Jim Comey’s Dilemma

The FBI Director faced a damned if you do, damned if you don't choice.

Kevin Drum argues in two postings that FBI Director James Comey’s 11th hour letter advising Congress that his agency was re-opening its investigation into Hillary Clinton cost her the election.

Yesterday’s piece, “Let’s Talk About Bubbles and James Comey,” argues that, to the extent the fundamentals were working against Clinton and/or that she was an epically bad candidate who ran an awful campaign, those were constants throughout the cycle and yet she maintained a constant lead until the Comey letter.

[L]et’s take a look at the final two months of the campaign. All of the poll estimates look pretty similar, but I’m going to use Sam Wang’s EV estimator because it gives a pretty sharp day-to-day look at the race. Wang’s final estimate was wrong, of course, like pretty much everyone else’s, but don’t worry about that. What we’re interested in is the ups and downs. What Wang’s estimate tells us is that, with the brief exception of the July Comey presser, the race was amazingly stable. From January through August, he has Clinton at 330-340 electoral votes. Let’s pick up the story in September:

blog_wang_2016_race_september_november_0

At the beginning of September, Clinton slumps after her “deplorables” comment and her stumble at the 9/11 memorial. After Trump’s shockingly bad performance at the first debate she starts to regain ground, and continues to gain ground when the Access Hollywood tape is released. By the end of October she’s back to where she started, with a big lead over Trump. THIS IS IMPORTANT: despite everything — weak fundamentals, the “deplorables” comment, her personal unpopularity, her mushy centrism, her allegedly terrible campaign — by the end of October she’s well ahead of Trump, just as she had been all year.

On October 25, HHS announces that Obamacare premiums will go up substantially in the following year. This doesn’t appear to have any effect. Then, on October 28, Comey releases his letter. Clinton’s support plummets immediately, and there’s no time for it to recover. On November 8, Trump is elected president.

The counterargument to this is rather obvious just by looking at Wang’s graph: while Clinton led Trump throughout the period in question, her actual margin was quite volatile. She peaked somewhere around September 9 at 350ish projected Electoral votes, plummeted to 285ish by September 21, hit a second peak of around 335 on October 23, and then begins a slide to 305 or so by election day.

Did the Comey letter case that slide? Quite possibly.  Certainly, as Kevin notes, a lot of analysts think so:

It strikes me as quite plausible that being reminded of the nagging doubts that so many voters had about Clinton all along proved decisive. But it’s also possible that there was simply regression to the mean. There were many lower points in the graph for Clinton over this two-month span. And, indeed, two modest spikes in Wang’s projection in the week after the Comey letter.  It strikes me just a plausible that, by early November, the shock of the “Access Hollywood” tape was wearing off so the race was normalizing.

More importantly, note that the y-axis on Wang’s graph starts at 280–ten points above the number of Electors needed to win the presidency. Clinton only got close to that mark once: the free-fall after the double whammy of the “deplorables” quote and her fainting spell at the 9/11 event. She was at a comfortable 305 on election day–a modest landslide.  And, of course, she ultimately received nearly three million more votes than Trump; they just concentrated in an unfortunate way for her cause.

She ultimately lost because three states everyone presumed would go into her column narrowly went into his. Her turnout in those states was simply less than would have been predicted by past results. Was some of that a function of the Comey letter? Probably. But there were dozens of other things that factored into voters’ minds in a contest between two such polarizing candidates.  Given the margin, any of them could plausibly be said to be definitive.

Kevin’s follow-up post from this morning, “James Comey Wasn’t a Partisan Hack. He Was Worse,” is a long analysis of a NYT piece from yesterday and we don’t significantly disagree on the facts of the matter. I find the analysis unfair, however:

Once again, the primary concern was protecting Comey and the FBI. Republicans had made it clear that their retribution against anyone who helped Clinton would be relentless, and that clearly had an impact on Comey. Steinbach’s suggestion that Republican vengeance would have destroyed the FBI is clearly nuts, but Comey was taking no chances. He didn’t want the grief.

[…]

Daniel Richman, a longtime friend of Comey’s, said this represented “a consistent pattern of someone trying to act with independence and integrity, but within established channels.”

The evidence does indeed show consistent behavior, but of a different kind. At every step of the way, Comey demonstrated either his fear of crossing Republicans or his concern over protecting his own reputation from Republican attack. It was the perfect intersection of a Republican Party that had developed a reputation for conducting relentlessly vicious smear campaigns and a Republican FBI director who didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to it. Comey may genuinely believe that his decisions along the way were nonpartisan, but the evidence pretty strongly suggests otherwise.

Everyone in the Obama administration was in damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. President Obama didn’t want to be seen as covering for his 2008 opponent cum 2009-2013 Secretary of State, so he not only steered clear of commenting on the email mess but also steered too hard in the other direction on the clear evidence that the Russian government was trying to manipulate the election. Attorney General Loretta Lynch ordered the FBI to avoid calling the investigation that we all knew was going on an “investigation” and then made a serious gaffe in having an apparently impromptu private discussion with Bill Clinton on a tarmac.

Once that happened, there was going to be no pleasing anyone. The investigation rightly concluded that Clinton should not be charged with a crime. But simply putting out a press release to that effect would have been excoriated as a political cover-up, especially in the wake of the tarmac fiasco. Additionally, his own agents were furious that Clinton was getting away with conduct that would have ended the career of lesser employees of the government and, indeed, was likely going to be their boss soon. So Comey gave the infamous press conference that both exonerated Clinton of criminal wrongdoing but also broke the rules in a flagrant manner.

Weeks after that unusual press conference, he was put in an embarrassing position: new information came out that required investigation. He simply had no good options at that point. He had to notify Congress about the matter, both because he had promised to do so and because if he didn’t and it came out after the election—and it would, of course, have come out—then it would have looked like a cover-up.

Additionally, both Obama and Comey were operating under the same presumption that most of us were: that there was simply no way Clinton was going to lose the election. Taking her victory as a given, then, the incentives all point toward bending over backward to avoid appearing to favor her.

