You can debate whether or not FBI Director James Comey’s late-October announcement that potentially relevant information had been uncovered regarding Hillary Clinton’s private email cost her the 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.
Comey’s actions in the late stages of the 2016 presidential election seem likely to be the focus of a just-announced inspector general’s investigation into the conduct of the FBI in the run-up to last November’s election. Writes WaPo’s Matt Zapotosky:
The probe will be wide ranging — encompassing the FBI’s various public statements on the matter, whether its deputy director should have been recused and whether Department of Justice or FBI employees leaked non-public information, according to a news release from Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz.
Any objective analysis of the 2016 election quickly makes clear that Comey — someone most Americans had never even heard of prior to last year — 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 a string of questionable conduct related to Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the State Department before ultimately concluding that no charges would be brought. Democrats, largely, touted Comey’s decision — citing it as evidence that the whole focus on Clinton’s emails was much ado about nothing and that the issue was now settled going into the fall election.
Still, Comey’s condemnation of Clinton’s email practices — “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” he said — 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 had written to congressional leaders regarding the investigation surfaced. In it, Comey wrote that a computer owned by former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and top Clinton aide Huma Abedin had been discovered to have 650,000 emails on it — some of which were considered potentially relevant to the Clinton case. (The computer was discovered as part of a separate investigation into Weiner allegedly exchanging sexually-oriented text messages with a 15-year-old girl.)
The assumption at the time was that given the proximity of the election — less than two weeks away at that point — Comey must have seen (or been briefed on) emails on that Weiner-Abedin computer 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. Dead wrong. There really wasn’t anything new on the Weiner-Abedin computer. 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 working assumption is that he was deeply cowed by Republican threats about transparency when it came to the FBI investigation into the Clinton server. It was, after all, an incredibly unique and politically fraught situation. The front-runner to be the next president of the United States was part of an investigation by the current president’s Justice Department in the heat of a campaign.
Comey cited those odd circumstances back in July. “This will be an unusual statement in at least a couple ways,” he said. “First, I am going to include more detail about our process than I ordinarily would, because I think the American people deserve those details in a case of intense public interest.”
The only logic that then explains Comey’s decision to wade into the final days of the presidential race is out of a sort of abundance of caution — that he didn’t really know what was on the Weiner-Abedin computer but wanted to ensure that if anything truly earth-shattering emerged he had covered his bases.
Which I get — sort of. But, given the stakes, it seems like Comey would have been FAR better off waiting until the bulk of the emails had been checked against what the FBI had already examined so that he could know whether or not there actually might be something new in them.
I’m fascinated to see what the IG report finds. But I am hard-pressed to understand why Comey did what he did in the dying days of the campaign.