FBI director James B. Comey on Wednesday testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee during its annual oversight hearing about the FBI. Much of the back-and-forth with committee members dealt with the FBI director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Comey explained that he felt compelled to notify Congress, less than two weeks before Election Day, about newly discovered emails related to the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server for government business. In July 2016, Comey had declared the Clinton email investigation closed, but promised to notify Congress if there were any new developments. Comey believed that is exactly what he did with his October letter to Congress explaining why the FBI was reopening the investigation. His decision to at least temporarily reopen the investigation focused on emails found on a computer belonging to Huma Abedin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner during the course of an unrelated investigation into Weiner’s alleged improper communications with a minor. Comey said during his testimony to the Senate committee that concealing this decision from Congress “would have been catastrophic.”
“Somehow, her emails were being forwarded to Anthony Weiner, including classified information,” Comey testified.
After his staff had reviewed thousands of the newly discovered emails and reportedly turned up nothing that would cause a reversal of the FBI’s original findings, Comey announced during the weekend before the election that he was sticking with his original conclusion that Hillary Clinton had not committed any prosecutable crime. One wonders whether his investigators had looked at the 894 pages of new State Department documents, including previously unreleased email exchanges in which Hillary Clinton was sent additional classified information through her unsecure clintonmail.com email account by Huma Abedin, which Judicial Watch just released on May 2nd. If not, perhaps the FBI should reopen its investigation once again.
In any case, FBI director Comey elaborated to the Judiciary Committee on the mental process he went through in trying to decide whether to inform Congress immediately regarding the new development he had learned from his investigators back in October or to say nothing. In response to a question from Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as to why he didn’t “just do the investigation as you would normally with no public announcement,” Comey replied:
“I’ve lived my entire career by the tradition that if you can possibly avoid it, you avoid any action in the run-up to an election that might have an impact. Whether it’s a dogcatcher election or president of the United States, but I sat there that morning and I could not see a door labeled no action here.
I could see two doors and they were both actions. One was labeled speak, the other was labeled conceal. Because here’s how I thought about it, I’m not trying to talk you into this, but I want you to know my thinking. Having repeatedly told this Congress, we are done and there’s nothing there, there’s no case there, there’s no case there, to restart in a hugely significant way, potentially finding the emails that would reflect on her intent from the beginning and not speak about it would require an active concealment, in my view.”
Comey also clarified that he had not made a public announcement about the reopened investigation. “I sent a private letter to the chairs and the rankings of the oversight committees,” he explained.
Senator Feinstein did not let up in her questioning. She insisted that the disclosure of the reopened investigation so close to the election “did affect the campaign.”
Although twice exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing by FBI director Comey – on July 5th and then again on November 6th – Hillary Clinton herself continues to blame Comey’s October “surprise” in part for her defeat. “If the election had been on October 27, I’d be your president,” she declared during an interview Tuesday with CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
October 27, 2016 was the day before Comey sent his letter to Congress with the news of the discovery of new emails that he had said required a reopening of the investigation. For good measure, Clinton also blamed sexism and the embarrassing WikiLeaks releases of emails hacked from her campaign chairman John Podesta’s account. She said she was “on the way to winning until a combination of Jim Comey’s letter on October 28 and Russian WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were inclined to vote for me and got scared off.”
FBI director Comey pushed back at the notion that his decision to tell Congress of his plans to at least temporarily reopen the Clinton email investigation swayed the election. “It makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election,” Comey told the committee.
Democrats continued their drumbeat on alleged ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia preceding the election, questioning Comey as to why he didn’t publicly disclose the FBI’s investigation into the alleged ties during the presidential campaign. They raised the specter of a double standard between his handling of that investigation versus the Clinton email investigation. Senator Feinstein asked the FBI director “why the FBI’s treatment of these two investigations was so dramatically different.” Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt) also went after the FBI director for this seeming inconsistency.
There was an obvious difference in circumstances underlying his ultimate handling of the two investigations that Comey attempted to explain, although in both cases the FBI had not said a word about the investigations “until months into it.” However, the paths of the two investigations diverged once the FBI publicly closed the Clinton email investigation with no finding of criminal intent. Comey promised Congress that he would provide an update if there were any potentially significant new developments that warranted a second look, which is precisely what he did with his October 28th letter. The Russian investigation was still proceeding with the same classified treatment that the Clinton email investigation had received until the public announcement of the decision to close it.
As to whether and to what degree Comey’s October 28th letter to Congress affected the outcome of the presidential election, historians and political scientists further removed from the heated politics of today may be able to provide a more balanced perspective than senators battling for attention during the course of a contentious committee hearing. However, the fact that a recent Washington Post-ABC poll shows that Clinton would currently lose to Trump in the popular vote as well as in the electoral college shows what a flawed candidate she was and would continue to be. Although the poll showed that Trump was the least popular president at the 100 day mark and despite all of the public allegations – as yet unproven – of collusion between Russia and the Trump team, Trump would beat Clinton 43 percent to 40 percent.
Consider also the fact that in any early voting between July 5, when Comey announced the FBI’s recommendation not to prosecute Clinton, and his October 28th letter to Congress indicating his intention to reopen the investigation, Hillary Clinton would have been the clear beneficiary of the July 5th exoneration. Even assuming that many voters casting their ballots between October 28th and Clinton’s second exoneration on November 6th were swayed to vote against her as a result of the letter, Election Day voters who were following the latest developments would no longer have had a reason to vote against her on account of the mooted disclosures in the October 28th letter.
Hillary Clinton’s email mess was a mess of her own making. Her stonewalling and ever changing explanations only reinforced public skepticism regarding her candidacy. She also was a flawed candidate. She learned nothing from her primary losses to Berne Sanders in Michigan and Wisconsin. Hillary and her team continued to brush off the disheartened working class voters in the Rust Belt, whom had backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but found President Trump’s populist message to be more relevant to their concerns than Hillary’s muddled message. She did not even deign to campaign in Wisconsin.
It is past time that Hillary, the Democrats in Congress and her other supporters, including Moveon.org whom put together a petition demanding FBI director Comey’s resignation for interfering with the election, truly move on.