Technically speaking, the bomb detonated by FBI Director James Comey on Friday night when he announced the discovery of new emails that are “pertinent” to Hillary Clinton’s investigation turned out within a short time to be a dud, if not a stink bomb. Politically speaking, on the other hand, it might emerge as nothing less than a thermonuclear explosion that upended the presidential campaign and possibly determined its winner.
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What’s clear is that the initial spin given to the letter sent by Comey to Committee chairmen in Congress spread fear and loathing among Clinton, her advisers and her supporters. Comey’s October Surprise left them in shock. The headlines that heralded a “reopening” of the investigation of Clinton’s private email server sounded at first like the smoking cannon that might blow Clinton out of the water. It took a few hours of deep breaths and ascertaining facts to understand that the emails had not necessarily been sent to or from Clinton, hadn’t necessarily gone through her suspect server, weren’t necessarily different in any way shape or form from the thousands of emails that have already been examined by the FBI and don’t necessarily add a scintilla of evidence or knowledge about the whole affair, mainly because the FBI itself does not know, or isn’t supposed to know, what’s in them.
But the damage was already done. The reverberations from Comey’s bombshell stopped Clinton's momentum in its tracks. Like "The Walking Dead," Clinton’s nemesis, which was supposed to have been dead and buried, rose from the grave like a zombie to stalk her once again. The news that the email probe was being relaunched, even though it was either exaggerated or premature, transformed the agenda of the election campaign. It allowed Donald Trump to move from defense to offense and it recast Clinton from near-certain winner to almost-possible loser. It invigorated Trump supporters and discouraged Clinton voters. An election that had already been called for Clinton was, suddenly, at least ostensibly, wide open.
The fact that the emails had been located as a byproduct of the FBI investigation of Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who is suspected of lewdly sexting an underage 15-year-old girl, added a stench of depravity to an already sordid affair. Most people, after all, don’t take much of an interest in the details. Come put them on notice, however, that something is rotten in Clinton’s kingdom, and the details, perhaps even the truth, isn’t all that important. Even if it turns out that Comey made a mountain out of a hill of beans, Clinton was guilty by association and innuendo and recast as a schemer and conniver, after weeks in which she had hoped to put that image behind her.
In this presidential campaign between two such unliked candidates, the more the media deals with your rival and not with you the better. The ups and downs of Trump and Clinton in the campaign are directly correlated to the headlines their rivals garnered. Clinton’s advantage is that she is a disciplined politician who knows when to shun the limelight while Trump is like an enraged bull who consistently made sure the media focus shifted in his direction even when it didn’t serve his interests.
In the short term, the renewed spotlight on the email affair certainly works in Trump’s favor; the question is for how long and how much. Will Comey’s statement be relegated to the sidelines in a day or two or is it a game changer that clinches the deal for Trump. Don’t forget that millions of Americans have already voted before the latest controversy erupted and many millions more made up their minds despite the email scandal. But there’s no telling if the negative news about Clinton might influence the 10 percent of undecided voters who haven’t made up their minds yet. And when this hammer blow lands on Clinton in the midst of what was already seen as a Trump surge in the polls, one cannot discount the possibility that Comey’s statement will create a trend that will reach its peak on November 8. If that happens, he could to down in history as the man who singlehandedly anointed Donald Trump. If Clinton wins, he may be looking for a new job within 24 hours after her inauguration.
Clinton and the Democrats did not hide their shock and anger at Comey, whose side letter to FBI employees makes clear, was well aware of the possible ramifications of his statement. Clinton aides suspect that Comey, who served as Deputy Attorney General under George W Bush, was well aware that he would dealing a blow to Clinton’s campaign - and that this was his intention from the outset. California Senator Dianne Feinstein spoke for many Democrats when she described Comey’s move as “appalling."
Other critics maintain that Comey was trying to counter Trump’s repeated allegations that the FBI was corrupt and had covered up the Clinton investigation. Comey, it should be said, finds himself between a rock and a hard place ever since his July press conference in which he said the FBI would not pursue criminal charges against Clinton, whose behavior he nonetheless described as “extremely negligent." Comey supporters on the other hand insist he was simply doing his job. Refraining from reporting to Congress on developments in a case about which he had testified under oath before Congressional committees could be construed as dereliction of duty, they maintained.
But Comey’s shock statement may ultimately be no less significant in the aftermath of the elections and not only on their outcome. If Trump now wins, there will be an unprecedented crisis of confidence between American elites and the country’s main law enforcement agency: Trump’s detractors will never forgive Comey if he is perceived to have determined the outcome of the elections. At the same time, if Clinton wins, Republicans and Trump fans will cite Comey’s statement as proof that her presidency is illegitimate. They will accuse her of acting as President to cover up her crimes. In this regard, Comey poured highly flammable fuel on an already volatile and potentially violent situation. That hardly seems a role that should be fulfilled by the director of the FBI.