Here’s the good news for Hillary Clinton: The FBI has recommended that no charges be brought following its investigation of the former secretary of state's private email server.
Here’s the bad news: Just about everything else.
FBI Director James B. Comey dismantled large portions of Clinton's long-told story about her private server and what she sent or received on it during a stirring 15-minute news conference, after which he took no questions. While Comey exonerated Clinton, legally speaking, he provided huge amounts of fodder that could badly hamstring her in the court of public opinion.
Most importantly, Comey said the FBI found 110 emails on Clinton's server that were classified at the time they were sent or received. That stands in direct contradiction to Clinton’s repeated insistence she never sent or received any classified emails. And it even stands in contrast to her amended statement that she never knowingly sent or received any classified information.
Comey condemned Clinton and her top aides as “extremely careless” in how they handled classified information during her time as the head of the State Department, adding: “Any reasonable person … should have known that an unclassified system was no place” for that sort of information.
There was more — much more. Comey said Clinton had used not one but multiple private email servers during her time at State. He said Clinton used multiple email devices during that time. (She had offered her desire to use a single device for “convenience” as the main reason she set up the private server.) He noted that the lawyers tasked by Clinton with sorting her private emails from her professional ones never actually read all of the emails (as the FBI did in the course of its investigation). Comey said that while the FBI found no evidence that Clinton’s private server was hacked by foreign governments, it was possible that it had been. He argued that the Clinton lawyers had deleted emails they marked as personal that contained professional content, and that while the FBI found some of those emails in its investigation, it was certainly possible more existed that they were unable to track down.
It’s worth remembering at this point that Clinton and her team deleted more emails than they turned over to the State Department.
It’s hard to read Comey’s statement as anything other than a wholesale rebuke of the story Clinton and her campaign team have been telling ever since the existence of her private email server came to light in spring 2015. She did send and receive classified emails. The setup did leave her — and the classified information on the server — subject to a possible foreign hack. She and her team did delete emails as personal that contained professional information.
Those are facts, facts delivered by the Justice Department of a Democratic administration. And those facts run absolutely counter to the narrative put forth by the Clinton operation: that this whole thing was a Republican witch-hunt pushed by a bored and adversarial media.
Now for the key question: How much do the FBI findings hurt her campaign?
Clinton did avoid indictment, a ruling that would have effectively ended her campaign or left it so badly weakened that there would have been a major move within Democratic circles to replace her as the nominee.
That said, campaigns aren’t governed by the ultimate legality of what Clinton did or didn’t do. So, while dodging an indictment is a good thing — she isn’t under criminal investigation and remains a candidate — it’s a far different thing from being cleared (or even close to it) in the court of public opinion.
For a candidate already badly struggling on questions of whether she is honest and trustworthy enough to hold the office to which she aspires, Comey’s comments are devastating. Watching them, I could close my eyes and imagine them spliced into a bevy of 30-second ads — all of which end with the FBI director rebuking Clinton as “extremely careless.”
The best thing Clinton may have going for her at this point is that Republicans are two weeks away from formally picking Donald Trump as their party’s presidential nominee. Trump has shown a unique ability to hog the national spotlight and make comments that make people wonder whether he is fit to be president. While Clinton’s image numbers are bad, Trump’s are worse.
Here’s how Trump responded to the Comey press conference:
FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2016
“Wow!” is not exactly the most presidential of responses.
Still, all things considered, this is a very bad day for the Clinton campaign. It’s not the worst outcome (indictment), but it badly disrupts her attempts to move beyond the email server story as she seeks to unite the party in advance of the Democratic convention later this month. And it suggests the email issue will haunt her all the way through Election Day on Nov. 8.