Life is full of surprises. The unexpected always happens – which begs the question of why the unexpected was unexpected in the first place – but that’s a question for philosophers, or sociologists, or psychologists. The answer, however, doesn’t really matter. It happens. The public seems to find itself in a state of perpetual surprise. That’s okay. There’s a cliché for that – “You can’t make this stuff up!”
That’s okay too. No one really has to make up absurdities. They’re right out there, and this year, in the presidential race, FBI Director James Comey provided what no one in their right mind could make up. In July he closed the investigation into the Clinton email scandal, such as it was. There was no case. No criminal prosecutor would charge Hillary Clinton with anything criminal. There was nothing there – but he did go out of his way to say she had been careless and irresponsible, and he made it pretty clear he really didn’t like her at all. He made her sound rather despicable, perhaps in an attempt to sound fair and balanced. There was something for the Democrats – no criminal intent, no criminal acts, no harm done to national security. There was something for the Republicans – she should never have done what she did – that private email server was an awful idea. Each side got about half of what they wanted. Neither side could call the FBI into question. They weren’t partisan hacks. And that was that.
That wasn’t that. Republicans hauled Comey in for congressional hearings. He said the same thing, over and over – no criminal intent, no criminal acts, no harm done to national security – and they were infuriated. Donald Trump ran with that. This was rigged. Everything was rigged. The FBI was a bunch of partisan hacks. America wouldn’t stand for this. The chants at the Trump rallies got louder – “Lock her up!”
Ah, but James Comey had an “out” – he had told Congress that if anything else came up he’d let them know. He wasn’t a partisan hack, and on the last Friday in October, less than two weeks before the election, he let them know they’d found a whole bunch of emails on the laptop of the estranged husband of one of Hillary Clinton’s staffers. They might pertain to the original investigation. They might not. He didn’t know. No one had looked at them yet. They didn’t even have a warrant to look at them yet – but he did tell Congress he’d let them know if anything came up. Something came up.
Trump ran with that. This was the “mother lode” – an indictment was coming – but that’s not what Comey said. That didn’t matter. Fox News reported that their sources assured them that a criminal indictment was on the way any day now – and then they discovered that their sources were the Breitbart conspiracy crowd, making things up. Fox News made a rare on-air apology for reporting what just wasn’t so. That was unexpected – but the damage was done. For nine days Trump and the Republicans hammered home the “fact” that Hillary Clinton was about to be indicted for horrible a horrible crime. She had lied. She had endangered America. There was a lot of early voting in those nine days. She dropped like a rock in the polls. It looked like Trump might win the presidency. The odds were still long, but that was much more possible now. The stock market dropped like a rock too – nine consecutive days of losses – no one had seen that in a decade. Citigroup had predicted that a victory for Trump could send the S&P 500 down three to five percent, or more, immediately, while a Clinton win wouldn’t move stocks much one way or another. Comey had ruined Clinton’s chances. Comey had ruined everything.
Then, on the Sunday afternoon before the Tuesday election, James Comey fixed it all, sort of. He sent another letter to Congress:
FBI Director James B. Comey said Sunday that the bureau had completed its examination of newly discovered emails connected to Hillary Clinton – an inquiry that had roiled the presidential race for nine days – and found nothing to alter its months-old decision not to seek charges against the former secretary of state for her use of a private email server.
In a letter to congressional committee chairmen, Comey said investigators had worked “around the clock” to review the emails. The investigators found that the emails were either duplicates of correspondence they had reviewed earlier or were personal emails that did not pertain to State Department business, government officials said.
Perhaps he shouldn’t have sent that first letter. He could have waited until he knew what was what, and of course someone wasn’t happy:
Reacting to news that the FBI won’t change its determination in the Hillary Clinton email probe, Republican nominee Donald Trump made it clear he still regards her as guilty and is convinced she will ultimately face justice.
“You can’t review 650,000 emails in eight days,” Trump said Sunday in an appearance at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater. “You can’t do it folks. Hillary Clinton is guilty.”
Disregarding the announcement by FBI Director James Comey that the email case against Clinton would not be revived, Trump said he was sure the investigation would yield dividends at some point. Trump has long pushed the narrative that a fair investigation into the Democratic nominee’s email use would surely produce evidence of criminal behavior.
“The investigations into her crimes will go on for a long, long time,” Trump said.
