You can debate whether FBI Director James Comey’s October announcement that potentially relevant information had been uncovered regarding Hillary Clinton’s private email server cost her the presidential election. But with the wisdom of hindsight, it’s virtually impossible to defend his decision to make such a show of a discovery that, ultimately, amounted to nothing.
His actions in the late stages of the 2016 presidential campaign seem likely to be the focus of a an inspector general’s investigation of the conduct of the FBI in the run-up to the election.
Any objective analysis of the election quickly makes clear that Comey was the third central actor in the election drama alongside Clinton and Donald Trump. In early July, Comey played the villain in the eyes of Republicans by detailing questionable conduct related to Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state, before concluding that no charges would be brought. Democrats largely touted his decision.
Still, Comey’s condemnation of Clinton’s email practices lingered in the campaign. Trump’s campaign used the “extremely careless” language in ads and Democrats grumbled that Comey had overstepped the bounds of his office.
Little did they know what the future held. On Oct. 30, a letter Comey wrote to congressional leaders regarding the probe surfaced. In it, Comey said a computer owned by former congressman Anthony Weiner, and his wife, Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, had been discovered to have 650,000 emails on it — some of them potentially relevant to the Clinton case.
The assumption at the time was that given the proximity of the election Comey must have seen (or been briefed on) those emails that were deeply troubling and/or might lead to a decision to reverse the July judgment not to indict Clinton.
Turns out that assumption was wrong. There wasn’t anything new. But by the time that became clear, Clinton had been sidetracked for the final days of the campaign.
So why did Comey do what he did? My assumption is that he was cowed by Republican threats about transparency when it came to the FBI investigation of the Clinton server. It was, after all, a unique and politically fraught situation. The front-runner to be the next president of the United States was part of a probe by the current president’s Justice Department in the heat of a campaign.
Comey cited those odd circumstances in July. The only logic that then explains his decision to wade into the final days of the presidential race is out of a sort of abundance of caution.
Which I get — sort of. But it seems as if Comey would have been FAR better off waiting until the bulk of the emails had been checked against what the FBI had examined so that he could know whether something new might be in them.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a blog for The Washington Post.