Were FBI letters a factor in Hillary Clinton's loss?

As the country settles down from the upset results of the 2016 presidential election, the Clinton campaign seems to have found a scapegoat in FBI director James Comey.

Matt Rourke/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton walks off the stage after speaking in New York on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Clinton conceded the presidency to Donald Trump in a phone call early Wednesday morning, a stunning end to a campaign that appeared poised right up until election day to make her the first woman elected U.S. president.

In the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump's upset victory in the 2016 presidential election, speculation about what exactly went wrong with Hillary Clinton's campaign has abounded, from overzealous voter ID laws in important swing states to flawed projections of election polls. While a conclusive list of the factors that went into Clinton's loss will continue to be debated for years to come, it seems that the candidate herself is pointing a significant part of the blame at FBI director James Comey.

Director Comey's letter to Congress, released 11 days before the election, may have reinvigorated old doubts about the candidate's email scandal that dogged her throughout the campaign for voters still on the fence, and may have even energized a wave of Trump supporters that pollsters had discounted up to the day of the election. While Comey published a second letter two days before the election to announce the end of the investigation against Clinton, some officials in the Democratic party, including Clinton herself, say it might have been too little, too late to save the campaign.

"There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful," Clinton told top donors on a farewell conference call Saturday. "But our analysis is that Comey's letter raising doubts that were groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum."

Before Comey's first letter, Clinton's campaign was enjoying a substantial lead over Donald Trump, with polls projecting a victory with votes to spare for the Democratic candidate. While Clinton's use of a private email server to send official communications during her time as US Secretary of State had been in a thorn in her side at multiple points during the presidential race, the FBI investigation had been closed since July, with the official statement from the FBI saying that Clinton had been "extremely careless," but that there was no reason for charges to be brought against her.

But then, three months later, Comey announced in a letter that a new batch of emails to Clinton was found in connection with the separate investigation of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) of New York. Comey told Congress that the FBI was working to determine "determine whether [the new emails] contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation." The vague letter threw the Clinton camp into disarray, prompting speculation that the FBI had found something significant to bring against the candidate, perhaps even reversing its position about bringing criminal charges against her.

The next Comey letter cleared Clinton and emphasized that the FBI had not changed the conclusion the agency reached in July, but the Democratic candidate had already dropped in the polls after early voting had already begun. Clinton said in the farewell call that the last-minute exoneration may have actually hurt the campaign even more in light of Trump's "rigged election" rhetoric and his assertion that it was "impossible" for the FBI to have gone through all the emails so quickly. 

Clinton's campaign believes that the last-minute surge from Comey's second letter, in combination with the drop in polls from the first, was a significant driving force behind the election day upset.

"We lost with college-educated whites after leading with them all summer," a Clinton spokesman, Brian Fallon, told The New York Times. "Five more days of reminders about Comey, and they gravitated back to Trump."

While Comey may have been a contributing factor to the outcome of the election, polls almost universally projected a Clinton victory until the results actually started coming in on Election Day, even with the letters in play. And as The Christian Science Monitor's Mark Sappenfield explained before the second letter was published, the inevitable ire directed towards Comey by Clinton supporters might be somewhat misplaced:

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?

A great deal of anger has been directed at both the FBI director and the media for its negative coverage of the email scandal, which many Clinton supporters see as painting a false moral equivalency between Clinton's careless use of a private email server and what Trump's detractors see as more dangerous rhetoric and behavior, from allegations of racial prejudice to being awarded fact-checking organization PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for statements made on the campaign trail. 

"The media always covered [Clinton] as the person who would be president and therefore tried to eviscerate her before the election, but covered Trump who was someone who was entertaining and sort of gave him a pass," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said in the call with supporters, according to The Hill. "We need to reflect and analyze that and put our voices forward."

This article contains material from Reuters.

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