This weekend, the New York Times scraped the fresh scabs off Democrats’ wounds from 2016. In an extended piece, the Times provided us with the best account so far of the deliberations inside the FBI as it investigated Hillary Clinton and debated how best to announce the results of that investigation to the public. It should surprise no one that there wasn’t exactly a playbook for handling a serious criminal investigation of a major-party nominee for president, and neither the Department of Justice nor the Federal Bureau of Investigation observed standard operating procedures.
At the beginning, the DOJ toned down its public statements on the Clinton probe, calling it a “matter” rather than an investigation, even as the FBI possessed a document by a Democratic operative that implied that Attorney General Loretta Lynch wouldn’t allow the investigation to derail Clinton’s campaign. When Bill Clinton turned up in Lynch’s airplane, it caused understandable dismay inside the FBI, and Comey became convinced that he should announce the results of the investigation rather than the attorney general.
Later, when potentially relevant e-mails were unexpectedly discovered on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, the FBI faced an agonizing choice: Should it disclose that it had re-opened the investigation?
The question consumed hours of conference calls and meetings. Agents felt they had two options: Tell Congress about the search, which everyone acknowledged would create a political furor, or keep it quiet, which followed policy and tradition but carried its own risk, especially if the F.B.I. found new evidence in the emails.
“In my mind at the time, Clinton is likely to win,” Mr. Steinbach said. “It’s pretty apparent. So what happens after the election, in November or December? How do we say to the American public: ‘Hey, we found some things that might be problematic. But we didn’t tell you about it before you voted’? The damage to our organization would have been irreparable.”
Comey chose to disclose, and the rest is history. Here’s FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver making the succinct case that Comey’s letter to Congress could have turned the election:
Not complicated. Clinton was up by a lot. Comey letter hits. Treated as massive story. Suddenly she was up by not-a-lot. She loses narrowly.
— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) April 24, 2017
In an election this close, it seems foolish to argue that the Comey letter didn’t make some difference, but it’s equally foolish to pretend that lots of other things didn’t make an equal or bigger difference. As for blame? Well, that’s easy:
It was all Hillary Clinton’s fault. All of it.
She made the decision to flout standard practice, sound policy, good sense, and the law by setting up a homebrew server and using a private e-mail for official business, including the sending and receiving of classified information.
She made the decision to lie, repeatedly, about what she’d done.
She made the decision to press forward with her campaign and pressure Democratic leaders (including superdelegates) to join her team while misleading them every step of the way.
She led the Democratic party off the 2016 cliff.
In all these things, of course, she was merely imitating the master manipulator, her own husband. Remember how skillfully Bill Clinton transformed the public debate over his own perjury? Remember how he and his team coaxed a sympathetic press into making the propriety of the investigation the main story, rather than the underlying tawdriness and corruption of his conduct?
This is the Clinton way. This is what they do. They do what they want, when they want, how they want, and then indignantly demand that everyone else conduct themselves with maximum restraint and with complete consideration of the Clinton family’s political goals. In other words, they embrace vice while demanding compliance and cooperation from everyone else, including law enforcement.
In reality, vice tends to leave virtue with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton’s misconduct put the DOJ and the FBI in an impossible position: What do you do when a presidential candidate herself is under known criminal investigation, and when the public is broadly aware of extraordinarily damaging facts about the candidate’s conduct? Do you quietly close it with minimal comment, or do you address the facts? What do you do when you re-open an investigation you publicly closed? These are the choices Hillary forced on the FBI and the DOJ.
There may come a time to more fully evaluate the FBI’s conduct toward the Trump team, but we don’t have nearly enough facts to make the kind of judgments we can make regarding the investigation of Clinton’s e-mail scandal. Clinton evaded prosecution on the strength of her name and through the horrible precedent set by the DOJ’s deal with David Petraeus. She should be grateful that she’s not in prison, not outraged that she’s not president. She brought this all on herself.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.