“The rank-and-file special agents at the FBI won’t let her get away with her terrible crimes, including the deletion of her 33,000 emails after receiving a congressional subpoena.”
He seems to think that those rank-and-file agents in the New York office, who had read that book “Clinton Cash” that Steve Bannon had sent them, will rise up and overthrow their director – or at least keep publishing what they find that they think will stop Clinton cold. Perhaps they will, but that seems unlikely now.
The damage is done, real damage, as Karen Tumulty explains here:
The two sides in this bitter presidential campaign are likely to be arguing for years over the question of who was helped and who was hurt by the pair of political bombshells that FBI Director James B. Comey dropped into the final stage of the race.
But one effect seems beyond dispute. An agency that, at least in its recent history, has been considered the symbol of square-jawed rectitude has now taken a place in the larger, corrosive narrative of the 2016 election.
“Regrettably, this is of a piece with every event that happened before it in the campaign,” said William A. Galston, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution. “In a way, it is a perfectly fitting end to a truly awful campaign.”
The whole saga also will probably reinforce the disillusioned American public’s perception that the political system is corrupt, and that the institutions of government are failing. It is likely, as well, to further undermine the legitimacy of whoever wins the election in this deeply polarized country.
All we’ll get is nastiness now:
“Comey must be under enormous political pressure to cave like this and announce something he can’t possibly know,” tweeted former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent ally of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
At a rally in Minnesota, Trump said: “You have to understand it’s a rigged system, and she’s protected.”
Meanwhile, the Democrats who had howled foul over Comey’s Oct. 28 announcement were feeling a palpable relief.
“We were always confident that nothing would cause the July decision to be revisited. Now Director Comey has confirmed it,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon wrote in a tweet.
Fallon added in another one: “Trump’s hopes of using Comey to distract the voters in closing days of the campaign just went up in smoke.”
And there’s this:
“Regardless of this decision, the undisputed finding of the FBI’s investigation is that Secretary Clinton put our nation’s secrets at risk and in doing so compromised our national security,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said in a statement issued shortly after Comey’s decision became public Sunday. “She simply believes she’s above the law and always plays by her own rules.”
If Clinton wins Tuesday, that is probably not the last time she will hear that line. The FBI investigation may be closed, but the partisanship around it remains very much alive.
James Comey ruined everything. No one expected this. You can’t make this stuff up – but it happens.
The unexpected is always difficult, even if one should expect the unexpected, because it’s going to happen, and Donald Trump is now dealing with that. Or he’s not dealing with that. In a widely cited item in the New York Times, Maggie Haberman, Ashley Parker, Jeremy Peters, and Michael Barbaro, paint an odd picture of a man dealing with what he never expected:
Donald J. Trump is not sleeping much these days.
Aboard his gold-plated jumbo jet, the Republican nominee does not like to rest or be alone with his thoughts, insisting that aides stay up and keep talking to him. He prefers the soothing, whispery voice of his son-in-law.
He requires constant assurance that his candidacy is on track. “Look at that crowd!” he exclaimed a few days ago as he flew across Florida, turning to his young press secretary as a TV tuned to Fox News showed images of what he claimed were thousands of people waiting for him on the ground below.
And he is struggling to suppress his bottomless need for attention. As he stood next to the breakfast buffet at his golf club in Doral, Fla., eyeing a tray of pork sausages, he sought to convey restraint when approached by a reporter for The New York Times.
“I’m on message,” Mr. Trump asserted, with effort. “I’m not playing around. In fact, I’m a little nervous standing here talking to you even for just a minute.”
But moments later, his resolve had collapsed. He allowed the same reporter onto his plane for a flight from Miami to Jacksonville, Fla.
There’s something sad about all this:
In the final days of the presidential campaign, Mr. Trump’s candidacy is a jarring split screen: the choreographed show of calm and confidence orchestrated by his staff, and the neediness and vulnerability of a once-boastful candidate now uncertain of victory.
On the surface, there is the semblance of stability that is robbing Hillary Clinton of her most potent weapon: Mr. Trump’s self-sabotaging eruptions, which have repeatedly undermined his candidacy. Underneath that veneer, turbulence still reigns, making it difficult for him to overcome all of the obstacles blocking his path to the White House.
