DAMN EMAILS, REVISITED

Susan Bordo
Nov 21, 2018 · 25 min read

With Ivanka Trump’s use of private email currently in the news, I thought it might be timely to review just how Clinton’s email use became such a defining issue in the 2016 election — and arguably cost her the election. The following is an early draft of a chapter (plus additional material from other chapters) that ultimately became part of my book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton: Untangling the Political Forces, Media Culture, and Assault on Fact that Decided the 2016 Election. This version also includes some additional material that has not previously been published.

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Here’s a shocker: Clinton didn’t lie. Nor did she treat classified material in an “extremely careless” manner. The email “scandal,” like many previous investigations into the Clintons, was a whole lot of nothing blown into nuclear proportions by the GOP and helpfully served up in an endless stream of tasty, poisonous portions by the mainstream media. For weeks, we snacked on high-calorie accusations and insinuations — including some delivered by Vladimir Putin via WikiLeaks. And then, just as we appeared to be stuffed to the brim and our attention had turned to the Trumpish behavior that had shaken Michelle Obama (and thousands of other American women) to her core, we were presented with a flaming dessert, courtesy of James Comey.

1. A Scandal is Born

Hillary Clinton’s appearance before the Benghazi Hearings on October 22, 2015 was an extraordinary event and a dazzling performance. Clinton “delivered tirelessly, knocking back the Republicans one by one,” wrote Edward Isaac Dovere,”[and]“reminded people of everything they like about her,’ said one of the senior advisors. ‘It’s toughness, but also a calm, adult presence of someone you can actually see being president of the United States.”

Chairman Trey Gowdy, who had “been conducting the investigation like an overzealous prosecutor desperately trying to land a front-page conviction rather than a neutral judge of facts seeking to improve the security of our diplomatic core”, was not to be defeated, however. For just as one investigation into Bill Clinton had led to another…and another…and another, the Benghazi investigators, simply by asking for some emails, struck a fountain of perpetually flowing liquid gold for their purposes.

March 2, 2015: The New York Times’Michael Schmidt made it public for the firsttime. The Benghazi hearings had revealed that Clinton “exclusively used a personal email account to conduct government business as secretary of state.” The Timespublishes the story withthe provocative headline:

Hillary Clinton Used Personal Email Account at State Dept., Possibly Breaking Rules

In the piece, Schmidt described Clinton’s “expansive use” of the private account as “alarming” and “a serious breach” and noted that Clinton and her aides had also failed to retain her letters and emails as required by federal law.

“Breaking Rules” was, of course, a dog-whistle for Clinton scandal-seekers. We had been told so many times that she and Bill live by “rules of their own” that the piece hardly required fact-checking. Or did it?

The fact is that there was no “serious breach.” 2009 Federal Register Regulations pertaining to the use of emails specifically allowed “employees of certain agencies,” including the State Department “to use non-Federal email systems.” That’s why Secretary of State Colin Powell did so, as well as every other Secretary of State until John Kerry.

It was only in 2013, after Clinton had left office, that the “rules” were changed, the National Archives updating their guidelines to say that employees should generally use personal email accounts only in “emergency situations,” in which cases all of the emails must be preserved “in accordance with agency recordkeeping practices.” According to those practices, moreover, it was not the responsibility of the Secretary of State or her aides to preserve her emails, but the State Department itself — which it did. (That’s how those not submitted by her were later “discovered”.)

In 2013 — again, to be clear, after Clinton left office — the State Department asked all former Secretaries of State to provide copies of work-related emails from personal accounts. No one except Clinton did. Clinton: “I responded right away and provided all my emails that could possibly be work-related, which totaled roughly 55,000 printed pages, even though I knew that the State Department already had the vast majority of them.”

It was totally legitimate, by the way, for Clinton and her lawyers to delete her personal emails from the stack submitted to the State Department, as the Justice Department made crystal clear in May 2016 when the conservative watchdog group “Judicial Watch” brought a lawsuit. “There is no question,” the Justice Department’s civil division attorneys wrote, “that former Secretary Clinton had authority to delete personal emails without agency supervision — she appropriately could have done so even if she were working on a government server.”

