Comey’s big October surprise
In a shock announcement only 11 days before Election Day, FBI Director James Comey revealed last week that the bureau was examining newly discovered emails “that appear pertinent” to the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Comey, who recommended in July that no charges be brought against Clinton for sending and receiving classified information through her server, told congressional committee chairmen in a letter that while it wasn’t yet clear whether this additional correspondence was “significant,” he felt it was “important” to update them. The emails were found on a laptop jointly used by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is being investigated for allegedly sending sexually explicit messages to a minor. Officials said there were 650,000 emails on the laptop. Investigators will now determine how many were from Clinton to Abedin, how many are duplicates of emails that were examined earlier in the investigation, and whether any of them contain classified information.
Comey’s 11th-hour intervention—which reportedly came over the objections of his boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch—prompted criticism from across the political spectrum. Clinton urged him to release more information to dispel the impression that anything damaging had been found, saying, “Let’s get it out.” Former Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder and dozens of other former Justice Department officials signed an open letter warning of a “troubling” break with precedent. Even Chuck Grassley, the Republican Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, said the disclosure “failed to give Congress and the American people enough context.” But Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, was jubilant. Calling the revelation “bigger than Watergate,” he said, “Perhaps, finally, justice will be done.”
The announcement set off a flurry of leaks from within the FBI, which is embroiled in an internal battle over the handling of several politically charged investigations. The Wall Street Journal reported that the bureau is also investigating the Clinton Foundation and former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia—but unnamed sources said that Comey didn’t want to go public with either investigation to avoid influencing the election.
What the editorials said
Comey’s “election-shaking” announcement was “breathtakingly rash and irresponsible,” said The New York Times. He knew nothing about the email’s contents or whether they were “new or relevant”—and didn’t care that his vague letter would convey an “innuendo” of wrongdoing. Comey clearly understands the Justice Department’s “long-standing rule against disclosing inflammatory information” within 60 days of an election—that’s why he kept the FBI’s name off a recent government report linking Russia to hacks on the Democratic National Committee. So why didn’t he abide by the rule this time? Comey “was caught in a vise,” said the Chicago Tribune. He had to know that going public would give Trump “FBI-attributed insinuations” about his opponent. But had the director delayed his announcement until after Nov. 8—or if details were leaked before then—he would have been accused of “protecting Clinton.”
It’s amusing to see Clinton’s defenders suddenly turn on Comey, said The Wall Street Journal. When the Obama appointee cleared her of any crimes in July, they lionized Comey’s virtue. Now they’re recasting him as the second coming of J. Edgar Hoover. The truth is that after making a public statement clearing Clinton in July, he had “an obligation” to make this new discovery public. The unfortunate but unavoidable result is “an October surprise without anyone knowing what the surprise is.”
“Whether investigators will be able to complete their review [of the emails] by Election Day is unclear,” said Michael Schmidt in The New York Times. Using special computer software, it could take analysts “less than a day” to identify how many of the messages are the same as the 60,000 that have already been examined. But if they find previously unseen emails containing potentially classified material, “copies would have to be sent to other government agencies to determine their classification—an elaborate and lengthy process” that could take weeks or months.
What the columnists said
Comey has committed “a shocking breach” of a law enforcement norm against interfering in the closing stage of an election, said Jonathan Chait in NYMag.com. “Charges, or reports of potential charges, can be tantamount to proof of guilt in the public eye.” In this case, Comey’s original decision not to prosecute was based on the absence of any evidence the former secretary of state intended to expose classified information through her private email server— and it would take “some extraordinary new information” to change that.
Liberals should stop blaming Comey, said Rich Lowry in the New York Post. “A law enforcement officer who prizes his reputation,” he didn’t want or ask to be involved in a case of such major political import. He got dragged in only because Democrats “knowingly nominated someone under FBI investigation.” Now they’re paying the price. But the Clinton email scandal has always been “totally overblown,” said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com. Of the 60,000 emails the FBI examined, only 113 were considered classified at the time they were sent, and they concerned discussions of drone strikes everyone knows about and mundane conversations with foreign leaders. Her actions neither broke the law, nor damaged national security. “There’s no there there.”
It’s unclear how Comey’s bungled announcement will affect the election, said Michael Cohen in The Boston Globe, but it has already produced a loser: “the credibility of the FBI and the Department of Justice.” At a critical moment, the FBI director tossed a bomb into a presidential campaign without knowing if he even had anything new. Why? “He’s covering his own posterior.” In doing so, he has “cast undue—and unfair— suspicion on Clinton,” and if this intervention tips the election to Trump, the businessman “would enter office under a permanent stain,” with half the country convinced “the FBI puts its finger on the scale to help him win.” Whatever now happens, Comey must resign.
Cover photos from Newscom, Media Bakery, Newscom