Comey is certainly no partisan hack. But his job is inherently political, especially in the ridiculously polarized environment in which he’s operating. He needs to project to the public that he’s operating independently of whichever party happens to control the White House. He needs the support of Congress.  He needs his agents to believe he has their back. It’s an incredibly difficult balancing act. Even in hindsight, in which it’s quite plausible that he contributed to the election of the worst major party presidential nominee in my lifetime and the defeat of my preferred candidate in the race, I don’t know how he could have done this much better.

Even in hindsight, in which it’s quite plausible that he contributed to the election of the worst major party presidential nominee in my lifetime and the defeat of my preferred candidate in the race, I don’t know how he could have done this much better. I could very well imagine an alternate reality in which Clinton won and we spent the next four years in Benghazi-style hearings over Lynch’s tarmac meeting with the future First Gentleman and Comey’s treacherous cover-up of the Huma Abedine emails.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Slugger says:

    Law enforcement is held in high regard by most people. Although there is a legal presumption of innocence, just being accused is enough to taint a person. The reputational power of the FBI means that announcement that there is an investigation will make many think that the subject of the investigation is guilty. I think that officials in the upper levels of law enforcement agencies have an obligation to keep silent until arrests are imminent. Public announcements create extrajudicial punishments otherwise.

  2. The investigation rightly concluded that Clinton should not be charged with a crime. But simply putting out a press release to that effect would have been excoriated as a political cover-up, especially in the wake of the tarmac fiasco. Additionally, his own agents were furious that Clinton was getting away with conduct that would have ended that career of lesser employees of the government and, indeed, was likely going to be their boss soon. So Comey gave the infamous press conference that both exonerated Clinton of criminal wrongdoing but also broke the rules in a flagrant manner.

    Weeks after that unusual press conference, he was put in an embarrassing position: new information came out that required investigation. He simply had no good options at that point. He had to notify Congress about the matter, both because he had promised to do so and because if he didn’t and it came out after the election—and it would, of course, have come out—then it would have looked like a cover-up.

    Exactly, although it’s worth noting what happened between the July press conference and the late-October release of the letter regarding the reopened investigation. It was just about a week after the press conference that Comey testified under oath to Congress regarding the investigation and the conclusions he announced at that press conference. Among other things, he had testified under oath that the Bureau had examined all of the emails connected to Clinton’s server it was aware of before reaching the conclusion he announced. Once these additional emails were found — apparently as part of a separate investigation of Huma Abidin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner — he was under a legal obligation to supplement his sworn testimony. Had he not done so, he would have been potentially subject to legal sanctions. To the Bureau and Comey’s credit, they were able to conclude their investigation in a short period of time and a second letter was sent to Congress indicating that there were no new emails found among those mentioned the week before.

    As you say, Comey was put in an impossible situation. If he didn’t inform Congress, he’d have broken a promise and thus endangered his own and the FBI’s credibility with Congress and the public and he would have potentially been subject to legal sanctions. If he did, he’d be accused of trying to influence the election. In the end, I think he made the right choice.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Slugger:

    I think that officials in the upper levels of law enforcement agencies have an obligation to keep silent until arrests are imminent. Public announcements create extrajudicial punishments otherwise.

    I think that’s right 99.99% of the time. This was a rare exception given that the subject of the investigation was not only being investigated for alleged improprieties committed as one of the highest ranking public officials in the country but was the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States. The public’s interest in knowing what was going on therefore exceeded the subject’s right to privacy.

  4. teve tory says:

    Once again, the primary concern was protecting Comey and the FBI. Republicans had made it clear that their retribution against anyone who helped Clinton would be relentless, and that clearly had an impact on Comey.

    James Comey Wasn’t a Partisan Hack. He Was Worse.

  5. Becca says:

    Comey comments on Clinton e-mail investigation, but not Trump’s Russia investigation because….?

    Honest question.

  6. Mikey says:

    @Becca: The former was essentially complete, the latter was–and is–ongoing.

    Also, the Clinton e-mail investigation wasn’t a foreign counterintelligence investigation, the Russia one is. They are very different animals indeed.

  7. Moosebreath says:

    @Mikey:

    “The former was essentially complete, the latter was–and is–ongoing.”

    While that was true about Comey commenting in the summer of 2016, that was definitely not true about the decision to comment on the Weiner/Abedin e-mails in October 2016, which was the subject of Drum’s posts. To the contrary, at that time, the Trump investigation was in far later stage.

    @James Joyner:

    “This was a rare exception given that the subject of the investigation was not only being investigated for alleged improprieties committed as one of the highest ranking public officials in the country but was the leading candidate for the presidency of the United States. The public’s interest in knowing what was going on therefore exceeded the subject’s right to privacy. ”

    And this is not true about the Trump investigation (if you change “the leading” to “a leading”) because…?

  8. DrDaveT says:

    But it’s also possible that there was simply regression to the mean.

    You do realize that saying this is equivalent to saying that Nate Silver and all of the other quantitative analysts whose conclusions you cite just above that are incompetent, right? That what they studied was precisely the question of whether the change could plausibly be explained by simple regression to the mean, and they all concluded “no”? That’s what “statistically significant” means.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    James Comey’s letter was responsible for the fall in african-american and latino turnout? Is that the argument?

  10. Paul L. says:

    Sam Wang predicted a Hillary Clinton Victory.

    @SamWangPhD It is totally over. If Trump wins more than 240 electoral votes, I will eat a bug.
    8:55 PM – 18 Oct 2016

    Same progressives that object to this applauded and defended the Ted Steven’s railroading with manufactured evidence by the DOJ that gave the democrats a filibuster proof majority.

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:

    Even in hindsight, in which it’s quite plausible that he contributed to the election of the worst major party presidential nominee in my lifetime and the defeat of my preferred candidate in the race, I don’t know how he could have done this much better. I could very well imagine an alternate reality in which Clinton won and we spent the next four years in Benghazi-style hearings over Lynch’s tarmac meeting with the future First Gentleman and Comey’s treacherous cover-up of the Huma Abedine emails.

