For nine long days, with the election imminent, a cloud of suspicion hung over Hillary Clinton.

Millions of early votes were cast during that period - votes that undoubtedly contributed to her stunning defeat to Donald Trump.

Many of Clinton's shattered supporters are looking for someone to blame, and that someone is FBI Director James Comey.

Comey sensationally intervened in the race on October 28, just 11 days before the election. He wrote a bombshell letter to congressional leaders, revealing the FBI had reopened its investigation into Clinton's email scandal.

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The agency had discovered new emails connected to Clinton on a laptop shared between her top aide, Huma Abedin, and Abedin's husband, Anthony Weiner.

"In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation," Comey wrote.

"Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony."

That ambiguous letter, frustratingly short on details, left Americans wondering what exactly the FBI had found. Comey did not elaborate at all until two days before the election, when he sent another letter saying the new investigation had not uncovered any evidence to justify an indictment of Clinton.

James Comey. Photo / AP
James Comey. Photo / AP

At the time of Comey's first letter, Clinton had a huge lead in the polls. That lead almost entirely evaporated as the renewed FBI investigation dominated the news, closing the gap to the low single digits.

You know the rest. Trump surged past his opponent on election day, sweeping all the critical swing states and stunning the world.

The temptation to blame Comey is strong for demoralised Democrats. Exit polls showed more than 60 per cent of voters cited Clinton's email scandal as a major concern. But many commentators say the person really to blame is Clinton herself.

It's true that Clinton, and no one else, was ultimately responsible for the email scandal. If not for her careless actions, Comey would have had no reason to intervene.

Still, Clinton's supporters are left to wonder what might have been.

WHO IS JAMES COMEY?

Comey was appointed FBI Director by President Obama in 2013, but only rose to true public prominence because of the investigation into Clinton's emails. Here's what we know about him.

• He's a rich Republican

Comey is a Republican Party member with a reported net worth of more than US$11 million, according to CNN. He donated to the presidential campaigns of the last two Republican presidential nominees, John McCain and Mitt Romney.

He and his wife own a home in Connecticut worth US$3 million, where they are licensed foster care parents. The Comeys have also donated money to create a foundation to help children in foster care.

• He disputed America's wire-tapping program

While working for the Bush administration, Comey questioned a plan to re-authorise its warrantless surveillance program, which led to him drafting a letter of resignation in 2004.

Comey never sent that letter, but in it, he said he had been asked to be part of something "fundamentally wrong". Shortly afterwards, Comey met privately with President Bush, who "agreed to do the right thing and put the program on a footing where we could certify its legality".

• He prosecuted Martha Stewart

When celebrity lifestyle guru Martha Stewart was charged with illegal insider trading in 2003, Comey was the man who brought the charges against her.

"This criminal case is about lying. Lying to the FBI, lying to the SEC, lying to investors," Comey said at the time, when he was the US Attorney for the southern district of New York. "Martha Stewart is being prosecuted not for who she is, but because of what she did."

Stewart was convicted on all counts in 2004, and spent five months in jail.

• He's investigated the Clintons before

In the mid-1990s, Comey investigated fraud allegations against the Clintons in connection with a failed real estate venture. No charges were brought against them.

In 2002, he took over an investigation into President Clinton's pardon of financier Marc Rich. Again, he decided not to pursue the case.

• He 'doesn't give a hoot' about politics

In July of this year, Comey told a Senate committee looking into the Clinton email inquiry that he "didn't give a hoot about politics".

"People can disagree, can agree, but they will at least understand that the decision was made and the recommendation was made the way you would want it to be, by people who didn't give a hoot about politics, who cared about what are the facts, what is the law, and how similar people, all people have been treated in the past."

HOW THE EMAIL SCANDAL UNFOLDED

Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking in New York where she conceded her defeat to Republican Donald Trump. Photo / AP
Hillary Clinton pauses while speaking in New York where she conceded her defeat to Republican Donald Trump. Photo / AP

When she became Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton set up a private server for her emails instead of using the official government system. That server's existence was first revealed to the public in March of 2015, long after she left the State Department.

The revelation prompted an investigation from Barack Obama's Justice Department, as Clinton's political opponents accused her of violating government rules and making classified information vulnerable to hackers. In response, Clinton repeatedly said no email she sent or received through the server was classified, before later altering her language to claim none of the emails were "marked" classified at the time.

Clinton handed over tens of thousands of work-related emails to the department - but deleted tens of thousands more from the server, because she deemed them "personal". Some of those emails were recovered by the FBI after it joined the investigation, but many weren't.

In May, the State Department's internal watchdog said Clinton and her team had ignored clear warnings that her email set-up violated federal standards and could leave sensitive material vulnerable. The audit said Clinton had feared "the personal would have been accessible" if she had used a government email account.

'EXTREMELY CARELESS'

In July, after a year-long investigation into Clinton's emails, Comey issued a scathing takedown of her behaviour - but did not recommend charges.

"There is evidence that (Clinton's team) were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information," Comey said.

"There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton's position ... should have known that an unclassified system was no place" for sensitive conversations, he added.

Comey directly contradicted many of Clinton's past statements, including her assertion that she'd turned over all her emails and that she had never sent or received any that were classified at the time. He revealed "several thousand work-related emails" were not among the group of 30,000 emails Clinton voluntarily turned over to investigators.

However, he said Clinton and her aides had not intended to break laws governing the handling of classified information, and therefore "no charges" were appropriate.