When the books about the 2016 presidential election campaign come out, James Comey, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, will either have a chapter dedicated all to himself or be consigned to an asterisked footnote – depending, of course, on who wins the election. Right now the polls say it could go either way, so Comey’s historical notoriety hangs in the balance.
The FBI’s disclosure that it is reopening its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, just eleven days before the vote, could hardly have been more exquisitely timed for maximum impact on the election contest. My first reaction is that, since the emails involved have yet to be examined, and so may not reveal new information than the FBI already possesses – and on which a decision was made not to proceed to a prosecution – then the initiative ought to have been left until after the vote. Moreover, it has long been a decent and sensible custom in American politics that government and federal agency officials refrain from making any statements that might affect an election campaign. Comey has violated that tradition.
The question is whether he did so with malice aforethought, as the Democrats are predictably claiming, or because he felt that he had little choice, as Trump maintains. That is now being fiercely debated on the airwaves.
Comey, it should be noted, is a lifelong Republican. Nothing should be read into that – many respectable and respected Republicans hold senior positions in government – but disclosure is demanded here because the question of his political affiliation is usually the first one asked by observers of all stripes.
Hillary Clinton and senior Democrats on Capitol Hill are engaging all the senses in this latest crisis: they cry foul; they smell rats; they hear the noise of voters switching; they scan the archives for clear evidence that protocol has been breached. And who can blame them? Clinton’s lead in the polls, supposedly in double digits last week, is apparently slipping as I write.
Her campaign needed this kind of surprise like the proverbial hole in the head. Trump’s needed it as a man bleeding to death needs a transfusion. Comey’s intervention may have been a game-changer.
By the time the answers to the questions that his action has provoked finally emerge, the election will be over. Meanwhile, we can only speculate on his motive. It may have been pure and possibly even naïve. More likely, it may have been no more than a cynical exercise to cover his rear.
Comey’s most likely explanation is that he confronted a dilemma: to delay the disclosure until after the election and potentially stand accused of ‘protecting’ one of the candidates, or announce it right away and face the inevitable accusations of bias sooner rather than later. Perhaps he thought the FBI should be above politics and ignore the fact of an election in progress.
We can only presume that, before dropping his bombshell, and knowing full well what the collateral damage would be, he sought the broadest possible range of advice, both within the agency and in wider government circles. According to some reports his decision flew in the face of a recommendation by Loretta Lynch, the United States attorney general, the senior law officer in the land, that he should hold fire on the announcement. (Others insist that she left him to make the decision.) If so, presumably he became exposed to countervailing opinions more compelling than hers. If so, what were they, and who offered them? American voters are entitled to know, but perhaps never will – at least not until the memoirs are published.
Incidentally, it is hard to imagine anything like this happening in a British general election, or to a British foreign secretary, least of all the present one. Boris Johnson probably refrains from emailing, as a matter of principle.
And speaking of Johnsons, how abjectly ironic it would be if Anthony Weiner, a former politician brought down by behaviour that women found unacceptable turned out to be the very cause of putting into the White House a current candidate who stands accused of similar offences.
That, of course, would be all of a piece with this election, which has reduced many Americans to a state of stunned disbelief that their great democratic traditions have been reduced to playground name-calling.
Only seven days to go to the vote, but a week can be a long time in politics – especially in this crazy season.
So, don’t count on anything yet.