But this was Hillary Clinton, after all, queen of political duplicity. Who knows what those deleted private emails were “shielding”? On March 3, Schmidt followed up his March 2 story, describing Clinton as engaging in a practice that “protected a significant amount of her correspondence from the eyes of investigators and the public.” He quoted Jeff Bechdel, spokesperson for America Rising, a conservative PAC that produces opposition research on Democratic Partymembers:

Unfortunately, Clinton’s own political calculation and desire for secrecy, as evidenced by her exclusive use of personal email accounts while at State, is preventing an open process and full, fair review of her time there.”

Bechdel was a GOP spokesperson, and there was no “evidence” tying Clinton’s use of a personal email with “political calculation” or “desire for secrecy.” But this was clearly a narrative that reporter Schmidt felt no obligation to correct. Indeed, in his own editorializing the day before, he had said much the same thing, just using more cautious journalistic euphemisms, like “echoes” instead of “as evidenced”:

The revelation about the private email account echoes longstanding criticisms directed at both the former secretary and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, for a lack of transparency and inclination toward secrecy.”

“Echoes” is not synonymous with “as evidenced by” — if you are taking the SATs. For the casual reader, skimming the story on a commuter train or while eating breakfast, what undoubtedly stood out were the phrases “lack of transparency” and “inclination toward secrecy.” They were such familiar ingredients in the coverage of that manufactured hermaphrodite “The Clintons” — and quickly became headlined in every story. Within a week, Clinton’s emails had become an “imbroglio” that “engulfed her nascent presidential campaign.” References throwing shade on the Clinton’s “past” — the details of which few readers/viewers, particularly if they were young, were actually familiar with — provided rhetorical flourishes and metaphors for reporters: “Can she reinvent herself or will she be forever dogged by how she has approached controversies in the past?” “Even friendly Democrats wondered whether she and her team were capable of turning over a new leaf.” And Clinton was chastised for being so slow to answer the charges. She had “allowed the controversy to swelter for days.” Would she now finally “show contrition?”

Contrition was not something that Clinton felt she owed anyone, as she hadn’t done anything she considered wrong. But Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who was chairing the House panel investigating the attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, felt otherwise. Salivating over this fresh opportunity to bring Clinton down, he said he planned to haul the former secretary of state in for hearings “at least twice.” Gowdy also said he saw “no choice” but for Clinton to hand her server to an independent arbiter who would sort through her emails and decide which of them should be made public. “Secretary Clinton alone created this predicament, but she alone does not get to determine its outcome,” he said.

Later the same day, CNN’s John King ran a piece calledHillary Clinton’s email scandal is exactly what you can expect from her presidential campaign.”

Secrecy. Shielding documents. Accusations of arrogance and hypocrisy. Debates about the letter and the spirit of the rules. A public defense — but also jitters and disbelief — from fellow Democrats. Legitimate criticism along with some eye-rolling conspiracy theories from Republicans.

We have seen this movie before. …

What is past is prologue.”

Yes, if you are determined to tell the story that way.

2. Clinton Becomes a “Criminal” (Courtesy of the New York Times)

July 23, 2015:

The Times posts a story entitled “Criminal Inquiry Sought in Hillary Clinton’s Use of Email.” It began with the lede: “Two inspector generals have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Clinton mishandled sensitive government information on a private email account she used as Secretary of State, senior government officials said Thursday.”

The Facts: As Elijah Cummings and the Justice Department immediately confirmed, there was no “criminal inquiry” at all, but rather a review under the Freedom of Information Act of whether some emails not previously marked “classified” ought to have been. This had nothing to do with Clinton herself, and didn’t constitute a “criminal referral.”

The Timeslater changed the headline and the lede, but insisted the story didn’t require an explicit correction, allowing those who seen the original headline — including early morning news show pundits — and had gotten the impression that Clinton was under criminal investigation to run with that misinformation for a full day. Ultimately, the Times printed a correction, admitting that their story had “misstated the nature of the referral to the Justice Department regarding Hillary Clinton’s personal email account when she was Secretary of State. The referral addressed the potential compromise of classified information in connection with that personal email account. It did not specifically request an investigation into Mrs. Clinton.”

Barely anyone noticed the correction. It’s the way these things tend to work. Headlines make the front page; retractions are buried. The consequences can shape lives, as we saw many years ago when security guard Richard Jewell was wrongly accused of being the pipe bomber at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Exploiting the possibilities of a great story — “The Hero Turned Suspect” — reporters zestfully painted a portrait of him to fit the “profile” of a “lone bomber,” a frustrated police “wannabe,” and — the coup de grace — with duct tape under his bed and curtains drawn in his house. All we heard about for weeks was that duct tape found under his bed. No real evidence against him existed but the constructed journalistic “text” was so coherent and convincing and the duct tape, in particular, made into such a compelling detail that it was all people talked about for weeks. He was ultimately exonerated, but the exoneration didn’t make the headlines (the truth can be so boring!) and many people today still think he was the bomber.

