Those damned emails again

FBI Director James Comey
FBI Director James Comey

| On Friday, FBI Director James Comey dropped an intentionally explosive device into the presidential campaign by sending a vaguely worded letter to Republican committee chairs, saying that "the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation" [of Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server].

As any damned fool could have foreseen, the disclosure rocked the campaigns, the carefully worded caveats notwithstanding. The letter made essentially three points:

In other words, We may or may not have found something, we don't know what it is, we have no idea when we'll know anything more, but feel free to speculate.

The "unrelated case" turns out to be Anthony Wiener's tendency to send pictures of his penis indiscriminately to women he knows only through the internet. The emails were on some device (say a laptop) used by Wiener and, apparently, his estranged wife Huma Abedin, a key Clinton staffer of many years.

But back to Comey. Comey has cultivated an aura of being a squeaky-clean straight shooter and was appointed to his post by President Obama. But Comey is no stranger to controversy (NYTimes, Oct 29, 2016):

Over and over again he has gone beyond the policies that have for decades guided FBI actions. In July when he declined to recommend criminal charges, he took the unprecedented step of commenting beyond the decision, testified before Congress about the FBI process in reaching the conclusion, and then subsequently released raw FBI files to Congress. All unprecedented and, according to numerous Justice Department officials, in violation of long-standing policies designed to protect the integrity and reputation of the FBI.

I can understand Comey's reasoning: if he said nothing, the existence of the emails was sure to leak out and he would seem to be covering it up; if he waited until they had analyzed what they had found, then disclosed it, he would be accused over covering it up until after the election. In other words he put himself in a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" position. But I think that the charge of interferring in the election ought to outweigh these considerations. After all, part of the job of any high government official is to take the heat that comes from doing the right thing — the right thing in this case being not to throw gasoline on an already super-charged election.

There has been condemnation from both sides of the aisle that by making the disclosure as he did, with no details or explanation, he has created an incredible mess that is impossible to clean up before the election next week. George Terwilliger III, a deputy attorney general under President GW Bush said,

Those guidelines exist for a reason. Sometimes, that makes for hard decisions. But bypassing them has consequences....

There’s a difference between being independent and flying solo.

The FBI director is appointed for a 10-year term, intended to insulate the director from partisan politics. The only ways the director can be removed is by firing by the president "for cause" and by being impeached by the House and convicted by the Senate. In the current political environment, neither is a plausible outcome. Besides, I'm not sure that the controversies Comey has gotten himself into constitute "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."

At first, Hillary gave a measured response to this new bombshell, urging the FBI to explain what they have and expressing confidence that it won't affect many voters. But later she and her campaign have switched to a full-throated attack on Comey, calling his disclosure "deeply troubling":

It's pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election. In fact, it's not just strange; it's unprecedented and it is deeply troubling.

It seems that Hillary is doomed to go through the rest of her life defined by and defending her use of email as Secretary of State.

Glenn McCoy
Glenn McCoy

When Comey announced in July that he would not recommend charges, that it wasn't even "a close call," Donald Trump savaged him as covering up for Hillary, rigging the system. But with this latest disclosure, Comey has become Trump's hero, not his goat.

Mike Luckovich
Mike Luckovich

I have no idea how this is all going to play out. It may deter those few who were wavering on the cusp of voting for Hillary because Trump is abominable. It may draw those few who were about to break from of Trump's gravitational field. I would guess that we're maybe talking movement of a point or two at most - after all, virtually everybody has made up their mind and millions have already voted. Whatever leverage Trump has from obsessing over Hillary's "scandals" and "corruption" are already baked in the cake.

The worrisome, most-inconvenient fact, however, is that the race is narrowing. The latest Washington Post/ABC News Tracking Poll puts Trump just a point behind Hillary. A third of those polled say that the FBI's action makes them "less likely to vote for Clinton."

Washington Post / ABC News poll

The fat lady has not sung yet, but I can hear her clearing her throat and warming up the vocal cords!

Last updated on Apr 13, 2018



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