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Opinion The FBI’s pre-election grenade — just about everyone looks awful

Pre-election news events are invariably interpreted in ways to bolster each side’s candidate and narrative about the other. Sometimes, however, there is plenty of blame to go around.

On Friday, 11 days before Election Day and in the midst of early voting during which tens of millions ballots will be cast, FBI Director James B. Comey lobbed a stick of dynamite into an already volatile, bizarre presidential race. Without saying what he had found or where he had found it, he told members of Congress in a letter: “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.” That case, in the weirdest plot twist yet, turned out to be the investigation into Anthony Weiner’s alleged sexting to a minor.

The Hillary Clinton camp naturally exploded, accusing the FBI of setting off a firestorm with no real specifics, thereby contravening its usual practice to avoid interfering with elections. It demanded to know what in the world is going on.

  • Is this all Huma Abedin’s mishandling of emails? Was she allowed to have a computer shared with someone lacking security clearances?
  • Were the emails to or from Clinton? Reports suggest they were not. If that’s the case, why in the world would Comey have sent a letter without making that clear?
  • Did any of the new emails wind up on Clinton’s unauthorized private server?
  • Were any emails intentionally withheld? If so, by whom?
  • How many new emails are they?
  • Are any marked as classified? Do any contain classified material, even if not marked as such?
  • Whatever happened to the rule about not discussing ongoing investigations? The rules about not releasing legal actions in close proximity to elections? (The FBI does not even know if this is relevant to Clinton, making this all the more peculiar.)
  • How could this discovery possibly change Comey’s conclusion in July that he could not prosecute because he could not find requisite intent? Unless the emails say, ” I intend to disclose secrets,” they should not have any bearing on his conclusion. Are these emails simply more of the same or even duplicates of documents already seen?
  • Did Republicans pressure Comey into taking this extraordinary step?

By mid-Saturday there was bipartisan uproar over Comey’s action. Justice Department officials, including the attorney general, specifically had warned him against sending the letter, which they said would violate past practice. Former prosecutors loudly denounced Comey. From all indications Comey was a loose cannon, willfully interfering in the election and bringing the FBI under fire. He seemed to be looking out solely for his own skin rather than upholding the FBI’s tradition of an impartial law-enforcement entity. The Clinton campaign in a press call with John Podesta and Robby Mook laid blame at the feet of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), whom they accused of distorting Comey’s letter.

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So who is responsible for what in the latest 2016 election nightmare?

Clinton is solely responsible for setting up the private server, stonewalling for so long and making incorrect public statements (e.g., claiming there were no classified emails sent or received). Had she not — once again — maneuvered around the rules that apply to everyone else and let her penchant for secrecy get the best of her, she would not now be in this fix. If she turns a landslide into a close race or imperils down-ticket Democrats the blame is hers and hers alone.

Comey might have been required to update Congress since he previously testified that the investigation into Clinton’s emails was over. Nevertheless, as Benjamin Wittes argues, “Reasonable minds will differ, however, about whether Comey leaned too far forward in publicly disclosing information about his thinking on the email case. He can be criticized for having said and disclosed too much and thereby made his problem worse.” And Comey’s maddeningly vague letter followed by a series of leaks to the media trying to explain what the emails were not (e.g. not sent by Clinton) was, in our view, outrageously irresponsible. The Clinton camp is entitled to be incensed and to demand particulars, especially if the emails are not to or from her.

Donald Trump is still unfit for office. His suggestion that this is “bigger than Watergate” is absurd on its face.

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s (Wis.) demand that Clinton receive no further intelligence briefings is vapid grandstanding. Nothing has been proven; we don’t even know what has been alleged. Once again we see misplaced partisanship on his part undermine his moral authority. As with Benghazi, Republican hysteria builds expectations of a smoking gun which inevitably are dashed. Clinton winds up looking like a victim.

The press on Friday ran wild with few if any facts. Multiple outlets falsely suggested an investigation had been “reopened.” Wildly different estimates of the number of emails at issue were bandied about. The media repeatedly referred to the emails as “Clinton’s emails” when we do not know if they were from or to her. By Saturday they were dialing back, trying to explain that it is possible Comey found nothing of particular interest.

In short, no one looks good in this latest episode of “The Worst Election Ever.” It is not likely to deprive Clinton of the presidency thanks to the GOP’s monumental stupidity in nominating Trump, but other races and her ability to govern if elected will no doubt be affected. Unfortunately, because of Comey’s questionable behavior Clinton is likely to extract the wrong lesson from this: Her enemies are out to get her; she’s a victim. That would be a mistake, especially if it prevents her from taking steps necessary to restore confidence in her.

Finally, by fueling conspiratorial voices on both sides of the aisle, this latest development will only diminish further the public’s confidence in our democratic system. Comey leads both sides to conclude the system is “rigged.” Like most Americans we can only take solace in the knowledge this election will be over a week from Tuesday. Regrettably, the certainty on each side that the other is mendacious only hardens, thanks to Comey.