    I’m of the opinion that had Hillary Clinton been elected we would now be, 90 days in, mired in dual track Benghazi and e-Mail hearings, or on the verge of the Republican House initiating impeachment proceedings.

    One way or another the Republican Congress would be batting Hillary around the way a cat plays with a trapped and wounded mouse.

  12. DrDaveT says:

    I don’t know how he could have done this much better.

    He could, for example, have made it much more clear that the FBI at that moment had no clue whether any of the new emails were actually relevant to the case or not. Part of that blame falls on sloppy reporting (or, in the case of Fox News, deliberately twisted reporting), but Comey left that door open by implying that the emails were known to be on-topic.

    I could very well imagine an alternate reality in which Clinton won and we spent the next four years in Benghazi-style hearings over Lynch’s tarmac meeting with the future First Gentleman and Comey’s treacherous cover-up of the Huma Abedine emails.

    And you think anything Comey did or didn’t do would have changed that? Endless Benghazi ™ was a given if Clinton won, and the GOP would have manufactured the necessary ‘crimes’ if none came conveniently to hand.

  13. Jay L. Gischer says:

    Generally, I endorse the notion that Comey has acted in good faith, but still, I’m very disturbed. For instance, his July press conference. That was pretty extraordinary. Shouldn’t he strive to be boring? Later he said, “it wasn’t a close call”. So why did he spend all that time denouncing her? Is that part of his job?

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    Drum’s argument is wholely dependent upon polls that got it wrong. The USC/LA Times Daybreak poll consistently showed Trump even or winning throughout the general campaign (and was routinely denounced for it) by using a methodology attempting to account for voter ambiguity regarding their voting preferences. Its results don’t track well with the “Comey did it” idea.

    http://graphics.latimes.com/usc-presidential-poll-dashboard/

  15. gVOR08 says:

    Was some of that a function of the Comey letter? Probably. But there were dozens of other things that factored into voters’ minds in a contest between two such polarizing candidates. Given the margin, any of them could plausibly be said to be definitive.

    This is a pretty weak exculpation of Comey. Which of the “dozens” do you think were equally definitive?

    NYT Magazine published a long piece on Comey’s actions yesterday. I was thinking about writing a refutation based on it. But I see at the link at:
    @teve tory that Kevin Drum has done a thorough job of it himself. Recommend everyone read it.

    There was reporting at the time that Comey was under pressure from rogue agents in NY who were determined to get Hillary. I see none of that in the Times story. I also see no mea culpa for their own role in milking every Hillary! EMAIL!! story.

    You can argue Comey was required to do what he did. You can also make a very good case he was not. In both cases, given how little substance there was, he phrased his statements to maximize the damage to Hillary. The bottom line is that whatever Comey’s motives and intentions, he TWICE took actions that would obviously help Trump.

  16. Slugger says:

    @James Joyner: I can imagine a scenario where a cop gets incontrovertible proof that a high public official has committed acts that create a grave immediate risk to the public. This might make a good suspense novel. Do you think that Ms. Clinton was doing criminal acts that posed a grave immediate risk to the country?
    I have no idea what role any of this played in the election. However, I think that FBI directors usually keep silent about a lot of things. Hoover had audiotapes of sexual escapades by prominent persons who he personally disliked but didn’t go public.
    In general, I think Americans underrate the virtues of keeping their mouths shut.

  17. Ben Wolf says:

    @gVOR08:

    This is a pretty weak exculpation of Comey. Which of the “dozens” do you think were equally definitive?

    This is ultimately an unanswerable question because there is no such thing as “definitive” regarding the inherently subjective. It’s equivalent to insisting the sky is objectively blue.

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    In both cases, given how little substance there was, he phrased his statements to maximize the damage to Hillary.

    This. The ‘how’ matters as much as the ‘whether’.

  19. MBunge says:

    And the intellectual and emotional collapse we’ve seen on the Right continues to roll through the Left. There’s barely any point in arguing this stuff because folks like Drum are caught up in an existential crisis. They can’t accept a world where Donald Trump gets elected President because that’s a world where they aren’t nearly as smart and wonderful as they think they are. So there has to be some external explanation for the world going mad.

    All I would like to see is two things.

    1. If Comey’s judgment can be questioned on the release of that letter, then his judgment should be open to question on whether or not Hillary Clinton should go to jail.

    2. A recognition that even if all this “blame Comey” analysis is accurate, which I think it pretty clearly isn’t but even so, the release of the letter was not in any way the real problem. The real problem is that the Democratic Party and most liberal activists and pundits were content to hand their Presidential nomination to someone who was being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal investigation. That was an incredibly reckless, irresponsible and childish action and it blew up in their faces.

    Nominating Donald Trump for President was also an incredibly reckless, irresponsible and childish action, but at least a huge number of Republicans and conservatives tried like hell to stop it from happening.

    Mike

  20. gVOR08 says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Endless Benghazi ™ was a given if Clinton won, and the GOP would have manufactured the necessary ‘crimes’ if none came conveniently to hand.

    And now they are doing their damnedest to avoid investigating and hoping to avoid finding any crimes.

    OK, it’s possible the Senate Committee is actually investigating. The House Committee is a running joke.

    This leaves us with the Comey’s FBI to faithfully investigate the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign. I expect that they are doing an honest job, but given Comey’s history and NYT’s statement that Comey was concerned about maintaining his agency under a Republican Congress, I trust even you, James, may harbor some concern.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @Slugger:

    Hoover had audiotapes of sexual escapades by prominent persons who he personally disliked but didn’t go public.

    Let’s not hold J. Edgar Hoover up as some exemplar of rectitude. He used his Bureau’s resources to collect that material so that he would be able to blackmail those people. Going public would have ruined the material for his purposes.

