Harry Reid says FBI Director James Comey 'may have broken' federal law

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid set off a firestorm of criticism Sunday after he said that FBI Director James Comey "may have broken" a federal law when he disclosed on Friday that his office was pursuing potential new evidence related to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server less than two weeks before the presidential election.

The Senate minority leader from Nevada wrote in a letter that Comey may have violated the Hatch Act, which bars government officials from using their position to influence an election.

"I am writing to inform you that my office has determined that these actions may violate the Hatch Act, which bars FBI officials from using their official authority to influence an election," Reid wrote. "Through your partisan actions, you may have broken the law."

Reid, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of his term, added that Comey's "highly selective approach to publicizing information, along with your timing, was intended for the success or failure of a partisan candidate or political group."

The FBI did not immediately respond to requests for comment about Reid's letter.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Jason Caffetz, R-Utah, Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, disputed Reid's claims about Comey.

“Director Comey is updating his previous testimony, and he should do that,” Chaffetz told the newspaper. “Hillary Clinton can only blame herself for this mess. She created this problem, not Director Comey.”

Other Republicans also reacted to Reid's letter.

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., called Reid a "disgrace to American politics."

"Harry Reid is a disgrace to American politics, among worst men ever in Senate. He can't go soon enough, & many Democrats privately agree," Cotton posted on Twitter.

In an interview Sunday night on "Special Report with Bret Baier,"  Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C. called Reid "a hack."

"Thank god he's leaving is my initial reaction," he said, adding that "anyone capable of sending that press release has to be under the influence of something."

Gowdy, chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, said that the American people "have to have confidence in the FBI and Department of Justice."

In a seperate action, former Attorney General Eric Holder and dozens of other former federal prosecutors signed a letter Sunday night critical of Comey's recent actions in the Clinton email case.

The letter says that Comey deviated from Justice Department policy when he alerted Congress to the new discovery of emails potentially related to the Clinton email investigation.

Justice Department officials are instructed not to discuss ongoing investigations and to "exercise heightened restraint near the time of a primary or general election," to avoid the appearance of prosecutorial influence in the electoral process, according to the letter.

"We cannot recall a prior instance where a senior Justice Department official — Republican or Democrat — has, on the eve of a major election, issued a public statement where the mere disclosure of information may impact the election's outcome yet the official acknowledges the information to be examined may not be significant or new," the letter states.

Comey acknowledged in a memo to FBI colleagues on Friday that he knew the letter was at risk of being misunderstood so close to the election, but that he felt obliged to update Congress on the emails after having earlier told lawmakers that the email inquiry had been closed.

But the ex-prosecutors say Comey's letter was so devoid of detail as to "invite considerable, uninformed public speculation" about the emails' significance. They note that Comey did not reveal who had sent or received the emails, whether the emails include duplicates of messages that have already been reviewed or whether the emails contain any classified information.

The letter is signed by dozens of attorneys, including former Justice Department officials in Washington — among them, former deputy attorneys general James Cole, Jamie Gorelick, Larry Thompson and David Ogden — and a group of United States attorneys and assistant U.S. attorneys.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.