Finally, the big October Surprise – the FBI had discovered the emails where Hillary Clinton had discussed with her staff how they’d all work together to cover up the fact she had ordered the death of our ambassador and those three others in Benghazi, because she was a founding member of ISIS just like Donald Trump said – and how they’d cover up the fact that she was Muslim, not a Methodist – and how they’d cover up the fact that she was really a transgendered man from Haiti – and how she had sold state secrets to anyone who wanted them, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling. She was going to jail, not the White House. Donald Trump would be our next president, by default. It was over.
No, it wasn’t over. This was less than it seemed:
Just as Hillary Clinton appeared to be cruising to election day with the wind at her back, the FBI rattled the presidential race Friday by announcing it is again probing emails that might be related to her private server, rekindling a politically damaging controversy for Clinton and reinvigorating Republicans scrambling to hold on to congressional seats.
The surprise word from FBI Director James Comey came after his agency discovered new communications on a computer jointly used by close Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, a former New York congressman, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. Investigators came across the emails while investigating whether Weiner violated federal law when exchanging sexually explicit texts with a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, the official said.
Comey wrote in a letter to Congress that the newly discovered messages could be relevant to questions of whether Clinton and her aides mishandled classified information while she was secretary of State.
Ah, these emails “might” be related to her private server. They might not. They “could” be relevant to questions of whether Clinton and her aides mishandled classified information – but maybe not. There was nothing here:
The emails were not to or from Clinton, and contained information that appeared to be more of what agents had already uncovered, the official said, but in an abundance of caution, they felt they needed to further scrutinize them.
Okay, they weren’t to or from Clinton and seem to be duplicates of what they already had anyway, so this seems to have been a courtesy notification:
Because Comey had told Congress that the FBI had finished investigating Clinton’s server, he felt he needed to let lawmakers know that agents were looking into the case again in light of the recent discovery, the official said.
A courtesy notification might have been a bad idea:
News of Comey’s letter sent the stock market falling and Republican candidates rewriting their stump speeches. The Clinton campaign was caught off guard, as the letter emerged while the candidate and her entourage, including Abedin, were flying on a campaign plane with no working Wi-Fi en route to a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Speaking briefly to reporters after an event in Des Moines, Clinton called on Comey to release more information. She said neither she nor her campaign staff was contacted by the FBI and noted twice that the bureau communicated only with Republican congressional investigators.
“The American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately,” she said.
She’s fine with the facts:
Clinton also expressed confidence that whatever might be in the newly discovered emails “will not change the conclusion” Comey reached in July when he announced he would not recommend criminal charges.
Others were not as calm:
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, excoriated Comey’s timing.
“The FBI has a history of extreme caution near election day so as not to influence the results,” she said in a statement. “Today’s break from that tradition is appalling.”
Yeah, yeah – but curiously, some Republicans felt the same way:
“The letter from Director Comey was unsolicited and, quite honestly, surprising,” said a statement from Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a Republican. “But it’s left a lot more questions than answers for both the FBI and Secretary Clinton. Congress and the public deserve more context to properly assess what evidence the FBI has discovered and what it plans to do with it.”
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas asked in a tweet: “Why is FBI doing this just 11 days before the election?”
Comey had written in his letter that he could not assess whether the new messages contained “significant” material or “how long it will take us to complete this additional work.” He wrote that the FBI would “take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
The review could take weeks and will not be completed by Election Day, a law enforcement official said.
No one was happy with this, but one guy is in trouble:
The short note put Comey, a Republican who was appointed by President Obama, back under an unwelcome spotlight. Democrats who had praised his handling of the email investigation this year, when Comey declared he had reviewed the evidence and found it did not merit criminal charges against Clinton and her staff, are now questioning his judgment.
Republicans who accused Comey of covering up Clinton’s misdeeds then were lauding his courage Friday. Donald Trump said the political system “might not be as rigged as I thought.”
Comey can’t catch a break, but Donald Trump thought he had caught one:
The announcement that FBI agents would again be combing through emails possibly linked to Clinton’s private server was enough to shift the tone of the race. Minutes after the news broke, Trump took the stage in Manchester, N.H., to suggest the FBI was all but ready to indict Clinton – which Comey’s letter hardly suggested.
“Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” Trump said as the crowd roared “lock her up,” a staple chant at his rallies. “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.”
Trump branded the latest news from the FBI “bigger than Watergate.”
That seems a bit premature, but down-ballot Republicans, who seem to know Trump will still lose, were happy:
Congressional GOP candidates in tight races, who have been struggling to deflect voter attention away from their uneasiness with a presidential nominee who has been a drag on the ticket, were also quick to pounce.
“This decision shows exactly why we need strong watchdogs in Congress to ensure thorough oversight of the executive branch,” Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista said in a statement. “The federal government constantly needs to be held accountable to curb poor judgment – like using a private server to circumvent federal records laws – and incomplete investigations that fail to deliver justice and erode public faith in government.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan renewed his call to suspend classified briefings to the Democratic presidential nominee. Like Trump, Ryan took liberties in interpreting Comey’s carefully worded letter. Ryan declared the FBI is reopening its investigation into Clinton’s private email server, which is not what Comey wrote.
