WASHINGTON – So all the over-the-top histrionics about Hillary Clinton’s emails amounted, in the end, to nothing, nada, zilch. Next to the word “fiasco” in the dictionary should be a picture of FBI Director James Comey.
Should his picture be next to the word “catastrophe” as well? Did Comey’s 10th- and 11th-hour letters to Congress – one basically screaming “red alert,” followed nine days later by one saying “never mind” – have an impact on the election? You bet they did, and the nation should be appalled. This may be the first time the FBI has so shamefully inserted itself in politics since the days of J. Edgar Hoover.
I don’t believe the damage will be enough to elect Donald Trump, who has shown himself unfit for any consequential public office, let alone the presidency. But it may have hurt Democrats’ chances of taking control of the Senate.
You will recall that the Trump campaign was in near-meltdown before Comey’s Oct. 28 missive about newly discovered emails on a computer apparently shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner. In his rallies, Trump was sounding bitter and all but defeated. Clinton was extending a decisive lead in the polls, and the question seemed to be how big her margin of victory would be.
The first Comey letter gave Trump something he lacked: a closing argument that might help convince skeptical Republicans to vote rather than sit this one out. The second letter, which came Sunday, took that argument away again – but not before tens of millions of Americans had already voted.
This may not matter all that much. Reports indicate a surge of Hispanic early voters in crucial states such as Nevada and Florida – the vast majority, according to polls, likely casting ballots voting for Clinton. There were conflicting reports about the African-American early vote compared to 2012, but in Florida, at least, it seemed robust. If Clinton wins at least Florida, and also holds the deep-blue states where she has a solid lead, she will be the next president.
But this election shouldn’t be close – and probably wouldn’t be, in my view, if Comey had not so egregiously mishandled the email affair. Even when he did the correct thing, he did it in the wrong way.
Back in July, Comey and his investigators decided that “no reasonable prosecutor” would seek to bring charges against Clinton in connection with her private email server. That should have been the end of it. A one-sentence announcement would have sufficed.
Instead, Comey took the extraordinary step of releasing a lengthy statement that chided Clinton for “carelessness” and generally raked her over the coals. This was unusual if not unprecedented – and extremely unfair. The FBI director, who occupies a non-political post, was meddling in politics by treating Clinton differently from others who are investigated but not prosecuted. At a time when Americans’ trust in their institutions is at a modern-day low, he made the FBI look like just another self-interested power center with its own agenda.
That was Comey’s original sin. He compounded it grievously with his “October surprise” announcement about the newly found emails – which, at the time, agents had not even examined. What were the odds that most or all would be duplicates of emails the bureau had already obtained from Clinton or the State Department? Roughly 100 percent, I would have said. And indeed that turned out to be the case.
How, then, was Clinton supposed to react Sunday when Comey cleared her of wrongdoing yet again? Reportedly, she rolled her eyes and shrugged. I don’t know if any angry words passed her lips, but I wouldn’t blame her if they did.
Better late than never, I suppose, but there is no way to fully undo the damage Comey inflicted. A sizable fraction of the electorate voted while under the impression Clinton was facing a renewed investigation that could haunt her even after she took office. Right-wing media trumpeted the fiction that an indictment was imminent – ignoring the fact that the FBI doesn’t have the power to indict anybody.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a close Trump adviser, bragged of having known of the new emails before Comey’s October letter. Was Comey’s hand forced by the threat of leaks from pro-Trump FBI agents? Quite possibly. But if the nation’s premier law enforcement agency has become so undisciplined, well, that’s on Comey, too.
If you haven’t voted, drop everything and go to the polls right now. If Clinton wins, she needs a mandate to restore our trust.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.