The same thing has happened, time and again, with Clintonian “scandals. “We saw the pattern with Benghazi,” Eric Boehlert told Chris Hayes, “We’ve seen it with e-mails. If you want to get nostalgic go back to Whitewater, go back to travel-gate, go back to the Clinton pardons. This is over and over again. We create these investigations. Republicans are briefed on them and then they spin these fantastic tales to the press who types it up because they think it’s a great story…. Every time, every time when we go through it, these facts don’t hold up…But, once you put that in the pipeline, once you put that out there, wait, Hillary is going to be indicted? You can’t walk that back.”

3. Clinton is Vindicated but No One Knows It

Skip ahead to the presidential campaign. While Trump is given a free ride by the mainstream media and Sanders’ “momentum” is the big narrative about his campaign, the “email scandal” becomes the dominant Clinton story of the year that follows.

Although no evidence exists that she is hiding anything, she continues to be criticized for “not coming clean.” She maintains, at the February, 2016 presidential debate, that she “never sent or received any classified material” and in a press conference in May that as far as the private server goes, “What I had done was allowed, it was above board.” But reporters badger her for more. They want contrition, an apology for her use of a private server — and ultimately, Clinton gives it, in a September 8 interview with David Muir on ABC:

“In retrospect, certainly, as I look back on it now, even though it was allowed, I should’ve used two accounts. One for personal, one for work-related emails. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility.”

The next day she repeated that she did not “send or receive classified material on the private account.”USA Today describes the apology as an “about-face.”

On May 26, however, Clinton was vindicated when the State Department Inspector General releases its 83-page evaluation of email management. Its major criticism, as Rachel Maddow reports — and visually demonstrates with a huge, unwieldy stack of paper — is reserved for the “archaic archiving system” that Clinton had to work with: an “abysmal system of record-keeping” in which the “only approved” method for archiving emails was by printing and boxing each one that was received or sent. No indexing or electronic storage, just physical “filing” of thousands and thousands of page in box after box of printed emails.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued the following statement in response to the report:

The Inspector General confirmed what we have known all along — that Secretary Clinton followed the practice of her predecessor when she used a personal email account. While Secretary Clinton preserved and returned tens of thousands of pages of her emails to the Department for public release, Secretary Powell returned none. Republicans need to stop wasting taxpayer dollars singling out Secretary Clinton just because she is running for President. If Republicans really care about transparency, they will work constructively with Democrats to focus on fixing what this report shows are longstanding, systemic flaws in the State Department’s recordkeeping practices for decades.”

Cummings’ press release was substantiated by a piece in Forbesmagazine, which concluded that as regards Clinton’s handling of emails, the evaluation “does not add any new serious charges or adverse facts.”:

“….Certainly, the widely reported fact that it’s an 83-page report makes it sound like it is big. But half is appendices. Half of the rest is not about the Secretary’s emails, but about cyber security. Of the two-dozen pages that are even remotely about Secretaries’ emails, a lot is taken up by retracing the dreary history of records and archival policy. The remainder involves all the secretaries going back two decades — not just Clinton and Powell, who are alike, but also ones of no particular interest, like Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, and also John Kerry. There’s just not a lot of new facts about Clinton…. [T]he big criticism in the report is regarding the failure to print and file email in a retrievable way. But as the report shows, the Office of the Secretary of State has rarely succeeded in doing that. …Since that is a general problem, why pin it particularly on Clinton?

A report that says so little new against Clinton, amounts to a vindication

Cummings agreed: “The IG’s report does not substantiate Republican claims that Secretary Clinton somehow committed a crime by using personal email. The report does not include any findings that Secretary Clinton engaged in criminal wrongdoing.”

