When the presidential campaign began last year, the FBI was not expected to be a key player. Hillary Clinton had many problems—from her mixed record on issues like criminal justice and free trade to a generalized anger against the Political Establishment she represented to her vote for the Iraq War. But a criminal investigation was presumably low on the long list of things she had to worry about.
Then a probe into Clinton's use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state became one of the central stories of the 2016 campaign. The FBI apparently closed the case before making vague allusions to possible charges just days before the election—and then said that actually they were right the first time about not wanting to charge Clinton with anything. Even after all the overblown scandals that have enveloped the Clintons over the years (from Whitewater to B-E-N-G-H-A-Z-I), who could have predicted that this long-simmering email story would turn out to be pivotal? And who is around to tell us what it all means? This is a story with few lessons—except, perhaps, that this election has made everyone from Clinton to FBI director James Comey to rank-and-file FBI agents look terrible.
Way back in March 2015—that feels like a decade ago, right?—the New York Times first reported that Clinton had used a private email server as secretary of state, potentially in violation of federal government rules. The news fed a (long-standing) campaign by conservative politicians and commentators to make the former first lady out as a Nixonian crook who could not be trusted with the power of the American presidency.
But after the feds spent well over a year looking into whether classified information had been compromised by Clinton or her staff while they used that private server, Comey determined she was no criminal. Sure, Clinton had been "extremely careless" with classified material, as Comey said at a July press conference—an unusually public way for the secretive FBI to announce a decision—but "no reasonable prosecutor" would press charges against her.
That seemed to mark the end of this Clinton saga—even if probes into the Clinton Foundation and other alleged shadiness were reportedly ongoing, and even if Donald Trump repeatedly cried foul that the feds were rigging the system in favor of his opponent.
Then Anthony "Carlos Danger" Weiner enters our story, and it goes to shit.
Weiner—the former New York congressman and mayoral candidate most famous for his aggressively seedy internet activities—has been under federal investigation for allegedly sexting an underage girl. The feds recently turned up a laptop he shared with his estranged wife, top Clinton aide Huma Abedin, which was apparently full of emails involving Clinton. That led to Comey's announcement a couple of days before Halloween that there were new emails to look into—or maybe they weren't new, he wasn't sure yet. In any case, it was time for America to go down this rabbit hole all over again.
Possibly in response to this news—which dominated cable and the internet—Clinton's poll numbers took a hit, as did Democrats' chance of capturing the Senate. The director of the FBI was publicly teasing possible criminal charges against a major-party presidential nominee just days before voters went to the polls in most states (and after early voting was well underway). This was major, even if it wasn't clear to many what Clinton was even accused of doing. Reports circulated that the FBI was a hotbed of pro-Trump sentiment; many Democrats were suspicious that Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor turned Trump hype man, seemed to have an inside line into the investigation. Conflicting leaks about what was in the emails and how close to indicting Clinton the FBI was cropped up in different outlets, muddying the waters and making a mockery of the bureau's general rules about not commenting on active investigations.
"I've never seen leaks like this happen before in the FBI," says David Gomez, a former FBI counterterrorism executive who now works in cyber security (and has written for VICE). "And I kind of have my doubt as to whether it's actually agents leaking to the press, or agents leaking to retired guys like me, who are then talking to the press."
Then came Comey's announcement this Sunday that agents had sifted through the new emails—and found nothing nothing to change his earlier conclusion that no charges were warranted. Trump—who had briefly taken to praising Comey for his bravery on the campaign trail—once again decried the "rigged" system. In the right's more conspiracy-minded corners, the question became, how did the FBI read the emails so fast?
There is past precedent for the bureau wading into presidential politics—former FBI Director L. Patrick Gray, a Nixon fan, burned files relevant to the Watergate investigation in his own fireplace in the 1970s. But the system has changed since then. "People seem to forget that's the kind of involvement of the FBI that you want to avoid," Gomez said of Gray, citing the fact that directors are now appointed to ten-year terms that span multiple presidencies.
Comey, a former registered Republican appointed by Barack Obama in 2013, has been both a player in this election and a punching bag. Democrats can't stand him for first delivering that anti-Clinton statement at the July press conference, then issuing a vaguely worded letter about Weiner's laptop that reignited the controversy, even though (apparently) no new relevant evidence was in said laptop. Republicans likewise despise him for not indicting Clinton for anything.
We will likely never know what drove Comey to make each of the decisions he made during the course of this campaign. He may have been striving for transparency in the most high-profile case of his career. He may have been reacting to intra-FBI pressures the public will never understand. What we do know is that Comey—who was spotted sipping a hefty margarita at a Mexican restaurant outside Washington, DC, Sunday—had a rough week.
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