FBI Director James B. Comey at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday. (Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency)
Opinion writer

Next to the word “overreach” in the dictionary should be a group picture of the House Republican caucus. Once again, in their Ahab-like pursuit of Hillary Clinton, they have managed to make themselves look desperately partisan and woefully incompetent.

What were they thinking when they hauled FBI Director James B. Comey to Capitol Hill to challenge his decision about Clinton and her emails? Did they expect Comey, a very tough nut, to crack under their withering interrogation? Did they believe they could somehow make him change his mind? Did they not anticipate that he would stand by his decision and back it up with facts, precedent and logic?

Thursday’s hearing — called on an “emergency” basis, no less — was effectively over just minutes after it began. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked Comey the bottom-line question: “Did Hillary Clinton break the law?”

Comey’s reply: “In connection with her use of the email server? My judgment is that she did not.”

At that point, Chaffetz should just have thanked the witness, pounded his gavel and sent everyone home. Instead, Republicans went on at length in a vain attempt to challenge Comey’s knowledge of the law and his personal integrity. In the end, he suffered not a dent, not a nick, not even a scratch.

The GOP’s theory of the case is basically that Clinton committed acts that would have led to prosecution if she had been anyone else. But because she is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee or because she is a Clinton or because she is an “elite” or for some other reason, this theory goes, she was given a pass.

Comey patiently explained that this view was wrong. Quite the opposite, he said: Deciding to recommend charges would have constituted special treatment.

The key question was intent: Comey said the FBI could not find evidence that Clinton intended to do anything illegal. A low-ranking government employee who handled classified information in the same “careless” manner might well be subject to administrative sanction, including firing. But that “John Doe” employee would not be prosecuted; and if he or she had already left government service, the case would simply be dropped.

Much was made of a federal statute that would seem to allow charges in the case of “gross negligence” on Clinton’s behalf. But Comey said that the law in question, passed in 1917, has been used by federal prosecutors only once in 99 years. There are questions, he said, about the statute’s constitutionality.

Comey did not budge from his view that no “reasonable prosecutor” would seek to bring charges against Clinton given the facts of the case. He said the decision to recommend against prosecution was unanimous among the FBI investigators involved, adding that no one outside of the bureau knew of this decision until he announced it Tuesday.

The hearing was a pretty sorry spectacle. Comey’s would-be inquisitors could not come out and call him a compliant Democratic toady because clearly he is nothing of the sort. Comey served as deputy attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. As is proper for someone who occupies the office of FBI director, overseeing an agency he described as “resolutely apolitical,” he is not now registered as a member of any party. But for most of his adult life, he testified, he was a loyal Republican.

How embarrassing did the hearing get? Some Republicans on the committee, fancying themselves junior G-men, demanded to know the specific questions FBI agents asked Clinton when they interviewed her. Others sought to parse the language of various federal statutes, perhaps hoping to make Comey break down and cry, “Okay, you got me there.” Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

Toward the end, Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) felt obliged to ask Comey, “Do you feel like this has been a Republican witch hunt?” Comey politely said no.

I disagree. It was obviously just that, a partisan attempt to wring another news cycle’s worth of headlines out of a “scandal” whose dying embers were being definitively snuffed out. I doubt those headlines will be the ones they were hoping for.

I’m certain that some Republicans sincerely believe that Bill and Hillary Clinton are the greatest master criminals of our time. But an unimpeachable authority figure and a team of FBI investigators have decided that Hillary Clinton’s handling of her emails — which, as I have written, was wrong — was not a crime. Deciding otherwise, Comey said, would be “celebrity hunting.”

Which is what Republicans tried to do at Thursday’s hearing. But they came home red-faced and empty-handed.

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