But if Clinton was “vindicated,” you certainly couldn’t tell from the headlines and television tickers:

Clinton’s Violation of State Department Email Rules.” (ticker on MSNBC)

State Department Report Slams Clinton’s Email Use(CNN)

“State Dept. inspector general report sharply criticizes Clinton’s email practices”(Washington Post)

“Hillary Clinton Is Criticized for Private Emails in State Dept. Review”(New York Times)

4. James Comey’s Abuse of Power, Act One

Bordo July 6, 2016 Facebook page:

Yesterday, I was just finishing up a blog-piece on Hillary’s ‘honesty problem’ when my bathroom break took me past the TV and news that at 11 a.m., James Comey, director of the FBI, would be making an announcement. Hold that last paragraph! And the piece remained unfinished while I watched, as Comey recommended that no criminal charge be brought against Hillary Clinton, but went on in a stunningly irregular way to publicly chastise Hillary and the State Dept. for “extremely careless” behavior with emails. Comey’s highly inappropriate and, I believe, deliberately ambiguous comments re. his “assessments” (as opposed to his legal conclusions) have (as you can imagine) inspired a new raft of accusations from the GOP and the media. So — after an hour aghast at what Joe and Mika and crew, predictably, have been doing with this — it’s back to my office for me, to incorporate yesterday’s news and its aftermath in my blog. Watch this space — I’ll let you know when the piece appears”

Ultimately, I was to write several pieces about Comey’s interference in the election, which occurred in several different stages.

In the first, on July 5, Comey’s appeared on television and cleared Clinton of all criminal charges — which could and should have been the headline. But at the same time, venturing way beyond protocol, Comey also publicly criticized Clinton and the State Department in their handling of classified emails. Comey’s remarks were so harsh that many viewers (including me) were expecting him to conclude with an announcement of indictment. It didn’t come, but public chastisement did: “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”Comey also recklessly speculated that Clinton’s email system “could have been” hacked (it never was, probably uniquely given the rash of anti-Democratic hackings during the election.) The FBI’s proper role is to conduct investigations into charges, which are either then dismissed or presented to and adjudicated by a judge or jury, not to publicly editorialize about conclusions. Comey’s announcement was thus a stunning violation of Justice Department practice, which is to notify the public when an investigation is concluded, inform us of whether or not charges are brought, and then quietly leave the stage.

Not only did Comey abuse his power by chastising the behavior of a defendant who had been cleared of criminal charges, but he also left the listening public with the impression of a mixed verdict (which it was not; Clinton was cleared) and gave the GOP a heap of red meat to throw into the media circus surrounding the election:

Besides the charge of “extreme carelessness,” Comey also suggested that Clinton had lied, that — contrary to her statements to the public — she had received 110 classified emails (out of 30,000 the FBI had recovered.) Clinton, of course, had claimed on television that she had neither received nor sent any classified emails on her private server. But she also clarified that she had meant “emails marked as classified.” The clarification is crucial, because it’s through a system of markings that the state department operates. The appropriate “header,” as Ellen Tauscher, who served as an Under Secretary in the State Department until 2012, corroborated, is requiredof all classified documents.

Of course, it’s always possible for one person (or agency) to deem something “classified” and another person (or agency) to disagree. Indeed, that often happens, as documents travel from agency to agency and their content gets reinterpreted. Classification is a moving machine, which stopped at Clinton’s desk marked in a certain way. She relied on those markings; how else could she — or anyone else in her position — operate?

FBI director James Comey, however, mentioned neither this nor the “archaic system” when he claimed that Clinton, contrary to her statements to the public, had received 110 classified emails. Classified? None of these emails had the required headers — so how was Clinton to know? Comey dismissed that triviality, claiming that the emails contained “subject matter” that “any reasonable person should have known… had no place in an unclassified system.”

The media gave about five minutes to the fact that Clinton was cleared of any criminal activity in her handling of emails. The far hotter story was her “carelessness” — and, of course, the implication (not stated by Comey) that she had “lied to the public.” Without allowing themselves a moment to examine Comey’s words with care or to question any contradictions or missteps the FBI director may have made, commentators immediately began to weave his report into their favored narrative of Clintonian “untrustworthiness.”

“It’s a complete political indictment of her conduct,” declared MSNBC journalist Kristen Welker. “A direct disputation of the stories she’s been telling,” added political commentator Chris Cillizza. It demonstrates that “trust and honesty continue to dog the Clinton campaign” (Chuck Todd). Claiming that Coney had “completely disputed Hillary’s claims,” Andrea Mitchell predicted “grave political problems” for Clinton.

By the time Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Nicole Wallace got in on the act on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” it had predictably become a tale of bald-faced deception on Clinton’s part. The show began with artfully arranged side-by-side clips contrasting Clinton’s statements with Comey’s “assessments.” Guests who tried to caution against hurried conclusions, like Steve Rattner and Howard Dean, were interrupted and talked over. Nothing was allowed to interfere with the “untrustworthy Clinton” thread.

