Don't Shoot the Messenger
I think a lot of us rolled our eyes when we saw that some Hillary Clinton email thing was back in the headlines again—but not the Clinton campaign. Or many Congressional Democrats. Or even the White House. If Clinton and some of her surrogates had been simmering for months over the email issue, the events of last Friday caused them to flare up in a way little else has.
For any who managed to miss it, what sparked this latest uproar was FBI Director James Comey's decision to inform Congress that his agency had, in the course of an unrelated investigation, happened upon emails that appeared to have passed through Clinton's now-infamous private server.
The FBI had just conducted an investigation into this private server that entailed scanning emails sent through it for any evidence of a concerted effort to flout government secrecy laws, and finding none, closed the case without recommending charges. Last month, when it discovered more emails that seemed to have passed through the server, it did the right and diligent thing by moving to verify whether they had already seen these emails, and if not, whether they contained the evidence they sought in their previous investigation.
After spending more than a year playing it cool vis-à-vis the manufactured "scandal" of her unwise but ordinary email set up, it seems the resurfacing of the issue so close to the election was more than Hillary Clinton and her campaign were willing to take: Clinton herself called Director Comey's advisory to Congress "strange" and "deeply troubling," strong words for such a cautious candidate to use against someone not named Donald Trump—and especially towards a top law enforcement official in a very friendly administration. Other Democratic politicians, for their part, apparently felt no shame in alleging that Comey was trying to influence the election. Even President Obama, through his press secretary, was unwilling to let the issue pass without hinting at his disapproval of the Director.
What the hell?
The way I see it, Director Comey's decision to alert Congress to the fact that the FBI had come across more emails pertinent to the private server investigation—an investigation which he had just testified was closed after a review of all the emails his agency possessed found nothing to justify pressing charges—was a much needed act of transparency in an era when the public feels left in the dark. It was a show of good faith, from the Obama Administration to Congressional Republicans, in a time of deep polarization. I thought Director Comey's decision showed courage and integrity, which is why I find the backlash to it so disheartening.
Even more disheartening than the fact that Democrats are attacking Comey for making a difficult but necessary decision is the way in which they are doing it. Some are impugning his character as feckless and irresponsible, while others disgrace themselves and their offices by suggesting that Comey made the move with political aims. Does anyone really believe that James Comey—by all accounts a very reasonable person—wants to sink Hillary Clinton's bid for president, and hand the White House to Donald Trump? I seriously doubt it, and yet the ugly accusations are flying.
It's not as if their anger is completely without merit; while I fully support Comey's decision to keep Congress in the loop, the cryptic way in which he did it left too much room for speculation. He should have known that hyperbole and lies would fill the vacuum left by his lack of information—which is exactly what Republicans did, with their candidate for president excitedly declaring that the investigation into Hillary's email server had been reopened. It has not, nor has the FBI said anything to suggest it will be.
It's also not as if the entire Democratic Party has gone rabid. Yes, some have eschewed dignity and civility in their quest to avenge what they perceive as an unprecedented attack on their candidate by someone they thought was an ally. But many others are taking a more levelheaded approach, putting forward two serious arguments worthy of consideration.
The first is that Comey's letter to Congress broke with a longstanding precedent by which law enforcement officials do not talk publicly about ongoing investigations, for fear of turning said investigation—which should always be objective and nonpartisan—into a politicized issue. The second is that Director Comey violated the Hatch Act, which makes it illegal for a public official to use their power in a way that influences an election—even if that is not their intent.
Both of these points are important and valid, but I think they are too narrow minded, given the realities of the situation. If I could remember when Congressional Republicans first channeled their obsession with Hillary Clinton into trying to read her every email, I'd be able to tell you how long the issue has been political for. My memory doesn't stretch back that far, but my point is that it's been political since it began, because it was begun for political reasons; I don't think it's even close to fair to say that James Comey politicized the issue by telling Congress that he was properly conducting the ridiculous investigation they all but obliged him to undertake. (And besides, whether it's a bona-fide pursuit of justice or a cynical political witch hunt, I like to think that once it starts an investigation, the FBI will conclude it faithfully and diligently.)
As for the second point, I'm sure we can all agree that public officials should never use their office to influence an election—but then again, what constitutes influencing an election? I don't mean to drown the argument in fake philosophizing, but rather to point out that the world doesn't stop for an election, and neither should law enforcement. It seems clear to me that law enforcement activities should not be curtailed or delayed because of an election, and that there will be situations in which the proper execution of an investigation may result in information about that investigation becoming public right before an election.
Depending on what side of the investigation you're on when that happens, it could feel like an undue influence on the election, but it's far better than letting political events dictate the schedule of justice. Imagine what would happen if, a week after Hillary was elected, the FBI announced that it had been sitting on a previously undisclosed trove of her emails for a month. The outrage would be widespread and all-consuming, and frankly, I'd find it understandable. In a worse scenario, imagine the effect on the public's faith in the coming administration if those emails caused the FBI to reopen an investigation into the president-elect. And finally, what would happen if something in those emails led to criminal charges? Elements on the right would undoubtedly frame the situation as a constitutional crisis, a toxic perception that should be avoided in democracies at almost any cost.
Despite how the Clinton camp evidently feels, there should be relatively little cost to Comey's decision to notify Congress about the newfound emails; for the most part, Hillary's supporters couldn't care less, and everyone who bothered to actually learn about the email issue already knows there's nothing to it. As for those who cling to the words "email" and "private server" as a repudiation of a candidate they so despise—we know their minds aren't changing.
If any real damage comes from these emails, it will be due to their contents, not to their mere existence, and that content would have been examined by the FBI whether Comey sent his note that launched a thousand ships or not. So why don't we all take Friday's news for what it was—a necessary but inconsequential statement of fact—and get this goddamn election over with.
I'm not afraid to call out Hillary Clinton and the Democrats who flew hysterically to her defense because I think this extremely qualified candidate can handle it. I just wish those Democrats would give her the same credit.