Forgive them, because unless this new FBI review leads to new evidence of actual wrongdoing by Clinton, nothing is going to change how things are going for the party. Seventeen million Americans have already cast their ballots – the early voting is massive this year. Clinton will win. These guys will say they have to be elected again to keep her in check:
Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is locked in a tight race with Democrat Katie McGinty, quickly sought to link his opponent to Clinton’s email woes, pointing to a controversy in Pennsylvania over some of McGinty’s electronic communications. “We knew McGinty was in complete lock-step with Hillary Clinton, but sharing an email scandal is ridiculous,” Toomey spokesman Ted Kwong said in an email.
Other Republicans demanded their opponents disavow Clinton – just as Clinton and her allies have for months been demanding Republican candidates disavow Trump following some of his more incendiary comments and the emergence of a video in which Trump boasted of his uninvited sexual advances toward women.
“The FBI is reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton,” said one of a blizzard of carbon copy releases sent out by the National Republican Congressional Committee, where only the state and name of the Democrat targeted on each was changed.
You have to work with what you’ve been handed, even if it’s a handful of nothing. What did Comey say? We have some emails we got from somewhere. That’s all I can tell you. They aren’t from Hillary Clinton. They weren’t withheld from the investigation. The case isn’t being “reopened.” That’s pretty much all for now. Have a nice day.
Kevin Drum offers this:
In other words, nobody has even looked at these emails yet. The FBI has to get a court order first. So: are these emails that have already been turned over? Maybe. Are they routine emails about schedules and so forth? Maybe. Nobody, including the FBI, has the slightest idea. But there’s certainly no reason to think there are any bombshells here.
Needless to say, that didn’t stop every news outlet in the country from blaring this at the tops of their front pages. They never learn, do they?
That’s a rhetorical question of course, but Paul Callan, a CNN legal analyst and former New York City prosecutor now involved in wrongful conviction and civil rights cases, thinks Comey should resign:
Donald Trump’s oft-repeated claim that the FBI’s investigation of “Crooked Hillary” and the presidential election itself were and are “rigged,” seems to have thrown FBI Director James Comey into a state of panic. In foolishly making a public announcement that the bureau is reviewing newly discovered emails related to Hillary Clinton’s personal server, he has inserted himself yet again into the presidential campaign.
That’s not what the FBI is supposed to do:
The FBI virtually never announces the commencement or termination of ongoing criminal investigations or the discovery of new evidence. Such inquiries are often conducted in relative secrecy, enabling a more efficient investigation.
It is not unusual for investigations in so-called “white collar” cases to go on for years, luring the target into an unfounded belief that he or she is in the clear. Then the hammer falls. A grand jury indictment is announced by the Department of Justice and the handcuffs are swiftly employed.
That’s not what happened here:
The old, sensible FBI rule book apparently has been thrown on the trash heap this year. While undoubtedly attempting to be open and “transparent,” to protect the reputation of the FBI, the FBI director has tossed a Molotov cocktail into the presidential race.
The FBI was now taking “appropriate investigative steps to assess their importance to our investigation.” What in the world does this mean? One thing it means is that this issue will move to front and center during the final days of the presidential campaign.
Voters must now be subjected to endless speculation in the press and explicit accusations from the Trump campaign and other Republican candidates that Hillary Clinton is a “criminal” aided and abetted by a rigged FBI and Justice Department. Comey’s “openness and transparency” will blow up in his face and further tarnish the FBI’s reputation. He has reinserted the Bureau into the political process.
The director probably feared that leaks would lead to speculation that a renewed Hillary investigation was underway. In trying to get ahead of criticism of the FBI for jumping to a conclusion too quickly and closing the original Hillary Clinton email investigation, he has only made matters worse and dropped a huge new issue into the presidential campaign, 11 days before the election.
This man, then, does not know what he’s doing:
In truth, investigations open and close routinely and secretly when new evidence comes to light. Each new scrap in a pile of useful or useless evidence is not announced in real time, like a scandal in a scripted reality TV Show. Perhaps it’s time for the embattled FBI director who seems to have forgotten how to conduct a proper investigation to resign.
Callan then lists the mistakes:
Comey’s public announcement in July that the FBI had concluded its investigation regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server in the conduct of official State Department business and would not recommend the lodging of criminal charges was historically unprecedented in a high-profile political case.
The decision to commence or terminate a criminal investigation by the FBI is rarely disclosed. In the case of high-profile political figures such as presidential candidates, the process normally requires that an FBI “recommendation” based on the evidence it has gathered must be forwarded to the Justice Department, where a career, nonpolitical unit reviews the matter, making a recommendation to the attorney general, who makes the final decision.
This sensible process was thrown into disarray when former President Bill Clinton made a surprise airport tarmac visit to none other than the sitting attorney general, Loretta Lynch. Both parties claimed that they engaged in harmless small talk involving their families and, of course, nothing about the FBI’s investigation of Hillary’s classified document and email server practices.