5. Comey is Forced to Retract His Criticism, But the Press Doesn’t Notice

On July 7, 2016,House Republicans, unhappy with Comey’s failure to indict Clinton, had asked him to answer questions from them, which he agreed to. Grilling him, they got little more than a slight elaboration of the “extremely careless” assessment:

“Certainly she should have known not to send classified information. As I said, that’s the definition of negligent. I think she was extremely careless. I think she was negligent. That I could establish. What we can’t establish is that she acted with the necessary criminal intent.”

But when Democrats took over the questioning, things got potentially rockier for Comey. First, Elijah Cummings, pressing Comey, got him to re-state, more explicitly, that only three of those 110 emails had any kind of markings on them at all which would have alerted the recipient to their classified status. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only “internally,” with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails.

Then, Congressman Matt Cartwright forced Comey to admit that the emails with the internal “c”s were not properly marked according to the State Department Manual, and that his previous comment that “any reasonable person” would have known the emails were classified was implausible, if not an out-and-out falsehood. To judge unheaded emails as classified was in fact a standard that was unreasonable to apply. To the contrary, it would be a “reasonable inference” that the three documents missing the header were notclassified.

Holding the manual in his hand, Cartwright calmly got right to the point:

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “You were asked about markings on a few documents, I have the manual here, marking national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?”

JAMES COMEY: “No.”

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record, Mr. Chairman.”

CHAIRMAN: “Without objection so ordered.”

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header on the document? Right?”

JAMES COMEY: “Correct.”

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little c in the text someplace?”

JAMES COMEY: “No. There were three e-mails, the c was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.”

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?”

JAMES COMEY: “That would be a reasonable inference.”

Coney’s admission exonerated Hillary not only from any “carelessness” or “negligence” but also from the charge of lying about “not sending or receiving any classified emails.” It would have been entirely “reasonable” for her to conclude that the emails not appropriately marked were not classified — exactly as she had been saying for months.

If you were watching the hearing it was a revelatory moment. But how many viewers caught the exchange? Audiences at my talks, when I ran video clips of Cummings’s and Cartwright’s questioning, were shocked and amazed. Many came up afterward to tell me the clips had changed their minds about Clinton. As for me, the hearing solidified my suspicion that Comey’s unprecedented interference was indeed politically motivated (or pressured.) For surely at this point, Comey ought to have held a full-blown press conference apologizing for his inaccurate assessment of Clinton’s handling of classified material. Instead, he was silent, while the media incessantly hammered away at Clinton’s “carelessness” and “lies” about her emails. This was a recklessly disseminated narrative with no basis in fact. Yet at the time his mischaracterization was disclosed, Comey offered no public correction or retraction of his previous commentary, which was left to do its political dirty work, unchallenged by the facts. Thus for any viewers relying on TV “news” — MSNBC as well as Fox — these exonerating exchanges never happened, because their importance was never turned into “breaking news” or a “headline” story. .

In fact, the media dug its heels in even further on the “lying Clinton” issue. On August 1, the Washington Postgave Clinton four “Pinocchios” for trying to correct Chris Wallace in a Fox News Sundayinterview on July 31. Wallace had said, inaccurately, that “FBI director James Comey, in the congressional hearing, said none of those things that you told the American public were true.” But Wallace was either uninformed or lying, for Comey had said nothing of the sort. Rather, he said that he wasn’t “qualified to answer” the question of “whether Clinton had lied to the public.” What he did feel qualified to answer was whether her answers to the FBI were truthful, and on that issue he had replied that “we have no basis to conclude that she lied.”

What did Clinton reply that got her pantsuit set on fire? Instead of quoting Comey’s lawyerly “no basis to conclude that she lied,” she answered in terms ordinary people use and said Comey had said, “her answers were truthful.” She then went on to connect the dots between her FBI testimony and what she had said to the public, describing them as “consistent” with each other. Complicated, perhaps. Requiring a bit of thought on the part of listeners, yes. But a lie? Give us a break.

Yet the saga of “Lying Hillary and her emails” went on and on, perpetuated not only in the headlines but also by the polls.

