Did FBI save Hillary Clinton – or sink her?

FBI Director James Comey's announcement Sunday that there would be no investigation of Hillary Clinton closes the immediate issue, but it is likely to reverberate long after Election Day.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
FBI Director James Comey, shown being sworn in before testifying at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in July, said Sunday he stands by his original conclusion that no investigation into Clinton is warranted – even after an additional trove of emails were found.

On the cusp of Election Day the Federal Bureau of Investigation has delivered one last extraordinary twist in a presidential campaign that may fascinate historians for a century to come.

Racing against time, agents finished their review of newly discovered Hillary Clinton emails much sooner than officials originally predicted. In a letter sent to Congress late Sunday, FBI Director James Comey said nothing they discovered changed their original conclusion that Mrs. Clinton should not face charges in the incident.

On the one hand, the announcement brings some relief to Democrats terrified by weeks of tightening poll numbers and the prospect of a vague threat to Clinton’s candidacy remaining unresolved through Nov. 8.  

On the other hand, it has mystified and frustrated Republicans while giving Donald Trump a new talking point for his incendiary insistence that election 2016 is in some manner “rigged.”

Thus for the nation in general and the FBI in particular the matter is likely to reverberate long after the last ballots have been cast. If Mr. Trump loses, this last up-and-down emotional cycle is likely to feature prominently in his causal narrative. Whoever wins, members of Congress from both parties are likely to press an investigation into the matter – with the FBI’s reputation, and perhaps Mr. Comey’s position, at stake.

“The growing number of unanswered questions demand explanations,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement.

Comey announced this last cycle of the FBI’s probe into the Clinton email issue on Oct. 28, following the discovery of a new batch of Clinton-related emails on the computer of Anthony Weiner, the disgraced ex-congressman and estranged husband of key Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Federal authorities are investigating Mr. Weiner for conducting sexually charged communications online with a 15-year-old girl.

Comey made the existence of these emails public over the objections of Justice Department officials. The move revived an issue Clinton thought settled back in July, when Comey had said she was “extremely careless” in her handling of classified information but that their was no evidence Clinton or anyone else had willfully broken the law in the matter.

Factor for Clinton slipping in polls?

The announcement coincided with a Clinton decline in the polls. Evidence is mixed as to whether the FBI’s move itself contributed to this slump.

National polls were already beginning to tighten at the time, notes Aaron Blake at The Fix political blog of The Washington Post. It’s true that about 4 to 6 percent of voters told pollsters the matter made them less likely to vote for Clinton – an important swing in such a close race. But a closer look shows the vast majority of these respondents were actually Republicans whose likelihood of voting for the ex-secretary of State was already quite low.

However, Clinton’s poll decline actually accelerated a bit following Comey’s announcement, points out Nate Silver at the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight. And it looks like the Comey effect may have had substantial effects in down-ballot races for members of Congress, increasing the chances that the GOP keeps control of the Senate. The chances of a Democratic Senate takeover have moved from about 70 percent pre-Comey to 50 percent now, judges Mr. Silver.

“It doesn’t take a lot to swing the numbers in the Senate forecast because of the large number of competitive races – even a 1-point swing toward Republicans because of higher turnout could affect the odds significantly,” Silver writes.

More-recent polls, however, suggest that Clinton's fall in the polls has stabilized and perhaps begun to reverse. A Fox News poll released Monday but taken before Comey's announcement Sunday showed Clinton with a four point lead, up from two points on Friday. 

Who's the loser? Probably the FBI.

If there is any clear loser in this whole affair it is likely to be the FBI itself. Leaks have portrayed in agency riven by internal warfare over the seriousness of the emails and other perceived Clinton transgressions. It seems far from the just-the-facts-ma’am image of the FBI long featured in popular media portrayals.

Comey himself is now in a difficult position. His congressionally mandated 10-year nonrenewable term as FBI director runs until 2023. But could he serve under a President Trump who might thank him for aiding his election? Could he serve under a President Clinton who might feel the opposite?

The FBI enjoys a large amount of independence, but even the appearance of having affected the vote might weigh on a director whose sense of rectitude led him to a famous hospital room showdown over warrantless wiretapping during the Bush administration.

A new president could also fire Comey. His 10-year term doesn’t preclude that. That seems unlikely – Trump wouldn’t, Clinton probably would see it as too publicly retributive – but many unlikely things have occurred in US politics over the last twelve months.

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