Why the FBI dropped email bombshell on Clinton so close to the election

The discovery of new emails has prompted the FBI to restart an investigation into Hillary Clinton's private server, just 11 days before the election. For the FBI, it is a no-win situation.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
FBI Director James Comey testifies before a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on July 14, 2016. The FBI is reopening its investigation of the government information stored on Hillary Clinton's private email server while serving as secretary of State.

Heading into the final full week of the presidential election, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has given this most bizarre of elections perhaps its most remarkable twist.

It informed Congress Friday that it is investigating whether there is classified information in new emails linked to Hillary Clinton. In July, the FBI had said its investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s private server was finished.

The disclosure raises the possibility of the FBI reopening the criminal investigation involving the Democratic presidential nominee just days before the election. It also raises the possibility that nothing whatsoever will happen and Clinton will be cleared.

The timing is extraordinary. The closest recent parallel was when the FBI on Oct. 10, 1972, suggested that President Nixon’s reelection committee was linked to a campaign of political spying and sabotage. Though the scandal eventually led to Nixon’s resignation, it had no significant effect on the election one month later. Nixon won in a landslide.

But that was at a time of dramatically lower partisanship. In the current campaign, Friday’s announcement could be explosive.

Already, the conservative National Review is calling it “the mother of all October surprises.”

“There is no way the FBI publicly re-opens this investigation on the eve of a presidential election if the new e-mails contained information about yoga routines or wedding plans,” writes staff writer David French.

That might not necessarily be the case, however. The New York Times reports that the emails were found during the FBI’s investigation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York over text messages sent to a 15-year-old girl. Mr. Weiner’s estranged wife, Huma Abedin, apparently shared at least one of the devices being investigated, the Times reports. 

A new batch of Clinton emails was discovered on the device – perhaps tens of thousands of emails, the Times reports. The FBI is taking steps to “determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation,” FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress.

What seems most likely at a moment of some upheaval is that, whatever the emails turn out to be, Mr. Comey clearly could not sit on them.

What if, after weeks or months of review, the FBI eventually finds nothing at all wrong with the emails – yet they dramatically damage Clinton, who currently holds a steady lead, according to most polls?

Comey risks changing the course of an enormously consequential election for nothing.

Yet, what if he chose to wait and not disrupt the election at a crucial time – only for his investigation to find criminal wrongdoing by a woman who was now the president of the United States?

He would risk very real charges of political conspiracy in an election season that has been rife with them.

“Comey and the FBI are in a terrible position here, one in which they would be accused of playing politics whatever they ended up doing,” writes Benjamin Wittes on the Lawfare legal blog.

“Comey faces an impossible choice,” adds Emma Green of The Atlantic.

The yearlong FBI investigation that had ended in July focused on whether Clinton sent or received classified information using the private server located in the basement of her New York home, which was not authorized to handle such messages.

Comey said in July that his agents didn't find evidence to support any criminal charges or direct evidence that Clinton's private server was hacked. He suggested that hackers working for a foreign government may have been so sophisticated they wouldn't have left behind any evidence of a break-in.

While the news is likely to be interpreted along partisan lines, the pattern of this election has been that attention is detrimental. Each candidate has done better when the attention has been on his or her opponent.

“In general, making news of any kind has been bad for Clinton and Trump, as periods of more intense coverage have been followed by declines in the polls,” writes Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight data journalism site.

At this early stage, the lack of evidence of wrongdoing could moderate the impact of the announcement, Mr. Silver suggests.

But, he adds, “at a minimum, there’s no upside in the story for Clinton.”

Wire material was used in this report.

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