For example, take the July Washington Post/ABCNews poll results showing that 56% of respondents felt the FBI was wrong in not charging Clinton, a result that had the GOP falling over itself with glee. Comey’s irresponsible comments on Clinton’s “carelessness,” as Andrea Mitchell predicted, did cause big trouble for Clinton. But the poll didn’t simply “measure” this, it perpetuated it. Here’s how the survey phrased the question, repeating in it the same inappropriate and leading (and as it turns out, inaccurate) “editorializing” that Comey indulged in:

As you may have heard, FBI Director James Comey has recommended not charging Hillary Clinton with a crime for her use of personal email while Secretary of State, saying she did not have any criminal intent. He also said Clinton was ‘extremely careless’ in her handling of classified information in her personal e-mail. Do you approve or disapprove of Comey’s recommendation that Clinton should not be charged with a crime?”

Consider, too, that even after Comey’s exoneration, polling showed that 56 percent of Americans believed Clinton had indeed broken the law by relying on a personal email address, “with another 36% piling on to say the episode showed ‘bad judgment’ albeit not criminality.” Those numbers are ghastly, considering — as demonstrated in this piece — that she had in fact broken no laws or behaved carelessly, but they are unsurprising, given the overwhelming negative attention that network and cable news has paid to Clinton’s emails — more airtime, as Mathew Yglesias reports, than to all policy issues combined: During the entire general election campaign, June 7 to November 8, Clinton only led over Trump in quantity of media coverage 4 times: once was when she had pneumonia, once was during the DNC, and the other two were during and right after James Comey’s announcements.

Thus, “a story that was at best of modest significance came to dominate the US presidential election,” creating a misleading impression of Clinton’s character and competence and vastly overshadowing coverage of both her accomplishments and her policy proposals. Is it any wonder that so many people had a totally false impression of what a Clinton presidency would be like? Between Sander’s labeling of Clinton as a Wall Street lackey and the GOP obsession with her emails — both of which were lavishly covered by the mass media — the Clinton campaign was defined by negative sound-bytes. It wasn’t the case that she had “no message”; she wasn’t given the space to deliver it, as the email “scandal” swamped the media.

6. James Comey’s Abuse of Power, Act Two

Comey, as we’ve seen, had already gone way beyond FBI protocol and according to many “committed a gross abuse of his own power” when in early July, he had described Clinton’s handling of emails as “careless.” I’ve argued, further, that he lied — or perhaps was just ill-informed — when he claimed that the absence of the appropriate headers on the emails Clinton had said were not classified was insignificant, and that “any reasonable person” ought to have known, even in the absence of the headers, that the content was classified. Elijah Cummings and Matt Cartwright exposed that “error” (to be charitable.) Yet Comey held no press conference to clarify and correct his mistake, and the “careless” comment stuck.

At the very least, Comey had a shifting set of scruples about what the public has a right to know. He felt no obligation to correct the record on Clinton’s “carelessness” with emails. Yet on October 28 he compounded his earlier actions and ignored the Justice Department’s guidelines barring the release of information about ongoing investigations — or even returning indictments — involving individuals running for office in close proximity (within 60 days) to an election, and sent a letter to Congress saying that “in connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” These emails, discovered on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, former congressman and husband of Clinton’s aide and confident Huma Abedin, needed to be reviewed to “determine whether they contained classified information, as well as to assess their importance to the investigation.”

Comey’s motives for this stunning breech of protocol remain unclear. [Note: Since the writing of this chapter, Comey has written a book and given several interviews describing his reasoning, which I discuss on the Medium site in “The Talented Mr. Comey”] E.J.Dionne, in Washington Post, suggests that he was intimidated by pressure from congressional Republicans who’d been furious about his earlier exoneration of Clinton, or perhaps (or also) by factions within the FBI who had been “complaining privately that Comey should have tried harder to make a case” against Clinton. But whatever his motives, the slime factor went beyond Comey’s actions. Trump campaign officials, as undisciplined blabbing by Rudy Giuliani revealed, actually knew the disclosure was coming beforehand, and made the most of it. “I think [Trump’s] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days…a couple of things that should turn this around,” Giuliani told Fox the day before Comey’s letter to Congress surfaced; he also couldn’t resist bragging that he had insider knowledge of “a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI” springing from tensions between those who supported Comey’s legal exoneration of Clinton and those — the same New York faction for whom Clinton Cash was a bible — who were out for more blood from her. As E.J. Dionne had suggested, It likely that Comey’s hand was forced by this faction, either in collusion with Giuliani or simply out of their own hatred for Clinton. What is clear, though — unless Giuliani was just making the whole thing up, and why should he have? — is that there was “a cadre of Hillary-hating agents that pushed the Bureau to interfere in the 2016 election in a manner that can only be described as an attempted coup.”

