(Allison Shelley/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Republicans are wringing their hands this morning: Donald Trump is already blowing what should be a sterling opportunity to fatally damage Hillary Clinton! FBI director James Comey’s announcement recommended against criminal charges, but it also strongly criticized Clinton in ways that undercut her self-defense on the emails and her broader argument for the presidency. And the New York Times reports that Republicans worry that Trump’s lack of discipline is already undercutting their chances of capitalizing on it.

But allow me to suggest another possibility: If Clinton does manage to get through this mess relatively unscathed, perhaps the Republican Party more broadly, and not just Donald Trump, will be appropriately seen as the culprit. Perhaps the conduct of Republicans overall — both in previous efforts to target Clinton, such as over Benghazi, and, now, in this one — could get priced into the public’s reaction.

It’s true that Trump himself is already distracting from what might be a more successful prosecution of Clinton’s emails. As the Times piece notes, Trump’s first instinct was to attack Comey and the process, by claiming the outcome was “rigged.” The Times tells us that yesterday was a “painful reminder” for “many in the party” of “how a different standard-bearer could have capitalized on one of the most difficult days Mrs. Clinton has faced as a candidate.”

And Trump went further at a rally, accusing Clinton of an effort to “bribe” Attorney General Loretta Lynch. This charge is apparently based on a single sentence in a recent Times piece which claimed: “Democrats close to Mrs. Clinton say she may decide to retain Ms. Lynch.” The insinuation, spelled out by Trump and echoed widely on twitter yesterday by even some on the left, is that the Clinton campaign, and even Clinton herself, offered Lynch a job as a way of swaying the investigation’s outcome. But anyone who knows how D.C. works knows that there are probably hundreds of people in this city who are eager to tell reporters that they are “close” to the Clintons. There is no way to fairly read this reporting, at least as it was transmitted there, as any kind of official position of the Clinton campaign, let alone of the candidate. Maybe Clinton does intend to retain Lynch, but there’s no basis for asserting this or extrapolating anything from it until her campaign or she says so.

So, yes, Trump is already overreaching. But some Very Serious Republicans may be doing the same. Now Paul Ryan’s House Republicans will hold hearings into Comey’s recommendation, and he is calling on the FBI to release all of the information that went into that decision, because it “underscores the belief that the Clintons live above the law.” Interestingly, Ryan appears somewhat uncomfortable with the implications of his criticism. In his statement, Ryan carefully highlighted his “respect for the law enforcement professionals at the FBI,” but no matter: He essentially suggested that the bureau had placed Clinton “above the law.” Many other Republicans, including others of the Very Serious variety, are making similar suggestions while calling for a special prosecutor.

To be clear, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with pressing Comey for more detail justifying his decision. It’s true that Comey’s statement contained a wealth of new details that undercut some of Clinton’s previous claims and, in his words, showed an “extremely careless” treatment of classified information. We need to know more about how and why all this nonetheless led to his conclusion that no illegal “grossly negligent” conduct occurred.

But the looming question here is one of degree, and Ryan, too, should be pressed to justify his suggestion that the FBI placed Clinton above the law. As we’ve already seen with Benghazi, Republicans don’t ever stop, no matter how many investigations fail to turn up that single devastating piece of evidence of Clinton perfidy and lawbreaking they are looking for. The same may prove true in the case of the emails. As Bloomberg Politics puts it, Ryan is basically helping Trump “whip up conspiracy theories over the FBI process” in a manner designed mainly to “rally the base,” but which “may do little to convince general election voters” that the fix was in.

Democratic strategist Robert Shrum predicts that Republicans will overreach once again on the emails: “I think it will go about as well as the Republicans did on Whitewater or Benghazi or anything else. I just think it’s fundamentally over.” I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Clinton, whose trust numbers are dismal, could sustain further damage. But GOP overreach now looks like a very real possibility. If so, the problem here isn’t necessarily just Trump. It’s the broader GOP willingness to play these games to “rally the base.” And it’s possible this will be priced into the broader public reaction to GOP criticism of Clinton over the emails, perhaps helping mitigate what could otherwise be more damaging.

*********************************************************************************

 * DEMS PREDICT THE EMAIL MESS IS OVER: The Post reports that some of the criticism in FBI director James Comey’s statement could continue to damage Clinton, but some Democrats think the worst has past. Here, for instance, is former Rep. Barney Frank:

“The criticism of her, the damage she suffered from having made a big mistake and having been irresponsible for using that server, has already happened. She’s already paid a political price for it.”

Of course, it’s still very possible that the negative press could cause Clinton to dip in the polls, but we’ll see how long it lasts.

* DEMS MAKING BID TO TAKE BACK HOUSE: Politico reports that Democrats are going up on the air in multiple House races earlier than expected, because they think Trump boosts their odds of winning back the Lower Chamber:

The hope is that a combination of Democrats riled up by Trump, moderate Republicans and independents turned off to the party brand, and disaffected Republicans staying home will accelerate blue shifts in marginal districts to start their long road back to the majority. But more immediately, they’re hoping to pick off enough moderate Republicans to leave House Speaker Paul Ryan squeezed by the Freedom Caucus come January, which they believe will neutralize him both in Congress and as a potential 2020 challenger to Clinton.

While winning the House still looks like an extreme long shot, if Dems can dramatically shrink the GOP majority, it could be easier to win concessions during Clinton’s first term, if she wins.

* HILLARY LAUNCHES NEW ASSAULT ON TRUMP: A Clinton campaign official previews today’s Hillary event in Atlantic City, New Jersey:

“Today, in Atlantic City, Hillary Clinton will make the case that Donald Trump is unfit to serve as president based on the wake of destruction his fraudulent business dealings have left in the seaside town and for businesses and families across the country Clinton will highlight Trump’s fraudulent business history in Atlantic City of multiple bankruptcies, stiffing contractors and spurring hundreds of job losses while pocketing cash for himself.”

The Clinton campaign also released a new video making that case, the latest in its effort to push the idea that Trump’s claims to being on working people’s side is a big sham.

* TRUMP AT SERIOUS RISK OF LOSING FLORIDA: Nate Cohn explains why shifting demographics in Florida (Hispanics are growing more Democratic) are making it more likely that Trump will lose Florida, which is likely a must-win state for Republicans:

The Republicans might not be able to keep up with Florida’s demographic shift any longer. The early polls show Mrs. Clinton with a consistent advantage. Here’s the unsurprising reason: Mr. Trump has alienated Hispanic voters, making the last decade of demographic shifts even more potent. According to The Upshot’s estimates, Mr. Trump is losing among Hispanic voters in Florida by a 30-point margin, up from Mr. Romney’s 22-point deficit in similar estimates of 2012.

But no worries, Trump will magically sweep all of the Rust Belt states, because working class whites are thrilling to his anti-trade bluster and nativist nationalism.

* SIGHTING: A REPUBLICAN WHO AGREES WITH THE FBI: CNN reports that one lone Republican, Rep. Chris Collins of New Jersey, is saying that Comey was right not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton. It will be interesting to see if more GOP-aligned legal types will come forward to say the same.

* AND THE TRUMP RALLY MOMENT OF THE DAY: Another wonderful scene from Trump’s latest rally in North Carolina:

As Trump spoke at his rally here…his attacks on Clinton were especially popular, and one man in the crowd repeatedly shouted: “Hang that b—-!” A reporter for the local News and Observer tweeted that as Trump criticized President Obama, someone near him shouted: “He’s a monkey!”

Gosh, what could be motivating Trump’s supporters? It’s such a mystery.