FBI Director James Comey has drawn ire from both sides of the political spectrum for his letter to Congress on new emails that could relate to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s email server. Here’s a basic overview of what we know so far. The FBI was conducting an investigation into Anthony Weiner’s most recent sexting scandal involving an underage teenager. Said investigation involved a search into one of his and Clinton advisor Huma Abedin’s computer. Sometime in early October the FBI uncovered some emails that may have something to do with Clinton’s email investigation. A few weeks later, the agents who discovered this information briefed Director Comey on this information and, against the Justice Department’s urging, he sent a letter to Congress, saying in essence that the FBI had uncovered more emails and was going to continue the email investigation. On Sunday November 6, Comey backtracked on his statements, saying these new emails did not change his previous conclusion on Clinton’s emails.
Leading up to this discovery, Clinton held a large lead in most national polls, but the days preceding saw a tightening in polls, and this event saw a significant drop in support for Clinton and a surge for Republican candidate Donald Trump, especially in highly contested states like Florida. Director Comey has faced sharp criticism for seemingly interfering in the election, seeing as he sent the letter less than a fortnight before election day. Democrats and Republicans alike have condemned his timing and the letter itself, saying he had no real motivation enough to send a letter to Congress other than to meddle with the election.
It’s incredibly important to note the timing of events leading up to Director Comey sending the letter. The emails in question were found by the FBI in early October. On Friday, October 28th, Comey sent a letter to Congress with information on the FBI’s finding. In the letter, he admitted he did not know the content of the email or their relevancy to the investigation he had closed in July. He did not have a warrant to search Ms. Abedin’s emails. This warrant was acquired a few days AFTER the letter was sent. FBI agents admitted to having known about this emails since early October, and the limited but nevertheless highly implicating information was released ten days before the election day. If this was meant as smooth a political move on Comey’s part, then it was ill-conceived, since the facts clearly point to the fact that this letter was meddling in the election. If Comey thought he was simply doing his job, then the move was irresponsible and extremely badly timed, since he of all people should know the effect such implications will have on the election.
Comey claimed he did not want people to assume the FBI was withholding information in case of a leak, but making a big deal and actually sending a formal letter to Congress about very limited information is unnecessary and parts completely with the Justice Department’s tradition of not divulging information within 60 days of a major election. It also parts with Comey’s own record. Though he stated he saw a connection between Russian hackers and Wikileaks, he was adamant that the FBI not be involved in those statements at all because it would not be appropriate. Following that same criteria, he should not have sent a letter to Congress. But he did. The implication, therefore, is that he is interfering with the election. And even if he wasn’t and did not intend the fallout, the damage is already done. Hillary Clinton’s lead has shrunk from being at double-digits to a mere three-point lead in a recent Times/CBS poll.
It’s hard to justify Comey’s actions as unbiased or as having little effect on the election. He knew nothing about the content of the emails and should not have needed to alert Congress without a warrant or even a legitimate reason for concern. Upon reading his letter to Congress, one realizes that there is no sign of emergency, no information that would change the course of the campaign or even call into question Clinton’s fitness for president more than the already concluded investigation in July. But the immediate headlines that come after the letter, that the FBI would be reopening the investigation, that more emails were found, that some of those emails could be classified, do all those things. The headlines caused alarm in the Clinton camp and elation in the Trump camp. The Republican nominee’s campaign seized on this opportunity to try to sway undecided voters who were put off by Clinton’s questionable trustworthiness. The implications that even more emails had been deleted were huge. And of course, the assumption was that Comey had made a responsible and knowledgeable decision. If he alerted Congress, then there must have been something really bad in those emails. This assumption was more damaging to Clinton than any other.
Except, it seems Comey did not make a knowledgeable decision. After obtaining a warrant and causing a nationwide firestorm, he backtracked, saying that the emails would not change his recommendation in July. The FBI insisted the emails did not have anything classified in them and that there was no emergency. But too late. It doesn’t matter now that the FBI won’t reopen their investigation, because the scandal is already out. It doesn’t matter that Comey is saying “nevermind” every five seconds because undecided voters may have already made their decision based on this latest “information”. The FBI’s backtracking could not reinstate Clinton’s lead or wipe away her campaign’s newfound insecurity. And any seasoned public servant should understand that this deep reaction is normal in our political atmosphere. Comey should have known how the general people would jump on this news and how hard it is to take those actions back. There is no excuse for his sending that letter and there are only two explanations. Either Comey feared the information would be released after the election and he would face fire for keeping it quiet, or he caved to political pressure and sent the letter to shake up the election. If it was the first, then he should understand that in his job, some of his decision will inevitably face criticism. If it was the second, then he has given in to the growing political pressure of an increasingly polarized election when it was most important for him to stay unbiased.