FBI Director James B. Comey’s bombshell notice to Congress on Friday that his agency was renewing its investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while she served as secretary of state already appears to be hurting the Democratic presidential nominee’s prospects and bolstering her Republican rival’s flagging campaign.
A new Washington Post-ABC News tracking poll released on Sunday showed GOP nominee Donald Trump closing what was a 6-point Clinton lead down to one percentage point in a four-way contest including Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein. The poll, conducted Oct. 25 to 28, showed Clinton barely ahead of Trump, 46 percent to 45 percent, in a rolling tally with a three-point margin of error. Johnson received four percent of the vote and Stein two percent.
Just a week ago, some polls had Clinton holding a commanding double-digit lead over Trump in at a time when Trump was still reeling from the impact of the release of an 11-year-old NBC “Access Hollywood” videotape showing Trump boasting of having sexually assaulted and groped women. About a third of all likely voters who were contacted on Friday, after the news of Comey’s revelation broke, said they were less likely to support Clinton in light of the disclosure.
Many of those voters are Republicans and independents who already were inclined to oppose her in any case. However, seven percent of those who identified themselves as Clinton supporters said the Comey announcement makes them less likely to support Clinton.
The presidential campaign lurched into its final, highly uncertain ten-day stretch on Sunday with Democrats fuming about Comey’s action and Trump supporters reveling in the development, even while politicians on both sides of the aisle ponder why the FBI director decided to reveal in the vaguest of terms that additional emails had been discovered that might be pertinent to an investigation that Comey concluded last July without any charges being brought.
In a letter to GOP and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill that almost instantaneously pumped new life into Trump’s sputtering campaign, Comey said that federal investigators had discovered additional government emails on a computer that was jointly shared by former New York congressman Anthony Weiner (D-NY) and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a top campaign aide to Clinton who also worked for her during Clinton’s four years as secretary of state.
The FBI is investigating allegations that Weiner had sent sexually suggestive text messages to a 15-year-old girl in North Carolina, a pattern of sexually oriented and pornographic texting by Weiner that cost him his seat in Congress and later forced him to pull out of a race for New York mayor.
A furious Clinton and her senior aides lashed out at Comey’s decision, coming just 11 days before the presidential election, although they stopped just short of accusing the FBI director of interfering with the outcome of a bitterly fought race with huge implications for the future of the country.
Reporters Michelle Gorman and Matthew Cooper offer the following explanation in an article in Newsweek: “Comey didn’t have a choice. Because the new information followed his sworn testimony about the case, Comey was obligated by Department of Justice rules to keep the relevant committees apprised. Under oath, Comey had stated that the bureau had completed its review. Once he learned that there were new emails that required examination, Comey had to notify Congress that he had to amend his testimony because it was no longer true.”
Clinton supporters argue that voters have pretty much made up their minds about the two candidates and that while Trump may be able to pick up some additional support because of renewed suspicions about the email controversy, Clinton’s support is pretty much locked in and won’t be affected by the Comey revelation.
Yet the specter of a possible reopening of the Clinton email investigation casts a pall on her campaign, just as national polls and surveys of key battleground states suggested that the former secretary of state was headed for victory over Trump. The Democrats harsh judgment of Comey’s decision to notify Congress of the latest finding – in contravention to long-standing Justice Department guidelines against revealing the status of a criminal investigation that might impact the course of an election –contrasts with the Democrats’ praise of Comey last summer when he concluded there wasn’t substantial evidence to charge Clinton with a crime for mishandling sensitive State Department documents.
“It’s pretty strange to put something like that out with so little information right before an election,” Clinton said in Daytona Beach, Florida on Saturday
During an appearance today on the ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine complained that Comey’s notification to Congress unfairly gave Trump an opening to wildly exaggerate the significance of the decision and to portray the case as “the worst scandal since Watergate.” Trump jubilantly declared to supporters on Friday that “This changes everything.”
“This is an unprecedented move [by Comey] … because it happened close to an election, which is in violation of normal Justice Department protocol, and it involves talking about an ongoing investigation which also violates the protocol,” Kaine said. “And as far as we know now, Director Comey knows nothing about the content of the emails. We don’t know whether they are to or from Hillary at all.”
“So this is a distraction, but what we’re focused on is winning the race over the next 10 days talking about the kind of president Hillary Clinton will be and contrasting her ‘Stronger Together’ vision with the dangerous vision of Donald Trump,” he added.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, echoed Clinton’s call to the FBI to swiftly release details of the additional emails in question to lift the veil of suspicion that Clinton had somehow withheld incriminating evidence from federal investigators.
Comey and the FBI were just granted a new search warrant, which is required to review emails on Weiner’s laptop that are not related to his sexting scandal. They will quickly identify those emails that may be duplicates of ones already reviewed by using “merge and purge” software and are hoping to complete the review of any new emails in a few days.
“All we’re asking for now is just let’s get all the information out there on the table,” Mook told Chuck Todd of NBC’s Meet the Press. “So to send a letter to Congress saying we may have some information, we don’t know if it’s significant or not, without even looking at what’s inside there ten or eleven days before a presidential election – it is very curious,” Mook added.
Trump and his campaign aides are treating Comey’s notice to Congress as prima facie evidence that the FBI has turned up incriminating evidence against Clinton, even while Comey stressed that he had no way of knowing its significance at this point.
During her appearance today on This Week, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was asked by Stephanopoulos how Trump could conclude that Clinton’s mishandling of sensitive or top secret state department emails was worse than the Watergate scandal, which led to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon and the criminal convictions of dozens of his top aides and advisers.
“He [Trump] just sees that there's this constant cloud of corruption that follows Hillary Clinton around,” Conway said. “And for the FBI to make this remarkable move 11 days before the election means there must be something there.”
Although their political motivations couldn’t be more different, the Clinton and Trump camps are in agreement on one thing – that Comey and the FBI must provide more detail and clarification of the content and significance of the 1,000 or more additional emails that have been discovered as part of the Anthony Weiner investigation.
Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence called on the FBI to release "all emails pertinent" to its investigation of Hillary Clinton. Pence said the American people "have the right to know before Election Day."
“With regard to disclosure, I’m very glad to hear Hillary Clinton calling for putting all of this out on the table,” Pence said on Meet the Press. “Why doesn’t she ask her senior aide [Abedin] to release all of these emails? I mean, why doesn’t she go ahead and release all of the 33,000 emails that she did not turn over to the FBI and to Congress initially? The American people have a right to know.”
Comey announced in July that the FBI was closing its lengthy investigation of Clinton’s alleged mishandling of government email and use of an unsecured private server after concluding there were no grounds for prosecution – even though she was terribly “careless” in her handling of sensitive documents. In his letter to Congress on Friday, Comey said the FBI would take “appropriate investigative steps” to determine whether the newly uncovered emails contain classified information -- and whether they have anything to do with Clinton’s investigation.
Comey wrote a letter to FBI employees explaining why he chose to notify congressional committee members, including some Republicans who have devoted the past two years to trying to derail Clinton’s candidacy. Here’s what he said:
“Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.”
The Justice Department reportedly opposed Comey’s plan to notify Congress of the discovery, in part because it contravened long-standing FBI policy not to publicly disclose the progress of criminal investigations until a decision had been reached on whether to seek criminal charges or an indictment. What’s more, the agency has long been reluctant to take action or reveal information that could impact the outcome of an election.