The meeting was utterly improper and the attorney general recognized this, promptly asserting that she would not personally make the decision about the Hillary Clinton email investigation, though strangely she would review the work of her subordinates before any public announcement of prosecution or non-prosecution was made.
This was then followed by the highly unusual announcement of “no criminal charges” and the end of the investigation by the FBI director. In the very rare case where an announcement of “no criminal charges” occurs, the prosecutors in the Justice Department would make such an announcement because Justice, not the FBI, makes prosecutorial decisions. The FBI makes a recommendation; Justice makes the decision.
Comey, while presumably attempting to insulate the Justice Department and the attorney general from claims that the Bill Clinton tarmac meeting had corrupted the investigative process, took the Justice Department and Loretta Lynch off the hook and made the announcement himself.
This was a screw-up from the beginning, but it’s worse now:
In defending the statement he made today, Comey might assert that he was attempting to clarify his prior Congressional testimony. But that elaboration on his testimony could legitimately have waited until the FBI completed its analysis of the new emails. He has been around long enough to understand that any new FBI statements regarding the email scandal during the final 11 days of the campaign had a high probability of improperly placing the Bureau into the political process.
Trashing the Justice and FBI rule books in the interest of “openness” is likely to put the FBI front and center in one of the most contentious presidential races in recent US history. J. Edgar Hoover loved to influence elections, but he had the good sense to keep quiet about it.
Hoover was better than this guy? That’s the ultimate condemnation. There’s nothing worse than that, but Slate’s Jamelle Bouie argues that none of this is going to make a bit of difference:
Tens of millions of Americans have already voted in battleground states like North Carolina, Florida, Texas, and Nevada. Given the effect of past email news, it’s possible this will turn off independent or undecided voters from Clinton. It’s also possible that her negatives are already baked in and won’t budge. And it’s possible, perhaps likely, that it won’t matter at all.
That’s because there’s been a misunderstanding here:
The folk theory of American democracy is that citizens deliberate on the issues and choose a candidate. That is false. The truth, as political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government is that voters are tribalistic. Their political allegiances come first, and their positions and beliefs follow. We’ve seen this with Donald Trump. Support for free trade is a longstanding belief within the GOP, but Trump is a major opponent, slamming most of the trade deals of the past 30 years. You would think that this would depress his support among Republican voters. It didn’t. Instead, those voters changed their views of trade. Their beliefs followed their affiliations, not the other way around.
When it comes to elections – or at least, presidential elections – this leads to an important conclusion: What a candidate believes is less important to voters than his or her partisan affiliation. Trump has passionate supporters who believe in his message of ethno-nationalism and racial exclusion. But the reason he’s a stone’s throw from the White House isn’t because he’s convinced 50 million Americans that he’s right. The reason Trump is relatively close is that he’s the Republican presidential nominee, and in a partisan, highly polarized country, that’s enough. In the past four presidential elections, major party nominees have won the vast majority of co-partisans – upward of 90 percent. Simply having the nomination is sufficient to put anyone in firing distance of becoming president, regardless of larger circumstances or events or personality deficiencies.
That leaves almost no persuadable voters to whom any of this makes a difference:
This polarization is so strong, in fact, that it renders the gaffes and incidents of recent elections almost irrelevant. Mitt Romney’s remarks on the “47 percent” in the 2012 election were bombshells that changed the immediate landscape of the election. But a month later, the effect had died down. In a real way, it didn’t matter. Again, we’ve seen the same with Trump. Scandals affect his numbers, but he always recovers, as Republicans return to his camp. It’s even happening now, as GOP voters look past the Access Hollywood tape to line up behind the real estate mogul.
If the final week of an election is a time of mass mobilization and hyperpartisanship, then the best odds are that the Weiner emails – and the renewed focus on Clinton’s email server – won’t matter. Indeed, that’s what it means for an electorate to be polarized. Whether pundits even begin to understand that is a separate question.
That also means we get stuff like this:
People on both sides of the political aisle are calling for clarification. Others have raised questions over the timing of FBI Director James Comey’s vague announcement. The straightforward response here is that Comey had previously told Congress that the FBI had reviewed all evidence and had not found anything in its investigation, and had to update the record with the latest evidence yet to be reviewed.
Rush Limbaugh had another theory – an unlikely and “cynical” (his words) one at that: Comey’s letter was an intentional distraction from the recent developments in WikiLeaks’ release of John Podesta’s emails, which Limbaugh thinks have been starting to take a toll on the Clinton campaign.
Comey, Limbaugh said, knows that “reopening the investigation is a big deal” and “is going to make everybody think for the next three or four days that there’s really something to be forthcoming here.”
Ah! Comey was working for Clinton all along! This was a diversion! Comey got America all hot and bothered about something he knew all along was nothing. It was a tease! It was a head-fake! Comey knew that America would take the bait. He really is a clever and devious man. And Hillary Clinton is a clever and devious woman. And so on and so forth.
Still, even if that were true, the big October Surprise was a surprise which, at its core, was about nothing much at all. And America did take the bait. Why does that keep happening?
Don’t answer that.