  22. MBunge says:

    @gVOR08: This leaves us with the Comey’s FBI to faithfully investigate the ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

    Again, I know this is futile but there almost certainly were not “ties” between Russia and the Trump campaign…at least not any greater than the interaction most Presidential campaigns have with foreign countries.

    1. The Russians didn’t need the Trump campaign to do any of the things they did.
    2. Why would the Russians collude with a sure loser? Everyone thought Trump was going to lose. If you’re telling me the Russians knew from the very beginning that Trump was going to win, then we need to make friends with them damn quick because the Russians are the smartest people on the planet.

    Mike

  23. Pch101 says:

    If you were to prepare a marginal analysis of those few states that were part of the upset, then I think that you’ll find that Republican-leaning voters who were telling pollsters that they were undecided or voting for a third party ended up switching to Trump at the last minute. And most of those voters were probably destined to vote for Trump, irrespective of what happened — they were in denial of their choice before the fact because they disliked him, but voted for him anyway because they are ultimately party loyalists or anti-Democrat.

    The real problem with the polling is that it and the media cast the election as a genuine four-way race in which the third-party voters wouldn’t defect to a major candidate and the undecideds would not contribute to a surprise result. This is similar to the problem with the Brexit polls and polling aggregators that failed to distinguish between polls that accounted for the undecideds and those that did not. The pollsters here largely ignored the considerable number of undecided voters and assumed that third-party voters would remain committed to their third-party choices instead of trying to figure out how those voters might actually behave on election day.

  24. Pch101 says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Er, the LA Times tracking poll doesn’t say what you think that it does.

    Times poll – Trump @ 46.8% vs Clinton @ 43.6%

    Actual – Trump @ 46.1% vs Clinton @ 48.2%

    The Times poll was supposed to forecast the popular vote and it was wrong.

  25. Gustopher says:

    The polls leading up to the election had an unprecedented number of undecideds and third party voters. I honestly don’t know why all of the statisticians were coming up with “Clinton has a 97% chance of victory” story when she never broke 50% in any polls. I’m not a statistician, but I was forced to take a few classes in college, and it never passed the smell test.

    Once this became conventional wisdom, a lot of people made decisions based on this, from Comey appeasing the right with his bizarre news conference, to the Obama administration not pursuing the Russian meddling in the election, to Clinton not going to Wisconsin ever, to the NY Times (which really does set the agenda for the nation’s news media) covering Clinton’s email scandalette in far more breathless detail than the daily Trump Dump because they thought there was no point in investigating the loser.

    Ultimately, that’s what caused Clinton to lose — people looking at a 43-40 polling lead, and deciding (somehow) that she had this election in the bag, and then acting on that with complete confidence, even as that large block of other didn’t start breaking one way or the other.

    The Comey letter may have been a deciding factor at the end, but there were a lot more deciding factors before that (and with something this close, there can be lots).

    Comey’s grossly unprofessional news conference tied his hands, and the letter was written either in a tone deaf manner or to deliberately create the worst possible impression. I have nothing but contempt for the man, who appears to be very bad at his job — his job is to not editorialize, and be boring, not to play politics.

  26. Ratufa says:

    I agree with Gustopher. There were many things contributing to Hillary’s loss, including Comey’s revelations, being the subject of decades of Republican attacks, racism/sexism, her overly confident and poorly run campaign, etc.

    Focusing on Comey is a distraction for Democrats, even if his actions were the proverbial straw that broke the donkey’s back. The main reason Democrats should be analyzing why Hillary lost is not to point fingers at things they can’t control, it’s to increase their chances to win elections in the future.

  27. MBunge says:

    @Gustopher: Ultimately, that’s what caused Clinton to lose — people looking at a 43-40 polling lead

    Closer but not quite. What caused her to lose in that analysis was only having a 43-40 lead over the worst major party Presidential candidate any of us has ever seen.

    There are only two ways the Comey letter could have had the impact people want to give it.

    1. People really didn’t want to vote for Hillary and the letter gave them an excuse.
    2. People really did care about the email scandal.

    Either way, the problem wasn’t the letter. The problem was people like Drum spent over a year closing their eyes, putting their fingers in their ears, and yelling as loud as they could “LALALA! THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH HILLARY! LALALA! EMAILS DON’T MATTER!”

    Mike

  28. Modulo Myself says:

    Saying that Comey acted only because he thought Clinton would win lets him off the hook in the same way that blaming Comey for costing Clinton the election lets her and her campaign off the hook. She was a terrible candidate because she was not in control of events. Her email server is a perfect example. She was actually quite right to be paranoid–there were no consequences at all for Wikileaks releasing what was stolen from the DNC servers. Whatever the rationale was for all of her choices involving her stupid server is lost to me, but she was not wrong–it was totally acceptable to come after her in illegal ways. She knew this, and made a bunch of poor decisions in response to this fact.

    Comey’s situation was exactly the same. He screwed up royally and maybe did cost her the election. Like every hack in the government, he lacks the courage to stand up to the nuts who believe that climate change is fake, Hillary did Benghazi, and sharia law is coming. If HIllary was President right now, the GOP would be going through whatever lies they could find in order to impeach her. Comey calculated that, and decided to do the cowardly thing.

  29. James Joyner says:

    @teve tory: Why are you quoting, without additional commentary, something that I quoted and linked in the OP?

    @Becca: Because the Clinton investigation was a known issue that was being constantly litigated in the press. The Russia investigation was not only much less ripe but it also involved sensitive intelligence information.

    @DrDaveT: I don’t think this is the sort of thing to which a statistically significant finding is even possible. There are too many variables at work here and people had unusually weak preferences on the race. Additionally, it’s simply indisputable that Clinton’s margin was extremely volatile throughout the period in question.

    @Slugger: The problem was that the email controversy was an issue of major public debate for months and months.

  30. Andy says:

    I think it’s better to look at this in terms of proximal vs. distal causes. The reality is that actions taken by Hillary Clinton and her surrogates (especially Huma Abedin) are what led to Comey’s actions.

