U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens.
October 2012: Accountability Review Board assesses State Department’s Benghazi response, at Clinton’s behest.
March 2, 2015: The New York Times reports on Clinton’s use of private email server as secretary.
March 10, 2015: Clinton defends using server for "convenience."
July 24, 2015: State Department and national security officials ask Justice Department to review whether Clinton’s private email use compromised classified information.
Aug. 11, 2015: Clinton’s campaign says she turned over records to Justice Department.
May 25, 2016: State Department’s inspector general issues report criticizing Clinton’s private email use, citing 2005 requirement to use government computers.
July 1, 2016: Attorney General Loretta Lynch – trying to tamp down conflict-of-interest accusations after visit with former president Bill Clinton at airport in Phoenix, Arizona, says she’ll abide by FBI recommendation on email case.
July 2, 2016: FBI interviews Clinton for 3 ½ hours at FBI headquarters in Washington.
July 5, 2016: FBI Director James Comey announces decision not to bring charges.