The 2016 election campaign has been brimming with so much absurdity and never-before-seen antics that it has become increasingly hard to know exactly what to expect, especially now that we’re in the home stretch. This Friday, yet another M. Night Shyamalam-like twist occurred when FBI Director James Comey revealed potentially troubling information regarding Hillary Clinton’s usage of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State.
A letter sent to various Congressional committees announced that the FBI will be reopening their probe into Clinton’s private email server following newly-discovered emails allegedly sent through the server. This new tidbit of information that rekindled the investigation was discovered during an inquiry into lewd sexual texts supposedly sent by disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner to a fifteen-year-old girl in North Carolina.
Federal agents found these emails on a laptop seized from Weiner which he shared with his former wife and long-time Clinton ally and aide, Huma Abedin. According to Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald, Abedin had issues with printing emails and articles sent within the State Department system and would thus forward emails from her unclassified State Department account to either her Yahoo account or another email account she had on Clinton’s private server so she could print them out. Though it is still somewhat unclear at the moment exactly what new information the FBI is examining, it is speculated that there likely won’t be any damming evidence which leads to Clinton’s arrest, much to the chagrin of Republicans nation-wide.
In an internal memo to bureau employees written following the release of the letter, Comey attempted to clarify the purpose of the investigation without giving away too many details pertaining it. Comey held that while “there is significant risk of being misunderstood” with such vague statements, he felt compelled to let Congress know about this new information to avoid even the slightest hint of a potential cover up. The memo also mentions that “we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails”.
Back in July, the Clinton campaign breathed a collective sigh of relief after a months-long federal investigation into her mishandling of classified information concluded with Director Comey refusing to recommend charges be brought against her. Republicans–particularly Donald Trump supporters and even some members of the Bureau–vilified Comey’s decision and held that he was using his position of power to allow Clinton to skirt federal law with impunity. Democrats, on the other hand, hailed Comey’s decision, with many praising him for weathering harsh attacks from Republicans.
But now the tables have turned, with Democrats bashing Comey’s decision while most Republicans welcome the new development with open arms. Clinton campaign manager John Podesta expressed his outrage in a statement released Friday, saying
It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election. The Director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining. We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July.
California Senator Dianne Feinstein slammed Comey’s decision, saying “The FBI has a history of extreme caution near Election Day so as not to influence the results. Today’s break from that tradition is appalling.” The top Democrat in the House Oversight Committee, Elijah Cummings, also expressed his displeasure:
The FBI Director did explain in his letter that none of this information may even be significant, but that did not stop Republicans from hyperventilating and making wild accusations. I can understand the FBI’s concern about being attacked for not keeping Republicans informed of any possible development –no matter how small–but I believe the FBI now has an obligation to make public as much information as possible as soon as possible to eliminate any inaccuracies or confusion about these issues.
After the conclusion of Clinton’s email investigation in July, however, Cummings hailed Comey for remaining unwavering in the face of staunch Republican criticism.
Top Republicans rejoiced upon hearing the news, seeing this as a deus ex machina sent to save the crumbling Trump campaign and extinguish Clinton’s hopes in the last days before the election. A statement released by House Speaker Paul Ryan called on the Director of National Intelligence to “suspend all classified briefings for Secretary Clinton until this matter is fully resolved”. After months of bemoaning the process of being “rigged” against him, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump pounced on the news and used it to blast his opponent at a Friday rally in Manchester, New Hampshire.
Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must never let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office. […] I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made.
The crowd responded in loud jeers and chants of “lock her up!” permeated the hall where Trump spoke. Trump also took the renewed investigation as a sign that “maybe the system will become a little less rigged”.
To some, this latest release of information may have tainted the FBI’s role as an apolitical organization, especially on the heels of allegations that Democrats tried to win themselves political favors with the bureau. A political action committee (PAC) associated with Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe donated nearly half a million dollars to the Senatorial campaign of Dr. Jill McCabe–wife of one of the agents investigating Clinton’s email server. An additional $200,000 was donated to McCabe’s campaign by the Virginia Democratic Party. Though McCabe’s campaign ultimately failed when she lost to Republican incumbent Dick Black, McCabe’s husband, Andrew, was coincidentally promoted to deputy director in February of this year. However, any wrongdoing has yet to be proven.
Comey’s decision has also caused a rift between the Department of Justice and the FBI. Senior Justice Department officials warned the Bureau that Comey’s decision to notify Congress was contrary to long-standing protocols of the department. An official with the DOJ who spoke with The Washington Post on condition of anonymity stated that the department “don’t comment on an ongoing investigation. And we don’t take steps that will be viewed as influencing an election”.
The Weiner sexting scandal placed Director Comey in a catch-22 situation where he was damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Comey swore under oath to keep the “relevant” committees updated on any new information regarding the probe that might arise–that’s not to say that Comey discovered a criminal act occurred, just that he needed to report anything new, no matter how inane or innocuous it might be.
Had he kept this information from Congress and the American people until after election day, people throughout the country would be outrage. Republicans and Trump supporters would be seething with anger, perhaps foaming at the mouth in pure contempt. It would de-legitimized the work that the bureau does going forward and would potentially end the political careers of Comey and anyone else involved in the cover up.
Comey was placed in a tough position, but he did the American people and Hillary Clinton a great disservice by presenting this new information the way he did. He could have done a much better job to contextualize what would otherwise a shocking bombshell. The responsible thing to do would be as Hillary Clinton called on him to do and release the “full and complete” facts of the probe.
Though the new batch of documents being investigated by the FBI will probably amount to nothing more than minor to moderate embarrassment for the Clinton campaign, it can potentially disrupt their chances of winning the presidency in 10 days. In light of Clinton’s final debate performance coupled with Trump’s unprofessional and lewd behavior/words, Clinton began to pull away from Trump once and for all. However, the seven point lead Clinton enjoyed coming out of the last debate has since eroded to four points. Trump is likely continue chipping away at this lead, weaponizing Comey’s decision. Voters at home who are still on the fence might see this latest development as further reason not to trust Clinton.
However, early voting is already taking place in thirty four states (including DC) with close to 20 million votes already cast. Early voting polls show that Clinton has a somewhat comfortable lead over Trump in the crucial swing states of Ohio and Arizona as well as Republican strongholds in Georgia and Texas. The polls will likely continue fluctuating between now and November 8, especially as more information on both candidates gets released, purposefully or not; how wildly the polls will swing and ultimately how indicative of the actual election results they will be is yet to be determined.