  31. MarkedMan says:

    Additionally, his own agents were furious that Clinton was getting away with conduct that would have ended the career of lesser employees of the government and, indeed, was likely going to be their boss soon.

    You keep repeating this party line argument of Clinton’s email practices being outside the norm despite knowing that it is absolutely false. We know now that previous SoS and their direct reports used personal email extensively, sometimes exclusively. We also know now that Colin Powell himself wrote to her a few days into her posting to recommend she use personal email over the cumbersome State Department system. Using personal email didn’t end the careers of any of them. In fact we know that a) Powell himself exclusively used an AOL account (!!!) and that b) he “lost” every single email he sent with it and no attempt was made by the Republicans to recover those lost emails.

    So some FBI agents may have thought what Clinton did was unique. Heck, anyone who got their world view from Fox news or any of the other Republican house organs, would no doubt think that. But no one who is knowledgable about this should continue to repeat it.

  32. Pch101 says:

    @MarkedMan:

    You keep repeating this party line argument of Clinton’s email practices being outside the norm despite knowing that it is absolutely false.

    Yep.

    There was nothing to investigate in the first place.

    The investigation was politically motivated, as there was no compelling reason to have initiated it.

    Even a hint of an investigation is bound to move some voters. Surely, Comey knew that. Yet he chose to proceed with an investigation that wasn’t justified and predictably turned up nothing.

    This was Kenneth Starr 2.0, another Republican effort to smear reputations through innuendo. Joe McCarthy would have been impressed.

  33. Gustopher says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    She was a terrible candidate because she was not in control of events

    She wasn’t a terrible candidate, she ran a terrible campaign. She ran as if she was guaranteed victory, and that all she had to do was not screw up. And, with the narrative of conventional wisdom being that she had a 99% chance of victory, that made some sense if you believed that narrative.

    As a candidate, she was fine. She’s likeable enough. If she ran for President like she ran for the Senate, where she really had to work at it because it was in doubt, she probably would have won.

    I will say that “I’m with her” stunk. It gave no reason to vote for her. Hell, a few ads about “boring, steady, competent leadership” might have helped — acknowledge her lack of excitement, show a little self-deprecating humor, and take a shot at Trump all at the same time.

  34. gVOR08 says:

    It appears that under Justice Department guidelines Comey was not obliged to say anything publicly upon closing the case. But he made a 2300 word statement. He could have confined himself to,

    although the Department of Justice makes final decisions on matters like this, we are expressing to Justice our view that no charges are appropriate in this case.

    But he went on with a lot of detail that served no purpose but to make Hillary sound bad, given the lack of any substantive charge. And then he editorialized. The most egregious statement being,

    Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.

    It should have been obvious that “extremely careless” would be, as it was, endlessly quoted in the media.

    This post started by disputing Kevin Drum’s post concluding that Comey’s actions cost Hillary the election. This is unsurprising in that Drum has thoroughly covered this. Drum read the whole FBI report behind Comey’s statement and commented in detail. He concluded (emphasis mine):

    That said, this report is pretty much an almost complete exoneration of Hillary Clinton. She wasn’t prohibited from using a personal device or a personal email account, and others at state did it routinely. She’s told the truth all along about why she did it. Colin Powell did indeed advise her about using personal email shortly after she took office, but she chose to follow the rules rather than skirt them, as Powell did. She didn’t take her BlackBerry into her office. She communicated with only a very select group of 13 people. She took no part in deciding which emails were personal before handing them over to State. She had nothing to do with erasing information on the PRN server. That was a screw-up on PRN’s end. She and her staff all believed at the time that they were careful not to conduct sensitive conversations over unclassified email systems. And there’s no evidence that her server was ever hacked.
    There’s remarkably little here. If you nonetheless believe that it’s enough to disqualify Hillary from the presidency, that’s fine. I have no quarrel with you. But if the FBI is to be believed, it’s all pretty small beer.

    You would be correct to say that Comey did not defeat Hillary by himself. It was really this whole years long Republican witch hunt on email and Benghazi. But it is hard to see how you conclude that Comey simply did the best he could in tough circumstances.

  35. Gustopher says:

    @Pch101: Government officials should not be conducting official business with private email to avoid FOIA requests. It doesn’t matter if past administrations were doing it too.

    To say that there was nothing to investigate is nonsense. It doesn’t rise to the level of a criminal offense, because it would be selective prosecution, but it is a serious issue.

    The policies and culture that made this the standard operating procedure are wrong, and need to be rooted out. If we had a legislative branch that was interested in doing actual oversight, rather than scoring political points, some good could have come of this. But, alas…

    I’m sure Donald is using proper government email when communicating with Ivanka and Jared.

  36. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08:

    But he went on with a lot of detail that served no purpose but to make Hillary sound bad, given the lack of any substantive charge. And then he editorialized

    He could have editorialized in ways that would have reflected the actual issues — an ongoing, cross administration, failure to use proper government email channels — and that would have been mostly appropriate. To go on about Clinton, out of context, was grossly inappropriate.

    I’m not a huge fan of “both sides do it” arguments, but sometimes both sides do do it, and it should be called out as such when they are doing it to the same degree.

  37. wr says:

    @MBunge: Shorter MBunge — “I voted for Trump, but whatever bad happens is all your fault, libtards!!!!”

  38. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @al-Ameda:

    One way or another the Republican Congress would be batting Hillary around the way a cat plays with a trapped and wounded mouse.

    Which is–and was as far back as 2014–the argument for convincing Hillary to keep her promise to run for gramma of the year instead.

  39. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Jay L. Gischer: Because he wasn’t acting in good faith. Not ever. And the argument that he wasn’t acting in good faith because the circumstances didn’t allow for a faithful actor. while comforting to Dr. Joyner apparently, doesn’t make him any less of a complete tool.

  40. Pch101 says:

    @Gustopher:

    The server wasn’t illegal.