The contrasts pervade his campaign. Aides to Mr. Trump have finally wrested away the Twitter account that he used to colorfully – and often counterproductively – savage his rivals. But offline, Mr. Trump still privately muses about all the ways he will punish his enemies after Election Day, including a threat to fund a “super PAC” with vengeance as its core mission.
They took away his Twitter account, for his own good, and he dreams of revenge, because he knows it’s over, and his family knows too:
His polished older daughter, Ivanka, sat for a commercial intended to appeal to suburban women who have recoiled from her father’s incendiary language. But she discouraged the campaign from promoting the ad in news releases, fearing that her high-profile association with the campaign would damage the businesses that bear her name.
It goes on and on:
Mr. Trump’s campaign is no longer making headlines with embarrassing staff shake-ups. But that has left him with a band of squabbling and unfireable advisers, with confusing roles and an inability to sign off on basic tasks. A plan to encourage early voting in Florida went unapproved for weeks.
The result is chaotic. Advisers cut loose from the campaign months ago, like Corey Lewandowski, still talk to the candidate frequently, offering advice that sometimes clashes with that of the current leadership team. Mr. Trump, who does not use a computer, rails against the campaign’s expenditure of tens of millions on digital ads, skeptical that spots he never sees could have any effect.
Not even staff members who volunteer to be dismissed are let go. The senior communications adviser, Jason Miller, offered to resign after he was spotted at a Las Vegas strip club the night before the final presidential debate. The offer was rejected.
There was only one bright spot:
On Oct. 28, the director of the FBI, James B. Comey, announced that his agency would review newly discovered emails potentially pertinent to its investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s private server.
On an afternoon flight to New Hampshire, Mr. Trump and his aides saw the news splash across the giant flat-screen television on his plane.
Mr. Trump was unsure how to respond.
“What do you think this means?” he asked the small circle traveling with him – Stephen K. Bannon, his campaign’s chief executive; Stephen Miller, his senior policy adviser; and Mr. Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, who lives in New Hampshire.
To the assembled men sitting in white leather seats, the answer was simple: It could turn the election around.
But they insisted that to truly exploit it, Mr. Trump needed to do something he had been incapable of in the past: strictly follow instructions, let a story unfold on its own and resist the urge to endlessly bludgeon his rival.
They headed to a fleet of cars that whisked them to the Radisson Hotel in downtown Manchester, where a crowd of thousands was waiting for the candidate to take the stage.
But his aides needed time to sketch out what Mr. Trump should say – and not say. They sent Michael T. Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, onstage with a mission: stall. ..
At the rally, Mr. Trump did as he was told, quickly praising the FBI and warning that Mrs. Clinton could not be permitted to “take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Then, improbably, he moved on.
They had to fix that, and they did:
For the next week, his staff deployed a series of creative tricks to protect its boss from his most self-destructive impulses.
Several advisers warned him that he risked becoming like a wild animal chasing its prey so zealously that it raced over a cliff – a reminder that he could pursue his grievances and his eagerness to fling insults, but that the cost would be a plunge into an electoral abyss.
Taking away Twitter turned out to be an essential move by his press team, which deprived him of a previously unfiltered channel for his aggressions.
On Thursday, as his plane idled on the tarmac in Miami, Mr. Trump spotted Air Force One outside his window. As he glowered at the larger plane, he told Ms. Hicks, his spokeswoman, to jot down a proposed tweet about President Obama, who was campaigning nearby for Mrs. Clinton.
“Why is he campaigning instead of creating jobs and fixing Obamacare?” Mr. Trump said. “Get back to work.” After some light editing – Ms. Hicks added “for the American people” at the end – she published it.
That was the last tweet, but he was okay with that:
Back on his plane, heading into the campaign’s final weekend, Mr. Trump reclined in his leather chair and refused to entertain any suggestions that his unorthodox, unpredictable and now uncertain campaign for the presidency would end in defeat.
“I’m going to win,” he said.
No, James Comey ruined that too. Expect the unexpected. Donald Trump didn’t expect this, but then America didn’t expect Donald Trump. That’s what bothers Andrew Sullivan:
The most frustrating aspect of the last 12 months has been the notion that we have been in a normal, if truly ugly, election cycle, with one extremely colorful and unpredictable figure leading the Republican Party in an otherwise conventional political struggle over policy. It has been clear for months now that this is a delusion. A far more accurate account of the past year is that an openly proto-fascist cult leader has emerged to forge a popular movement that has taken over one of the major political parties, eroded central norms of democratic life, undermined American democratic institutions, and now stands on the brink of seizing power in Washington.
