The biggest loser: how the FBI was tainted by corrosive presidential race
When Americans vote Tuesday after the most divisive presidential election campaign in living memory, one certainty about the winner can be safely predicted.
It won’t be James Comey, FBI Director and campaign wildcard, now assailed from both sides of the political divide.
Those two sides are likely to be arguing for years over the question of who was helped and who was hurt by the pair of political bombshells that Comey dropped into the final stages of the race.
But one effect seems beyond dispute. An agency that, at least in its recent history, has been considered the symbol of square-jawed rectitude has now taken a place in the larger, corrosive narrative of the 2016 election.
“Regrettably, this is of a piece with every event that happened before it in the campaign,” said William Galston, a governance expert at the Brookings Institution. “In a way, it is a perfectly fitting end to a truly awful campaign.”
The whole saga also will probably reinforce the disillusioned American public’s perception that the political system is corrupt, and that the institutions of government are failing. It is likely, as well, to further undermine the legitimacy of whoever wins the election in this deeply polarised country.
Comey announced Sunday afternoon that his agency had found nothing in a newly discovered trove of emails to change its view from July that Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system did not merit criminal charges.
In another kind of political season, that might have settled the matter.
But instead, it generated a new round of dark theorising from some of the same people who had praised Comey only nine days before, when he had notified Congress that the additional emails belonging to top Clinton aide Huma Abedin had been found on the laptop of her estranged husband, Anthony Weiner, a former Democrat congressman under investigation for allegedly sexting with a minor.
“Comey must be under enormous political pressure to cave like this and announce something he can’t possibly know,” tweeted former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a prominent ally of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
At a rally in Minnesota, Trump said: “You have to understand it’s a rigged system, and she’s protected.”
Meanwhile, the Democrats who had howled foul over Comey’s October 28 announcement were feeling a palpable relief.
“We were always confident that nothing would cause the July decision to be revisited. Now Director Comey has confirmed it,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon wrote in a tweet.
Fallon added in another one: “Trump’s hopes of using Comey to distract the voters in closing days of the campaign just went up in smoke.”
The ostensibly apolitical FBI had become an actor in the election more than a year ago, when it opened an investigation into the question of whether the former secretary of state had put national security in jeopardy when she decided not to follow protocol of using a government email account to conduct official business, but to do it on her personal email and server.
Comey had taken an unusually high profile in July, when he publicly decried Clinton’s email practices as “extremely careless” in handling sensitive, highly classified information, but said that his agency had decided not to prosecute her.
Although Democrats were relieved, Republicans saw politics at work, given that Comey had acknowledged someone else in that position would face sanctions.
Nor did it help appearances - or dampen cynicism - when it was reported that former president Bill Clinton had held a private meeting with Attorney General Loretta Lynch aboard her plane at the Phoenix airport as the investigation was nearing its end.
Lynch later said that she regretted having met with Clinton, and that she would “be accepting” of whatever recommendation Comey brought her.
Republicans and Democrats reversed positions, however, when Comey made his announcement last month. Leading GOP figures hailed it as a principled stand, while Democrats said it violated a long-standing practice by the agency not to do anything in the final days of an election campaign that could influence the outcome.
Comey’s decision to make public his agency’s inquiry into the new emails did indeed inflict political damage on the front-running Clinton campaign.
The polls narrowed significantly after his announcement, forcing Clinton to abandon her plans to assume a positive stance in the final days before the election. Instead of laying out her vision for governing and focusing on bringing Democrats in difficult down-ballot races with her, Clinton resumed attacking Trump.
With the race suddenly appearing more competitive, Trump saw new opportunities opening in states that had seemed beyond his reach, sending both campaigns into a scramble across what appeared to be a reconfigured electoral map.
But tracking polls, including the one being done by The Washington Post and ABC News, suggested that Clinton was beginning to regain her footing.
So if she wins, it may be difficult to determine whether Comey’s latest announcement helped her, or whether the race was settling back into where it had been before.
Meanwhile, even as some Republicans criticise Comey, others are enlisting the FBI to make a larger point.
“Regardless of this decision, the undisputed finding of the FBI’s investigation is that Secretary Clinton put our nation’s secrets at risk and in doing so compromised our national security,” House Speaker Paul Ryan, said in a statement issued shortly after Comey’s decision became public Sunday. “She simply believes she’s above the law and always plays by her own rules.”
If Clinton wins Tuesday, that is probably not the last time she will hear that line. The FBI investigation may be closed, but the partisanship around it remains very much alive.