The independent watchdog at the U.S. Justice Department said Thursday he is launching a probe of the agency's handling of the investigation of Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, one of the most contentious issues of last year's presidential election campaign that she lost.
Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz said he would look at how Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey conducted his year-long probe of Clinton, the top U.S. diplomat from 2009 to 2013 who was trying to become the country's first female president.
Comey, while saying Clinton's handling of classified material on her email server was "extremely careless," cleared her four months ahead of the election of criminal wrongdoing. But Comey reopened the investigation in the days just ahead of the November 8 voting and then said two days before the election investigators had found nothing new.
Clinton has attributed Comey's reopening of his investigation 11 days ahead of the official Election Day — a time when millions of voters already were casting early ballots — as a key factor in her stunning upset loss to Republican Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate mogul turned politician who next week is taking office as the country's 45th president.
WATCH: Earnest on Inspector General probe
"Presumably, the stakes are even higher for the inspector general who has a responsibility for conducting these kind of investigations of independent law enforcement agencies. I can tell you that the White House was not involved in that decision and anything the inspector general chooses to investigate is something that he or she will do based on their own view of the situation, their own knowledge of the facts and hopefully they will follow the evidence where it leads, if they find any evidence," White House spokesman Josh Earnest added.
Across the U.S., Clinton won nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, but lost the election under the system the U.S. uses to pick its presidents, with state-by-state results determining the outcome in the Electoral College. Clinton won two big states, California and New York, by huge margins, to account for her edge in the national popular vote, while Trump captured several states by much narrower margins in the country's industrial heartland to win the presidency in the Electoral College.
Clinton on numerous occasions called her use of the private email server a mistake, but she said she never knowingly sent or received classified material on the unsecured email system she used rather than a secure government computer server. But investigators found some classified material among thousands of Clinton emails.
The issue plagued Clinton's campaign, leaving some voters to question her honesty and forthrightness in answering questions about the issue.
Despite Trump's repeated campaign taunt describing her as "Crooked Hillary," the Clinton campaign thought the issue was behind it with Comey's decision in July to not pursue criminal charges.
But FBI investigators, in the month before the election, found thousands more Clinton-related emails on the computer of a disgraced former congressman, Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of a key Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, leading Comey to reopen the probe. As it turned out, many of these emails were duplicates of ones the FBI had already examined in reaching its July decision to not file criminal charges against Clinton.
During the campaign, Trump said that if he were elected, he wanted a special prosecutor to pursue the case against Clinton. After he won, however, Trump retreated from a pledge to prosecute her.
Horowitz's office said he will investigate whether Comey erred in publicly stating in July he would not pursue criminal charges against Clinton, whether Justice and FBI employees improperly disclosed non-public information about the case, and whether Comey should have announced publicly that he was reopening the investigation just before the election.