“False Equivalence,” Hillary, And James Comey

The never-ending saga of the “Comey Letter” continues unabated. If you find this discussion tiresome, I sympathize, and would not begrudge you immediately clicking out of this post in disgust. That said, there’s simply too much distortion and revisionist history floating around to let go unchecked. That revisionist history will eventually crystalize into Serious History, and future generations will develop a warped understanding of what transpired in the 2016 election. Given that the 2016 election reordered American politics in all manners of ways, it’s not surprising that its causes are still being debated.

So — this week, bereaved liberal pundits resumed their fulminating against Comey for single-handedly destroying American democracy with his late-stage “intervention” in the presidential campaign. There are so many problems with this line of thinking, so many fallacies embedded within fallacies, it’s hard to know where to begin.

Among the most enduring problems is the tendency by commentators to isolate the “Comey Letter,” issued on October 28, 2016, as a discrete variable to explain the election outcome. First, isolating the Comey Letter as a discrete variable has the effect of framing Hillary as the victim of a malicious external imposition, rather than as someone who saw the fruits of her own misdeeds come back to bite her at a highly politically disadvantageous time. The “Comey Letter” did not just materialize out of the ether. It was one “link” on a causal chain that dated back to January 2009, when Hillary’s subordinates decided to set up a private email server.

Only someone with prodigious hubris would calculate that running for president in the midst of dealing with such severe legal issues was a sound tactical decision. But by dwelling monomaniacally on the “Comey Letter,” rather than on the actions which created the conditions for the Comey Letter, Hillary magically gets absolved of any direct culpability. Despite purporting to accept personal responsibility for her defeat, this week Hillary once again blamed primarily exogenous factors: Comey and Russia. That’s the line that her supporters in the media have generally taken as well: Hillary can do no wrong, she can only be wronged.

The “Hillary Was Wronged” narrative also consumed this week’s hearing in which James Comey testified before a Senate oversight panel. Flustered Democratic senators demanded to know why, if Comey saw fit to publicly pronounce on the Hillary email investigation, he didn’t also see fit to publicly pronounce on the Trump/Russia investigation. This differing approach to the two investigations is taken as evidence that Comey acted with malicious intent, or that he might’ve even had stealth partisan motives.

But “Why didn’t you handle these two different cases exactly the same way?” is a classic example of false equivalence. People on the internet love to scream, “False equivalence!!!!” even when no equivalence was ever asserted. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a point wherein I compare two things, or even vaguely reference one thing in relation to another, and the Amateur Logician Brigades rush in to shriek “False Equivalence” — apparently not comprehending that someone must have wrongly identified two things as equivalent in order for the objection to have basis. So the fallacy is routinely invoked on spurious grounds.

However, this is an actual, honest-to-god instance of false equivalence. If you think Comey ought to have treated the two investigations exactly the same in terms of his public pronouncements, then you are essentially positing that the two investigations were equivalent — maybe not equivalent in every detail, but equivalent in the key respect that both should’ve prompted Comey to pronounce on them publicly. What would the rationale be for this assumed “equivalence”? The only feasible manner in which the two investigations were “equivalent” was that they both implicated presidential candidates. But that alone — that the investigations both implicated presidential candidates — can’t be sufficient to justify treating them the same. Everything else about the two investigations — their chronology, their investigative status, differed dramatically.

Perhaps most notably, the Hillary email investigation had been closed on July 5, 2016, and Comey had testified on numerous occasions to Congress that he would notify them in the event of any change in the status of the investigation. Once a change in the status of the investigation occurred — upon the discovery of new, unreviewed evidence on Anthony Weiner’s device— Comey had an affirmative obligation to notify Congress. None of these factors in any way apply to the Trump/Russia investigation. It is not even clear yet that the Trump/Russia probe targets Trump directly, whereas it was known with factual certainty in October of last year that the email server investigation specifically and personally targeted Hillary.

Saying, “You must also weigh in on Trump simply because you weighed in on Clinton” is not a practicable legal standard. Ironically, to demand that Comey do this would’ve been to demand that he incorporate overt political factors in his decision-making. “Because I made an announcement which may harm one candidate politically, I must make a compensatory announcement about the other candidate” is an arbitrary standard, and necessitates ignoring the multifold differences between the two investigations in service of some ill-defined “even-handedness” aspiration.

As Comey has repeatedly explained, including at this week’s hearing, the Comey Letter only came about because of a device which contained evidence pertinent to the original email server investigation — including “thousands of new emails” which had not previously been reviewed. In order to review them, the FBI would need to “re-open” the investigation that Comey had initially announced the closure of on July 5, 2016. Because of those details, which were unique to the Clinton investigation, he was compelled to make the announcement on October 28.

Comey specifically addressed the “false equivalency” objection here:

Acknowledging the soundness of Comey’s rationale here doesn’t compel one to somehow become a Comey fanboy, or to think that the FBI is great or flawless. You can, as I do, even favor the abolition of the FBI, yet still recognize that Comey’s stated rationale here is on-its-face sensible.

As an aside, some people in the media, such as Nate Silver, even now can’t accept that the investigation really was “re-opened” on October 28. In his long musing this week on the Comey Letter, Silver included this curious side-comment:

Everyone from Dianne Feinstein to the New York Times has now acknowledged, over and over again to the point of tedium, that the case was indeed “re-opened” on October 28 (and then closed again on November 6). The fact that leading thought-influencing, data-crunching maestro Nate Silver still can’t even acknowledge this basic detail should indicate that legions of people will never honestly grapple with what transpired. The mythology is virtually intractable at this point.