Donald Trump and his campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, could barely contain their glee on Friday, when FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress revealed that investigators had discovered a new trove of emails that passed through her private server during her time as secretary of state. But the GOP nominee and his staff ought to have learned by now to be careful what they wish for.
Comey’s controversial decision was at first seen as a breath of life for the moribund Trump campaign, but there is an increasing backlash against the FBI director for his decision -- in violation of decades of Justice Department policy -- to make an official announcement about a case that might affect the results of an election.
“It strikes many people as unfair,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “I’ve been surprised at the number of former Republican senior officials who've denounced Comey's decision.”
Over the weekend, former Republican congressman-turned radio host Joe Walsh unleashed a ferocious storm of tweets attacking the FBI director, “I want Trump to win, but what Comey just did to Hillary Is wrong & really unfair to her,” he wrote. “From voter fraud, to Russian hacks, to the FBI Director: Nobody should mess with something as sacred as the vote. Nobody.”
This is the same Walsh who, just last week, vowed, “On Nov. 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket.”
On Saturday, former George W. Bush administration deputy attorney general Larry Thompson, who supports Trump for president, co-authored a Washington Post op-ed with Jamie Gorelick, who held the same post under Bill Clinton. Comey’s decision, they wrote, “is antithetical to the interests of justice, putting a thumb on the scale of this election and damaging our democracy.”
Former Bush administration Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez was also highly critical of Comey in an interview with CNN, saying he is “somewhat perplexed about what the director was trying to accomplish here.”
“If you delay the announcement, hopefully it's not going to jeopardize an investigation, it's not going to jeopardize the pursuit of justice, and voters will have the opportunity to vote on Election Day without information that may in fact be incomplete or untrue,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republican members of Congress are salivating at the possibility of there being more grist for the continuously operating Clinton investigation mill.
Even before Comey’s announcement, House Oversight and Investigations Committee chairman Jason Chaffetz said he already has two years’ worth of hearings lined up, in the event Clinton is elected. On Sunday, his colleague on the committee, Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, slipped and referred to an “impeachment” of Clinton -- correcting himself to say that he was discussing only a “perjury” charge. (Perjury, of course, is what earned President Clinton an impeachment trial during his second term, so it’s not hard to see Goodlatte’s thought process here.)
The Trump campaign and its allies in Congress have plainly decided to ride this new email revelation all the way to Election Day. The GOP nominee, in particular, has been relentlessly attacking Clinton on the topic since Friday. However, there is a distinct danger to that approach if the public perception that she has been treated unfairly by the FBI takes hold.
There is, in fact, a long history of Clinton opponents overreaching and making themselves look bad -- and the Clintons like victims -- in the process.
The House of Representatives may have voted to impeach Bill Clinton, but he left office with his popularity at historically high levels, while the reputations of his most ardent attackers were badly damaged.
More recently, Trump came up with what his campaign evidently thought was a genius tactical move: inviting women who have accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual assault to appear at a presidential debate. The move backfired, with Trump coming under heavy criticism for what many saw as a crude and dishonorable stunt.
Earlier in the campaign, Trump’s repeated insistence that Clinton isn’t “equipped” for the presidency and that she lacks the “stamina” for the job led to criticism that he was attacking Clinton simply for being a woman -- something that further damaged him with female voters.
What the final effect of Comey’s announcement will be is unknowable at this point. But there’s good reason to believe that, even if it doesn’t benefit Clinton, the impression of foul play it leaves with many people means it won’t be the game changer Trump is hoping for.
“My guess is that the Clinton campaign would have preferred this not happen at all,” said UVA’s Sabato. “So that suggests she'll be hurt more that helped overall. But maybe the damage is being mitigated by the deep anger many Democrats are expressing about Comey's intervention in the campaign with a few days to go.”