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 2016 Democratic presidential nominee.
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 weekslong 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 3½ hours at FBI headquarters in Washington.
WATCH: FBI Director James Comey discusses investigation
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.
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.
Republicans and Democrats alike criticized Lynch's airport get-together with Bill Clinton.
Clinton campaign pleased
Following Comey's announcement, Hillary Clinton's spokesman said the campaign is pleased the FBI will recommend no charges.
Shortly after learning of Comey's conclusion, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump denounced it on Twitter.
During a rally in North Carolina, Trump called the FBI's conclusion "disgraceful."
"I don't know about you, but I've always felt that Hillary Clinton would escape criminal charges for her dangerous and illegal behavior because I always knew, and I always see, and it's so sad, that our system is in fact rigged," Trump said. "It's totally rigged. It's corrupt."
Republicans want criminal charges
Paul Ryan, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, said Comey's conclusion "defies explanation. Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent."
When she first acknowledged use of the private email server more than a year ago, Clinton said she did so for "convenience," so that she would not have to carry two phones, one to handle government business and one to use for personal matters. 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.
Classified, top secret emails
Clinton said she never sent or received emails that were marked as classified documents. But Comey said FBI investigators found that 110 emails in 52 email chains contained classified information at the time they were sent, with eight of the chains having top secret information.
Comey said investigators do not believe that Clinton's emails were hacked by hostile, foreign interests. However, he said "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.
One Democratic strategist, Robert Weiner, said, "The Republicans have had a myth for a long time, and it was more wishful thinking than reality, that Secretary Clinton did something wrong. The reality is that she did not send or receive anything marked classified at the time and she had no malicious intent to hide anything from the American people. It was sent as a matter of convenience.
"This might have been a wrong decision for judgment, but it was absolutely not an illegal decision. The FBI made precisely the right statement," Weiner said.
A Republican strategist, Paris Dennard, said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by Comey's conclusion, but thinks the American public will not accept it.
"You can say that she doesn’t get the charges," Dennard said. "But in the court of public opinion and the American people, they know what the truth is. That’s why she continues to suffer when it comes to the American people looking at how they view her as being someone who they can trust and someone who has credibility."
National polling shows Clinton with about a 5 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. Polls typically have a margin of error of about 3 percentage points higher or lower.
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, says she’ll abide by FBI recommendation on email case.
July 2, 2016: FBI interviews Clinton for 3½ hours at FBI headquarters in Washington.
July 5, 2016: FBI Director James Comey announces decision not to bring charges.