Boo. Last week, FBI Director James B. Comey decided to scare up this election’s October surprise, writing to inform 16 congressional committee chairs and ranking members that the FBI had discovered emails in an unrelated investigation that potentially could be linked to the probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails. Subsequent leaks led the New York Times to report that the emails were found on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the disgraced ex-New York congressman and estranged husband of Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s closest aide and “surrogate daughter.”
Frenzy ensued. Donald Trump immediately embraced the agency he had excoriated; the Clinton campaign attacked Comey directly. The New York Post called it the “stroking gun.” “Could Anthony Weiner’s E-Mails Cost Hillary Her Job?” asked the ever-hyperbolic Larry Kudlow. Livid Democrats opted for Kremlin-baiting. Former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean, a Clinton surrogate, tweeted that Comey, a Republican, “put himself on the same side as [Vladimir] Putin.” Senate leader Harry Reid charged that Comey had “explosive information” about “coordination” between Donald Trump and “the Russian government.”
Early polls suggested that most Americans would not be influenced by the news, but some might. In a race that was already tightening — as both major candidates firmed up their support in their own parties — partisans on both sides escalated the spitball volleys.
Let’s be clear. Comey’s astounding act was a deplorable and reckless dereliction of duty. He spurned Justice Department objections and ignored long-standing guidelines that the Justice Department or the FBI not release information about investigations within 60 days of an election. “There’s a longstanding policy of not doing anything that could influence an election,” George J. Terwilliger III, former deputy attorney general in the George H.W. Bush administration, told the New York Times on Saturday. “Those guidelines exist for a reason. Sometimes, that makes for hard decisions. But bypassing them has consequences.”
Comey dropped the bombshell when he had no idea what the emails contained. This indefensible abuse compounded his original sin of publicly declaring that the FBI investigation of Clinton’s emails had been completed and that “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring a case against her. He made that statement proudly announcing that the Justice Department and the rest of the government “do not know what I am about to say.”
The decision on prosecution is made by the prosecutors at the Justice Department, not by the FBI director or his investigators. Comey clearly holds himself in high self-regard and has an unquenchable thirst for the spotlight, but he was out of line then and is out of line now. Republicans rightly howled then; Democrats are right to object now. Perhaps both might agree that he should be fired as soon as the election is over and shunned for shaming his office.
That said, forget the polls. More brouhaha about Hillary’s emails isn’t going to change this election. By this time, the overwhelming percentage of people who actually vote have already made up their minds about the character of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (And more than 22 million have already voted.) Clinton is the most widely unpopular candidate in the history of American politics bar one – the Donald. This media feeding frenzy isn’t going to alter that.
Bernie Sanders had it right. The election isn’t about Clinton’s “ damn emails .” While both Trump and Clinton give cause for concern in foreign policy, broadly speaking these candidates give voters a stark choice. Trump promises more tax cuts for the rich and more deregulation. Clinton pledges tax hikes on the rich to invest in rebuilding America. Trump opposes raising the minimum wage; Clinton favors it. Trump thinks global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese; Clinton agrees with the Pentagon that it is a clear and present danger. Trump has no clue about student debt; Clinton pledges tuition-free public college for all but the top 15 percent. Trump promises to build a wall and ship millions out of the country; Clinton wants comprehensive immigration reform that will bring the undocumented out of the shadows. Trump wants Supreme Court judges who will protect the Second Amendment and repeal a woman’s right to choose; Clinton wants justices who will overturn Citizens United, curbing the role of secret corporate money in our elections, and respect the Voting Rights Act. Clinton wants to empower workers and curb excessive CEO pay; Trump doesn’t get it. This list could go on.
These two candidates would lead America in very different directions. Even with the gridlock in Washington, those differences are far more important to the vast majority of voters than how Clinton dealt with her email or how Trump allegedly groped women. Comey pulled out a dirty trick in his October surprise. But in the end it will be a sideshow, doing more to discredit him and the FBI than to impact the results of the election.