Does that language sound too conspiratorial to you? Six months ago I might have thought so, but the confluence, in the weeks before the election, of “a disastrous series of unfortunate events” for Hillary, suggests that talk of a “coup,” although somewhat metaphorical, is not an exaggeration. For although these events were not orchestrated by one evil genius or agency, they may as well have been.

Consider, once again, the timing:

It’s 11 days before the election, Clinton has three successful debates behind her, Trump’s nasty behavior with women is on garish display, and the polls are looking really good for Hillary. Then: FBI says emails found in Anthony Weiner’s sexting scandal may have links to Clinton inquiry” (the headline in the LA Times.)

“May have links” is broad and vacuous; in fact, at the time of the announcement all that the FBI can report is the “appearance” of “pertinence.” (They hadn’t even gotten a warrant as yet to determine the content of the emails, and could not “predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work.”)“Sexting scandal” was irrelevant (“Weiner’s emails” would have been sufficient) but did a great job of reminding readers of the sleaze factor among the Clinton men. Ironically, Trump has just been accused of sexual assault by 12 different women — and until Comey’s announcement, it’s looking like it might sink him. But now, the damned emails are front and center again, and both the GOP and the media treat the news as explosive. MSNBC’s Kristen Welker declares that the “full enormity” of this new information could “up-end the entire election.” And Donald Trump, at the opening of a campaign rally in New Hampshire, makes the most of Comey’s announcement: “Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Referring to Comey’s original exoneration, he applauded the FBI for revisiting the case: “This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood. Perhaps finally justice will be done.”

The FBI’s conclusion was not what Trump intimated it would be. As Clinton’s campaign had suspected was the case, the emails were revealed to be duplicates of those already scrutinized and found entirely innocent by the FBI.

By then, however, the election was just two days away, and the damage was done.

How harmful to Clinton was the second Comey intervention? Common sense alone suggests strongly that the revival of “the email scandal,” which had led so many Americans to see Clinton as untrustworthy and a liar, would have had a significant effect. Remember, too, that before the “new” email investigation was announced, the national consciousness was awash with revulsion and condemnation of Trump over the Access Hollywoodtapes and the allegations that followed. After Comey’s letter? For all intents and purposes it was as though the Access Hollywoodtapes had never happened and the 12 women alleging abuse had never come forward. “Breaking News” of “new email revelations” swept all that away.

After the election, the GOP and news commentators alike cried “sore loser” when the Clinton campaign claimed Comey’s interference had cost them the presidency. Many Democrats, too, accepted the conclusion that Clinton was just too “flawed” a candidate, who failed to deliver a winning message in key battleground states. We now know, however, that the Clinton campaign’s interpretation is highly likely to be correct. As Vox points out, however, “much of what pundits are describing as error…might better be described as the ‘Comey effect.” For very few polls were done after Comey “re-opened” the investigation, which also happened to be the stretch of days when an “unusually large number of undecided voters” were making up their minds — with many of them, as earlier polls had shown, heavily influenced by their mistrust of Clinton, which had just been revived by James Comey — and, of course, the mainstream media, always eager to benefit from Clinton Email headlines. Comparison of absentee votes and votes on election day show evidence of a late surge toward Trump. And bolstering the “Comey effect” hypothesis, too, is the fact that the national polls show indisputable evidence that Clinton’s margin over Trump fell swiftly and steeply directly after the Comey letter — and never recovered. By November 3, Clinton’s lead in the national polls was evaporating, and Trump had “several plausible electoral map routes to victory.”

Was Hillary’s loss “just” the result of Comey’s interference? In my book, I argue that the destruction of Hillary Clinton’s candidacy — and our hope of defeating Donald Trump — was the result of a “perfect storm” of factors. It was a massive pile-on of open assaults, secret strategies, unconsciousness biases, a voracious and sometimes blundering media, and — as we’ve learned — Russian interference and possible collusion on the part of Trump’s campaign. There’s no doubt, however, that the email “scandal” and all those who gave it prominence played an outsized role, and ultimately — through Comey’s pre-election interference — probably dealt a fatal blow.

Written by

Cultural historian, media critic, feminist scholar. Author, most recently, of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton

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