    The use of outside email by heads of the State Department was not without precedent.

    The implication that the email was used to facilitate some sort of corruption proved to be completely bogus.

    There was no story here. There was no reason to investigate it. At most, it was an internal IT matter that could have been sorted out as part of a procedural review.

  41. Kylopod says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Drum’s argument is wholely dependent upon polls that got it wrong. The USC/LA Times Daybreak poll consistently showed Trump even or winning throughout the general campaign

    It showed Trump winning the popular vote, something he manifestly did not do. Indeed, this poll was off by 5 percentage points, which makes it significantly worse than the RCP average (which merely overestimated Hillary’s popular-vote lead by 1.1%).

  42. gVOR08 says:

    @MBunge:

    Again, I know this is futile but there almost certainly were not “ties” between Russia and the Trump campaign…at least not any greater than the interaction most Presidential campaigns have with foreign countries.

    Feel free to present a comparable set of charts on the Hillary campaign. Or are you just playing semantic games with the difference between ties to the Campaign and ties to people in the Campaign? Or trying to move the goalpost to direct coordination with Trump himself?

    1. The Russians didn’t need the Trump campaign to do any of the things they did.

    No, they didn’t. At least for the things we currently know they did. But a little coordination on timing would be helpful, and in a couple cases seems to have occurred. There is evidence of the above referenced ties. How does questioning thje rationality of Russian motives remove any of the evidence?

    2. Why would the Russians collude with a sure loser? Everyone thought Trump was going to lose. If you’re telling me the Russians knew from the very beginning that Trump was going to win, then we need to make friends with them damn quick because the Russians are the smartest people on the planet.

    As they are doing elsewhere, to undermine democracy and worldwide respect for the U.S.. Also to weaken President Hillary, and perhaps because of Putin’s personal animosity toward Hillary. They seemed to be panicking a bit when Trump actually won.

    For what it’s worth, at this point I view Trump as a useful idiot, not an active collaborator. But somebody rewrote the Republican Party plank on Ukraine.

  43. Hal_10000 says:

    I think that was a fair assessment. I’m dubious that the Comey letter had that big an impact for a variety of reasons. Most people are not political junkies and partisans had decided by that point. It’s true that Hillary slid in the last week but remember that Nate Silver (and yours truly) were warning about this possibility because the number of undecideds in the polls were *huge* for that point in the election cycle. Those people were not going to go into the booth and write-in “undecided”. They were going to vote for someone. And they broke for Trump. I always thought that the equilibrium point in the polls was Clinton+2 and that we kept returning to that.

    It’s always easy, post-facto, to pick out something to blame for an unexpected result. There are still conservatives who think the 2000 DUI revelation three days before the election caused Bush to lose a popular vote we was winning up until then. Was that the case? Maybe. But it’s hard to tell. Polls are wrong, sometimes.

    Even if we assume that the Comey letter had an impact — and I’m inclined to think it might have had a small one — it should not have been that close. It wasn’t Comey that decided not to campaign in Wisconsin. It wasn’t Comey who decided not to visit any union halls in Michigan. It wasn’t Comey who gave debate performances that were, at best, flat. It wasn’t Comey who didn’t come up with a consistent message. It wasn’t Comey who made Clinton’s ad campaign way more about the negatives of her opponent. Up until election day, I was going to vote Johnson. But on election day, I voted Clinton because all the news coming out of Pennsylvania told me that it was going to be way closer than expected. The lack of signs (in a college town), the grumblings from Philadelphia operatives, the unexpected prevalence of Trump supporters (again, in a college town). Plus my own natural pessimism.

  44. SKI says:

    The problem with your conclusion, James, is that you ignore a better option Comey had. He, after announcing the reopening of the investigation, threw enough resources at the laptop to definitively conclude, within a few days and prior to the election, that there were no new relevant emails on it. He should have figured that out BEFORE publicly announcing that they were looking at the laptop.

    I run compliance investigations routinely. I don’t alert the Board until I can actually determine that something material is there. Comey knows this standard. He, and all FBI leaders follow this every single day. They don’t run to the DOJ prosecutors until they actually determine that something is there – particularly when it will/can be figured out within a few days. To exonerate him, you need to willfully ignore their basic SOP on alerting DOJ, or in this case, Congress.

  45. James Joyner says:

    @MarkedMan:

    You keep repeating this party line argument of Clinton’s email practices being outside the norm despite knowing that it is absolutely false. We know now that previous SoS and their direct reports used personal email extensively, sometimes exclusively.

    This is a non-sequitur. First, what cabinet secretaries can get away with an what rank and file employees can get away with are not the same. Second, as I’ve noted multiple times, 2009 is simply not comparable to 2001. Powell had essentially no choice but to use personal email given the wretched state of DOS technical capabilities. He worked hard to remedy that. And even he didn’t use private email exclusively–let alone on a server in his basement.

    @SKI: I think @Doug Mataconis covers that adequately in the second comment in the thread.

  46. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @MarkedMan: Wrong….no Cabinet secretary. Ever. Set up their own personal email domain on their own private server. Sec’y Powell took over an organization that had an inadequate email system–one that could not email addressees outside of the State Department domain. To COMPENSATE–he used commercial email UNTIL the State Department email system had been upgraded. He then put in policy mandating that State Department officials should use the Department email system for official business. Hillary Clinton could very well have come on board and simply changed the policy. She did not. Instead she tried to clandestinely establish the private domain and server and did a pretty good job of it. Only a few IT people at the DOS and here inner circle was aware that she did this.

    Right, wrong, or indifferent. It wasn’t like what Powell and others who used commercial email. Its dumber.

  47. al-Ameda says:

    @James Joyner:
    For me, that stunt Comey pulled, both exonerating her of criminal conduct, yet strongly condemning her judgment was inexcusable. That left me with a clear opinion that he was delivering the goods for the Republican Party.

    He says Clinton committed no criminal acts? Fine, he should have been able and strong enough to take the heat from both his conservative FBI staff and Republican politicians and voters, without gratuitously condemning her judgment.

