Opinion writer

Donald Trump, at a rally in Michigan today, extolled the profound bravery that FBI director James Comey displayed by notifying Congress about newly found emails, which (Trump claimed) corrected the grave wrong Comey had done in failing to recommend criminal charges in July:

“I have to give the FBI credit. That was so bad, what happened originally. And it took guts for Director Comey to make the move that he made, in light of the kind of opposition he had, where they’re trying to protect her from criminal prosecution….

“He’s gotta hang tough. A lot of people want him to do the wrong thing. What he did was the right thing….

“This is the biggest scandal since Watergate. Hillary wants to blame everyone else for her mounting legal troubles. But she brought all of this on herself….

“Hillary is the one who sent and received classified information on an insecure server, putting the safety of the American people under threat….650,000. You know what I call that? That’s the mother lode. I think you’re gonna find the 33,000 that are missing.”

The video is above. The 650,000 is a reference to a Wall Street Journal report that said this many new emails may have been discovered via Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Of course, the Journal report also said that these emails may be duplicates of ones the FBI has already examined; that it remains to be seen whether there is any classified info in them; and that it’s unclear whether they carry any new significance for the previous probe into Clinton’s email use, which concluded in Comey not recommending charges in July.

But no matter. See, Trump has cleverly constructed a narrative here that only allows for two possibilities: Either the FBI now finds that the new emails prove Clinton’s criminality, rectifying Comey’s previous wrong (when Trump calls this new discovery the “mother lode,” he means that it will have to prove this). Or, if Comey does not find that, he will be caving to those who want to cover up that criminality, thus perpetuating that previous wrong once again, which, Trump says, also was the result of pressure for a cover up.

In saying this, Trump is referring to Justice Department officials, who argued to Comey that it would be a violation of department protocol if he sent a letter notifying Members of Congress of the new discovery, because it would constitute improper public comment on an ongoing investigation and might influence the election. Trump is essentially saying that if Comey does not find evidence of criminality in the new emails, he will be participating in corruption himself by caving to Justice officials once again.

What this really illustrates is that Comey has created a trap for himself from which there is no escape. Even if you accept that Comey might have had an obligation to notify Congress of the new find, it is still true that the letter’s wording was indefensibly vague, allowing Republicans to hype the new discovery by falsely claiming it shows a criminal probe into Clinton had been reopened. As a result, Comey now is under tremendous pressure to offer up more detail on what the findings really mean with regard to Clinton.

Comey may not be able to do that before the election, because there are a lot of emails to go through. But he can mitigate the damage. Legal experts Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes explain how Comey can do that in the near term:

If there is more that Comey can say, he should probably do so — even at the risk of sliding further down the slippery slope he is on. Specifically, assuming the following statements are true, it would be worth Comey’s saying them publicly:

Now, it would be great if Comey did clarify these things publicly. But even if he does, at some point, Comey is going to have to share definitive conclusions about the new emails with the public. Legal experts anticipate that Comey will likely conclude that there are no grounds to revisit his decision not to recommend charges against Clinton. If so, Trump will go right back to bashing Comey and the FBI as corrupt for covering up her criminality — as his remarks today clearly signal.

In this sense, the damage here could extend well past the election. Remember, if Trump loses, he and his campaign CEO Stephen Bannon are reportedly trying to build an apparatus to convert his campaign into a vehicle for sustaining a post-election following. At the center of that effort will likely be an ongoing narrative holding that the election was stolen from Trump by the criminal who is illegitimately occupying the White House. If Comey does find nothing in the new emails, Trump will neatly slot that into this narrative, and it’s likely a whole lot of Republican voters will believe all of it.

In that context, it’s remarkable that at this point, the political world just shrugs when one of the two major party nominees suggests that there is no legitimate way that our institutions can clear his political opponent of criminality. Either she is a criminal, or the FBI is corrupt to its core. That’s Trump’s actual argument, and it sometimes seems as if barely anyone raises an eyebrow anymore when he makes it.