How will history judge James Comey’s email revelation?

The verdict on the FBI director's actions may depend on what the emails reveal – and who wins the election.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
FBI Director James Comey, shown here testifying on Capitol Hill in September, has unleashed a furious political response after releasing a statement that the bureau is investigating a new batch of emails potentially related to Hillary Clinton's server.

It was a rare Washington announcement that deserved the modifier “bombshell.” FBI Director James Comey dropped a huge surprise on the 2016 presidential race last Friday by saying publicly that his agency will pore through a newly discovered batch of emails that might be pertinent to Hillary Clinton’s private server.

Will history judge Mr. Comey’s preemptive revelation prudent? Or will it seem prejudicial in retrospect, something that affected the vote’s outcome, inadvertently or not?

After all, Comey’s revelation came as the race was already tightening. The reemergence of the controversy over Clinton’s use of her own email infrastructure while secretary of State could threaten both her current poll lead and the Democrats’ chances of retaking the Senate, irrespective of the emails’ actual contents.

“Any slight breeze in any direction going into this final week has the potential to swing these races,” Ian Prior, a spokesman for the GOP’s Senate Leadership Fund super PAC, told the AP on Tuesday. The group is using the email issue in its digital ads.

Comey may have felt that he had no choice but to announce the discovery of the emails, found on a computer belonging to Anthony Weiner, the estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin. To withhold knowledge of the find could have been construed as an effort to sway the election as well.

But in the short run, the public announcement may be damaging to the FBI’s image. In its aftermath other stories have emerged from the FBI and the Justice Department. Some unnamed officials are saying that Attorney General Loretta Lynch believed Comey should have kept quiet about the emails. Others have whispered that the FBI director argued that it was too close to Election Day to name Russia as the primary suspect in the theft of emails from Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.

“I think that the entire week of FBI news is bad for the country, big picture,” says Brian Rosenwald, a political historian at the University of Pennsylvania and author of a forthcoming book on the political impact of talk radio, in an email response to a reporter’s inquiry. “It’s clear that the FBI is leaking like a sieve, with partisans within the agency leaking to preferred news outlets.”

FBI's Hoover era

That’s dangerous, given the FBI’s history, notes Mr. Rosenwald. In the long tenure of director J. Edgar Hoover, the bureau was notorious for subtle (and not-so-subtle) interference in domestic political affairs. Hoover used FBI files to try and silence antiwar and civil rights activists, and even to pressure presidents.

Comey’s actions haven’t come close to that. It’s much more likely he believed that rectitude demanded disclosure, or that he miscalculated the reaction to his announcement about the emails.

In the longer run history’s judgment might depend on events yet unknown. If there is something incriminating about the emails found in Ms. Abedin’s possession – an attempt to conceal them from investigators, say – Comey’s public announcement may appear prudent in retrospect. There’s no evidence yet that’s the case, though, and it’s quite possible this cache of communications largely consists of duplicates of emails the FBI has already seen.

If the emails turn out to be nothing and Clinton wins, Comey may also appear prescient. He’ll have headed off whispers that he concealed evidence prior to Election Day. But if the emails are nothing and Trump wins, Democrats could demonize him as the man who kept Clinton out of the Oval Office via an unnecessary October Surprise.

Problems ahead

In any case his relationship with the next president might be fraught. President Clinton could resent him as someone who could have prevented her election. President Trump might see him as an ally, which would create political problems for Comey and the bureau he leads. One aspect of the uproar that hasn’t received much attention so far is whether it means Comey feels he’ll have to quit come November.

“He’s fairly insulated because of the political ramifications of either Trump or Clinton trying to force him out. It’s more a question of whether he wants to deal with the uncomfortable nature of the relationship that he’d inevitably have with either one,” says Dr. Rosenwald.

As to the electorate’s opinion, a YouGov poll released Tuesday found that the public narrowly approves of Comey’s letter to Congress announcing the new development in the email saga by a margin of 42 to 40 percent.

That measure conceals a deep partisan divide on the question, however. Right now Democrats disapprove of Comey’s move by 66 to 14 percent. Republicans approve by an 82 to 8 percent split. That foreshadows an argument on the question that could last well past Election Day into the term of the 45th president of the United States. Whoever that may be.

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