  48. Guarneri says:

    Gosh, if Bubba wasn’t so soft hearted that he just had to catch up on grandchildren matters with Sweet Loretta Hillary might be prez.

  49. george says:

    I think its hard to argue that Comey wasn’t one of the reasons Clinton lost. On the other hand, its just as hard to argue that Comey was the reason Clinton lost. I kind of think he assumed she had it in the bag, so he could get away with the easy route – if she’d won no one would be talking about it now.

    A lot of things went wrong (and even then, only by a 100,000 votes in three states), mistakes were made all around and the campaign was run poorly (as both Obama and Bill Clinton warned them at the time – how in the world do you ignore the advice of those two on something like this?). And of course, the outcome is a disaster. I guess that’s why they call it a perfect storm – if the results are good no one thinks twice about it.

  50. MarkedMan says:

    In the end Comey put his party affiliation above the good of the country. Which basically defines Republicans since Gingrich.

  51. DrDaveT says:

    @Gustopher:

    Government officials should not be conducting official business with private email to avoid FOIA requests.

    For the 43rd time…

    FOIA does not care whether the emails were on a government server, a private server, a Russian server, or taped to the leg of a pigeon. The definition of “agency records” used in FOIA has nothing whatever to do with which information or filing system they reside on.

    Seriously. You could look it up.

  52. rachel says:

    @gVOR08:

    And now they are doing their damnedest to avoid investigating and hoping to avoid finding any crimes.

    Jason Chaffetz sure seams to be considering radical ways to get out of it. ^_^

  53. James Joyner says:

    @george:

    I think its hard to argue that Comey wasn’t one of the reasons Clinton lost. On the other hand, its just as hard to argue that Comey was the reason Clinton lost.

    That’s my view as well.

    @al-Ameda:

    He says Clinton committed no criminal acts? Fine, he should have been able and strong enough to take the heat from both his conservative FBI staff and Republican politicians and voters, without gratuitously condemning her judgment.

    Again, under just about any other set of circumstances, I’d agree. As much a scumbag as I think Ben Roethlisberger is, for example, I thought it outrageous that the prosecutor delivered his opinions of his moral character when announcing he didn’t have the evidence to go forward with charges. The problem in the Clinton case was that a simple announcement her misdeeds didn’t rise to the level where we would charge a former senior official of a crime is that it would have looked like a cover-up to the outside world and to his own agents. There was genuine fury in national security insider circles about the private server. And, again, the tarmac meeting between Bill Clinton and the AG right before the announcement created really lousy optics.

    @MarkedMan:

    In the end Comey put his party affiliation above the good of the country.

    There’s just no evidence that he’s a partisan. He was a career DOJ official, serving under presidents of both parties, and was appointed as FBI Director by Barack Obama.

  54. SKI says:

    @James Joyner:

    I think @Doug Mataconis covers that adequately in the second comment in the thread.

    That would be hard given he doesn’t address it at all.

    Doug accurately notes that Comey had an affirmative obligation to notify Congress that his testimony needed to be updated. I agree and was on this site defending Comey for doing so at the time. The problem is that we later learned more about the timeline which makes that defense problematic and neither you nor Doug have re-thought your initial conclusion…

    Let’s revisit the timeline.
    – Early October, FBI obtains laptop.
    mid-October, Comey and other senior FBI leaders informed
    – October 27, Comey given follow-up briefing
    – October 28, Comey tells Congress
    – October 29, Abedin’s lawyers announce that the FBI had not notiofied them about the l;aptoip or sought permission to review.
    – October 30, FBI files papers seeking warrant, granted same day.
    – Nov 6, FBI announces no new emails.
    – Nov 8, election day

    Other facts we have learned:
    – FBI considered Huma a cooperative witness at all times

    So, Comey waited 2 weeks to tell Congress, during which the FBI did nothing to determine whether the emails were relevant, material or duplicative of emails they already had.

    In fact, they don’t seek to begin to find out whether the emails were material until 2 days after they told Congress.

    Once they started to look, it was less than 1 week to determine that there was nothing there.

    So, perhaps you or Doug can explain why Comey needed to tell Congress on 10/28 but not 2 weeks earlier or one week later? Because I can’t see any basis for this breach of SOP that isn’t bad for Comey…

  55. MarkedMan says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s just no evidence that he’s a partisan.

    No evidence? That’s ridiculous. Everything you said to try to justify Comey’s election interference with respect to Clinton applies many times over to the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians. Yet in the Republican case he went out of his way to keep the evidence quiet, despite the heads of virtually every other federal agency associated with national security speaking out about what is a clear and present danger to the country.

    James, it seems to me that you consistently interpret every action of Clinton’s in the worst possible way, and equally consistentently interpret every action of people like Powell and Comey in the best possible way.

    As for me, I find both Powell’s and Clinton’s (and Rice’s) email machinations to be equally small beer. But Comey abused his office for reasons as yet unclear and by doing so put the nation at risk. It is most likely because he is a weak willed bureaucrat who feared his Republican associates and worried that he would spoil his chances for lucrative gigs at Koch funded think tanks, or being treated like royalty by sycophantic Fox News hosts. But, unlikely as it seems, it is also possible that he was compromised in some way by the Russians. When someone’s actions align so perfectly with the desires of a hostile foreign power, shouldn’t there be a thorough investigation?

  56. al-Alameda says:

    @MarkedMan:

    No evidence? That’s ridiculous. Everything you said to try to justify Comey’s election interference with respect to Clinton applies many times over to the Trump campaign’s collusion with the Russians. Yet in the Republican case he went out of his way to keep the evidence quiet, despite the heads of virtually every other federal agency associated with national security speaking out about what is a clear and present danger to the country.

    He gave every benefit possible of the doubt and exercised measured caution and discretion when it came to his comment concerning the far more serious investigation of the Republican candidate.

