It’s still to be determined how much impact, if any, the FBI’s unprecedented last-minute actions had on Hillary Clinton’s performance with presidential election voters, who this past week opted to elect her opponent, Donald Trump.
The answer may not be important.
What certainly is, however, is whether the bureau as a whole or its director, James Comey, are allowed to skate in what was one of the most bizarre and outrageous missteps in the history of the nation’s top law enforcement agency — a flagrant abuse of its own policies and proprieties that clearly had the potential for seriously damaging Clinton’s chances.
We now must see how seriously the Congress takes its oversight responsibilities, which in the past have amounted to a slap on the wrist now and then but little more. Actually, in modern times, the FBI has been practically immune from the kind of congressional investigations that other agencies like the ATF and CIA and DEA have faced, even when it’s been clear FBI actions were highly questionable.
Comey’s unfortunate decision to inform Congress just 11 days before the election that he was reopening the Clinton email bruhaha because of potential new evidence found on a computer of one of her top aide’s estranged husband, former congressman Anthony Weiner, broke all the unwritten rules governing such pre-investigation statements — particularly at election time. It gave Trump the chance to claim once again that she was “a crook” and that this was verification. At the time, Trump’s numbers, which seemed to be slipping, bounced back.
Adding to the general condemnation of Comey’s letter to Congress was the fact he said the emails had not yet been vetted. Nine days later, he was back, notifying everyone that a rush job had cleared Clinton and nothing was present in the emails that would cause him to reopen the investigation that he and his Justice Department bosses officially had closed in July. The decision then was much to the fury of Republicans who had spent months beating on Clinton as sorely in need of jail time for mishandling classified information while secretary of state.
Too late. With only two days remaining, the damage had been done. Abject irresponsibility is the only way to describe this incident. One can only deduce that there was a sinister agenda. Comey, after all, in July had done everything he could except indict Clinton in explaining he had not recommended that to Justice, leaving the strong impression that he wanted to.
Meanwhile, someone in the bureau’s New York field office was leaking a false story to Fox News that Clinton’s family foundation was being investigated and that her indictment was imminent. When the story was quickly shot down by other news organizations and Fox correspondent Bret Baier apologized, it was once again too late. The Trump campaign leaped all over it, despite the facts.
Where does all this lead? Throughout the campaign, the now president-elect had called Clinton “Crooked Hillary” and later on promised one of the first things he would do as chief executive would be seeing that she goes to jail. Trump could, of course, appoint through his attorney general — who speculators believe will be former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani — a special counsel to take on that chore. Giuliani has refused to rule out such a step, although it would put the FBI in a hugely awkward position having recommended no prosecution.
It would be difficult to imagine anything that would do more damage to the healing process. Few actions would certify more that this unlikely occupant of our highest office truly is an insincere vindictive nightmare.
Most of the voters, including many of those who supported him, don’t believe he is qualified for the job. He will now have to be willing to make the kind of accommodations to all segments of our body politic that proves otherwise.
What does need to be made clear is that the FBI is not an independent agency, a national police force outside the control of even the president. J. Edgar Hoover, over the decades he ran the bureau, fostered this notion, and several of his successors have left that impression. The result has been an institution arrogant in its dealings and oblivious to its own shortcomings.
It seems imperative that steps be taken to prevent this kind of unfair and dangerous tragedy from ever happening again. Since it is probably too late for this Congress and this president, it shouldn’t be for the next. Republicans have as big a stake in this as Democrats.
Dan Thomasson is a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.