Well, maybe not after Comey’s second letter, but it seems that we missed a lot:
This is what we now know. Donald Trump is the first candidate for president who seems to have little understanding of or reverence for constitutional democracy and presents himself as a future strongman. This begins with his character – if that word could possibly be ascribed to his disturbed, unstable, and uncontrollable psyche. He has revealed himself incapable of treating other people as anything but instruments to his will. He seems to have no close friends, because he can tolerate no equals. He never appears to laugh, because that would cede recognition to another’s fleeting power over him. He treats his wives and his children as mere extensions of his power, and those who have resisted the patriarch have been exiled, humiliated, or bought off.
His relationship to men – from his school days to the primary campaign – is rooted entirely in dominance and mastery, through bullying, intimidation, and, if necessary, humiliation. His relationship to women is entirely a function of his relationship to men: Women are solely a means to demonstrate his superiority in the alpha-male struggle. Women are to be pursued, captured, used, assaulted, or merely displayed to other men as an indication of his superiority. His response to any difficult relationship is to end it, usually by firing or humiliating or ruining someone. His core, motivating idea is the punishment or mockery of the weak and reverence for the strong. He cannot apologize or accept responsibility for failure. He has long treated the truth as entirely instrumental to his momentary personal interests. Setbacks of any kind can only be assuaged by vindictive, manic revenge.
He has no concept of a non-zero-sum engagement, in which a deal can be beneficial for both sides. A win-win scenario is intolerable to him, because mastery of others is the only moment when he is psychically at peace. (This is one reason why he cannot understand the entire idea of free trade or, indeed, NATO, or the separation of powers.) In any conflict, he cannot ever back down; he must continue to up the ante until the danger to everyone around him is so great as to demand their surrender. From his feckless business deals and billion-dollar debts to his utter indifference to the damage he has done to those institutions unfortunate enough to engage him, he has shown no concern for the interests of other human beings. Just ask the countless people he has casually fired, or the political party he has effectively destroyed. He has violated and eroded the core norms that make liberal democracy possible – because such norms were designed precisely to guard against the kind of tyrannical impulses and pathological narcissism he personifies.
Anyone paying attention knew this before he conquered the Republican Party.
Sure, but people expected the expected, not this. That happens, but since his nomination there’s been this:
He sees the judicial system as entirely subordinate to his political and personal interests, and impugned a federal judge for his ethnicity. He has accused the Justice Department and FBI of a criminal conspiracy to protect Hillary Clinton. He has refused to accept in advance the results of any election in which he loses. He has openly argued for government persecution of newspapers that oppose him – pledging to open up antitrust prosecution against the Washington Post, for example. He is the first candidate in American history to subject the press pool to mob hatred – “disgusting, disgusting people” – and anti-Semitic poison from his foulest supporters. He is the first candidate in American history to pledge to imprison his election opponent if he wins power. He has mused about using nuclear weapons in regional wars. He has celebrated police powers that openly deploy racial profiling. His favorite foreign leader is a man who murders journalists, commits war crimes, uses xenophobia and warfare to cement his political standing, and believes in the dismemberment of both NATO and the European Union. Nor has he rejected any of his most odious promises during the primary – from torturing prisoners “even if it doesn’t work” to murdering the innocent family members of terror suspects to rounding up several million noncitizens to declaring war on an entire religion, proposing to create a database to monitor its adherents and bar most from entering the country.
We are told we cannot use the term fascist to describe this. I’m at a loss to find a more accurate alternative.
No one expected that, but everyone should have:
What is so striking is that this requires no interpretation, no reading of the tea leaves. Trump has told Americans all of this – again and again – in plain English. His own temperamental instability has been displayed daily and in gory detail. From time to time, you can see his poll ratings plummet as revelations that would permanently sink any other candidate have dented his appeal. And then he resiliently and unstoppably moves back up. His bond with his supporters is absolute, total, and personal. It was months ago that he boasted that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still be with him. And he was right. This is not a mark of a democratic leader; it is a mark of an authoritarian cult.
And so on and so forth – that’s just a bit from Sullivan’s long essay. Who expected this? Life is full of surprises. The real issue is how one, or many, deals with the unexpected. Here’s hoping.