Pollsters and their adherents would probably have bet their savings on a Clinton presidency at the end of October. On October 28, Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight, the site whose electoral predictions are often considered the most accurate available, gave Hillary Clinton an 81.5 percent chance of winning. On the same day, FBI director James Comey sent a letter notifying Congress that “the FBI would be taking additional investigative steps with respect to former Secretary of State Clinton’s use of a private email server.” After October 28, Silver’s estimation of Hillary’s prospects fell faster than they had since July, reaching 64.5 percent by November 6th and, obviously, zero percent by 2:30 the morning after the election.
Clinton’s loss may be attributed to any number of factors, but given the severe drop in her prospects directly after Comey sent his letter, the notification clearly augmented widespread distrust of Clinton and could have made the difference that pushed Trump voters to the polls and would-be Clinton voters away. On November 6, Comey wrote another letter declaring that the FBI had “not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July” (when it criticized Clinton’s handling of classified information but found no grounds for any criminal charges). Even Clinton herself has blamed Comey for her loss.
Comey interfered with the Clinton campaign, to a degree which will never be fully understood, despite having no grounds to do so. Comey’s actions may well have violated Department of Justice policy, and definitely its precedent. Traditionally, the Justice Department aims to avoid appearing influential in elections; one former department official told the New Yorker of Comey’s actions: “You don’t do this. It’s aberrational. It violates decades of practice.” The Washington Post reported that, before Comey sent his October 28th letter, senior Justice Department officials had warned the FBI. director that (Justice Department officials) “don’t comment on an ongoing investigation… [or] take steps that will be viewed as influencing an election.”
Department of Justice policy and tradition both ran directly counter to Comey’s actions, and yet according to Matthew Miller, a former public affairs director at the department, Comey believes “the rules don’t apply to him.” Comey defended his decision by calling the situation “extraordinary,” even though the investigation ultimately led to no new conclusions. The decision cannot be defended as having been in the interest of public information or accountability: Comey circulated incomplete information, and he lacks a track record of commitment to transparency. As Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D – Nev.) pointed out, Comey “continued to resist calls to inform the public of … explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government.”
By disseminating incomplete information at odds with policy, precedent, and his previous decisions regarding a situation with the other presidential candidate, the F.B.I. director moved irresponsibly against Clinton, possibly costing her the election. Clinton’s investigation ultimately yielded no relevant results, whereas Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Elect Sergei Ryabkov has now announced that Russia is and has been communicating with Trump during the campaign (though Trump denied such allegations through the campaign season).
Unless the Comey and the FBI have a truly pertinent reason for withholding information on the Trump case and yet breaking precedent to disseminate information on Clinton, the organization has clearly compromised its integrity. In an election whose very outcome massive numbers of Americans vehemently oppose, Comey’s taking the position that “rules don’t apply” sets an extremely dangerous precedent.
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