I agree with Hillary Clinton that FBI Director James Comey’s letter of October 28, in which he reported to Congress about the new emails that were “pertinent” to her investigation, was the coup de grace that finally did her in. That was my suspicion when the letter was first published and that was my immediate conclusion when Donald Trump’s victory was announced. It hasn’t changed, either.
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In the meantime, there’s been an almost concerted effort by pundits on both the left and the right to diminish the significance of Comey’s intervention. This may be the more practical approach: it’s water under the bridge anyway. Who even wants to contemplate the possibility that the unwarranted intervention of an FBI director threw the elections, as if America was a Third World banana republic? What’s done is done, many people say, and now we should get on with our lives.
People on the right are pooh-poohing the FBI intervention theory because it delegitimizes their victory and casts doubt on Trump’s presidency. They would rather portray Clinton’s loss as an ideological rejection of her personally, as well as her party and ideology. Her accusations against Comey, which may not have been the wisest thing for her to do politically, will be portrayed as whining by a sore loser.
People on the left are trying to avoid going down this road because it’s a dead end. They can’t do anything about it and even if they could, they wouldn’t. Who wants to take on the FBI? They’re dainty upstanding liberals, not roughshod anything-goes conservatives. Better to reject the candidate that until 96 hours ago they touted as the most qualified to ever vie for the Presidency, to blame her for her own demise, to pinpoint her bad mistakes in the campaign and to list her past transgressions as evidence that she shouldn’t have run in the first place.
But it is precisely because of these past transgressions that Comey’s letter proved so lethal. Because of its context and timing, Comey confirmed what Trump had been saying throughout the last months of the campaign: that Clinton was crooked and should be in jail.
Trump’s entire strategy was based on branding Clinton as “Crooked Hillary.” Using the same method, he had disposed of Low Energy Bush, Little Marco and Lyin’ Ted. Trump paid lip service to issues and did his best to read programmatic speeches, he spoke about Obama Care and promised to destroy ISIS, but his main focus was on creating an equation in which Clinton equalled Crooked. Comey, aided and abetted by the news networks, sealed the deal.
By concentrating and inflating Clinton’s problematic handling of her emails, her questionable conflict of interest vis a vis the Clinton Foundation and her downright stupid decision to take hundreds of thousands of dollars for speeches when she was already considering a White House run, Trump erased Clinton’s distinct advantages over him. If Clinton is crooked, no one pays attention to the fact that she has far more knowledge, experience and good judgment to be president than he ever will. To paraphrase a Skeeter Davis hit from the 1950’s, Clinton has forgotten more than Trump will ever know.
By framing Clinton in a one-dimensional “crooked” cage, Trump was trying to recreate the semblance of a reality show: Two people come out of nowhere, as if they were born yesterday, and all you know about them is that what you learn from the program. True, Americans learned that Trump was a racist and then that he was a sexist pig, but in life, timing is everything. Just as Trump’s campaign appeared to be losing steam and heading for certain defeat, Comey showed up. If this was indeed a reality show, the FBI director’s letter was the equivalent of “The tribe has spoken,” if not “You’re fired.” For the next seven days, up until the last Sunday before the elections, the news networks pounded this theme home, essentially confirming Trump’s message that it was more important than anything else.
The letter set off a chain reaction among wavering voters on both sides: It was as if a verdict had come down confirming everyone’s worst suspicions about Clinton personally and about the corrupt Washington establishment she represented in general. It superseded the identification of women with Clinton as the first woman president. It made Republicans decide to support Trump, even if they had to hold their noses. It convinced enough Democrats stay home, because, really, why bother. In an elections essentially decided by no more than 100,000 voters in Rust Belt states, the letter could very well have made all the difference.
Of course one can validly claim that Clinton had set herself up. If she hadn’t carried so much excess baggage, Comey wouldn’t have written a letter, and even if he’d had, it wouldn’t have brought her down. Perhaps. But one can’t escape the feeling that politicians and pundits and as well as law enforcement and justice professionals prefer not to gaze at the bottomless pit that opened up in front of their eyes 10 days before America went to the polls. They prefer to look away rather than face the possibility that, unwittingly or not, the head of the FBI had carried out a successful putsch. In America.