    I’d say that James Comey let his partisan affiliation show through when it came to his public handling of these two investigations.

    Someone is going to write a damned good book about the 2016 campaign for president.

  57. SKI says:

    @al-Alameda:

    I’d say that James Comey let his partisan affiliation show through when it came to his public handling of these two investigations.

    Counter-thought: It wasn’t his partisan affiliation, it was his attempt to protect the agency from a rabidly partisan GOP congress/Fox News. In doing so, he put the agency above the country

    As James noted, Comey had an exemplary reputation for non-partisanship and for being a straight shooter widely respected by all. Which is more plausible: (A) that he spent decades hiding his partisanship or (B) he was intimidated by the blowback he and the agency was going to get when this came out given that Trump and House GOP were already claiming, falsely, that Clinton was being protected.

  58. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    I agree he was absolutely in a no win situation. Given that, he should have avoided anything that smacked of interfering with the election, instead of trying to play games because he expected Hillary to win, he was trying to soothe the feelings of his own agents, or whatever BS reason he and/or his apologists are using to justify the phrasing in the news conference, the October surprise (see links in SKI’s post about the delay between the FBI becoming aware and his notification to Congress and the public), and the fact that he didn’t comment about the investigation into Trump. The FBI director should absolutely NOT be playing politics at the level he inserted himself into, and this is (one reason) why.

    As to whether it’s the reason Hillary lost–like most things there probably is no single reason. To say it’s the sole reason is to overlook a lot of other flaws in Clinton as candidate; to pretend it had no impact in a ludicrously close election (in the 3 states that flipped) is equally stupid.

  59. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner:

    let alone on a server in his basement.

    POLITICO put out a long piece on the history of Hillary’s server based on an incredibly detailed review of the FBI report. Another summary that leads to the conclusion Comey’s editorializing on the report was unsubstantiated.

    Apparently it was common for State personnel to use personal email accounts for official business. Hillary’s personal email was on what started out as Bill’s server.

    I give up. Why is the personal server an obsession on the right?

  60. al-Alameda says:

    @SKI:

    As James noted, Comey had an exemplary reputation for non-partisanship and for being a straight shooter widely respected by all. Which is more plausible: (A) that he spent decades hiding his partisanship or (B) he was intimidated by the blowback he and the agency was going to get when this came out given that Trump and House GOP were already claiming, falsely, that Clinton was being protected.

    Fair enough.
    I’d say that (B) is more likely than (A).
    That we’re here at this juncture having a legitimate discussion of Comey’s easily-construed-to-be-partisan actions during the campaign, is a sad by-product of today’s hyper-partisan political environment.

  61. al-Alameda says:

    @gVOR08:

    Apparently it was common for State personnel to use personal email accounts for official business. Hillary’s personal email was on what started out as Bill’s server.
    I give up. Why is the personal server an obsession on the right?

    What? Republicans weren’t obsessed with Colin Powell’s use of private email for official government business? We know why they cared last year, and Representative Kevin McCarthy said it openly, their goal was to damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign with a series of permanent investigations. It worked.

  62. MarkedMan says:

    @gVOR08:

    I give up. Why is the personal server an obsession on the right?

    I strongly suspect that it’s because it’s all they have left. They “know” that Clinton is corrupt and scheming and they are not going to let the facts interfere. Remember that it started out that she had endangered the country and almost certainly caused the deaths of Americans because she used private email instead of the State Dept system. But when it turned out that Republican SOS’s had done the same thing suddenly that was OK. James himself above just stated tthat Powell’s use of private email was OK because it was harder to use the state depts system when he was SOS. But if the original assertions had any validity, you couldn’t justify it by convenience. There is probably a half dozen ways other goalposts in this matter have been similarly moved

  63. David says:

    For some reason, Nate Silver seems unwilling to admit that the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy may be at work when it comes to his Comey arguments. Here’s something that’s rarely if ever addressed in discussions of the Comey effect, and I don’t understand why…the same exact thing happened in the 2014 Senate elections as happened in the 2016 presidential election. An unexpected late shift toward Republicans that wasn’t picked up by pollsters. If you recall, Democrats expected to be competitive in several states they ended up not being competitive in at all. Lundergan Grimes got obliterated by McConnell in Kentucky, Braley in Iowa obliterated by Ernst, Nunn in GA by Perdue, Pryor in Arkansas by Cotton, Udall in CO by Gardner, Roberts in Kansas was expected to lose to a libertarian and he won easily, Hagan in NC was expected to beat Tillis but lost, Shaheen was expected to beat Scott Brown comfortably and only won narrowly, Mark Warner in VA was expected to be completely safe and barely kept his seat. No one saw those margins or some of those outcomes coming. James Comey didn’t write a letter in any of those elections.

    Similar thing in gubernatorial elections that year. Nobody thought Brownback would win in KS, but he did. Walker won more easily in WI than expected. Haley beat Sheheen by more than expected in SC. Quinn lost to Rauner in IL. Davis got obliterated in TX by much more than expected. Hogan, the Republican, came out of nowhere and won in MD. LePage shocked everyone by winning in ME. Deal beat Carter by much more than expected in GA. Scott upset Crist in FL. And then in 2015 in KY, Conway the Democrat was expected to beat Bevin and got obliterated. James Comey didn’t write a letter in any of those elections either.

    So something’s been consistently happening where the Republican vote is being undercounted in polls, particularly in rural states and in states with large white working class populations.

  64. MarkedMan says:

    @MBunge:

    Again, I know this is futile but there almost certainly were not “ties” between Russia and the Trump campaign…

    Just out and out false. The Trump campaign and Trump himself has the initially denied there were any contacts but as each contact was expose they would admit to that one additional contact I know more. At this point we have about a half dozen Trump age or camping officials having multiple meetings with the Russians including his son-in-law who had a meeting with a Russian banker that was illegal under sanctions because the bank is largely considered a financial arm of the Russian government.

    Trump continues to admit to only what they have been caught and and even that is pretty overwhelming.