The NYTimes today as a fascinating, insightful investigation into FBI Director James Comey’s role in the 2016 election. The article leaves very little doubt that James Comey cost Clinton the election by announcing two weeks before election day that he had reopened an investigation into whether she had mishandled classified information, though it seemed fairly clear that re-opening the case would not have changed the outcome in the case against Clinton. Worse still, James Comey was investigating Donald Trump’s campaign’s ties to Russia at the same time and did not publicly reveal that information, which almost certainly would have swung the election back in Clinton’s favor.
Comey made a series of bad decisions, and much of the anger and resentment directed at him by Clinton supporters is warranted. However, while this in no way excuses Comey’s behavior, I think I understand why Comey did what he did. He wasn’t trying to cost Clinton the election; he was trying to spare Clinton from political fallout after she won the election. Comey — like almost everyone else — believed that Trump didn’t have a shot in hell.
This was the state of things in the weeks before the 2016 election:
— It was the policy of the FBI not to comment on ongoing investigations.
— The FBI was investigating Hillary Clinton for mishandling classified information.
— The FBI was investigating Donald Trump’s campaign for possible ties to Russia.
— President Obama had chosen not to emphasize the connections between Russia and Trump because he didn’t want to risk the blowback from what many on the right would have perceived as a politically-charged investigation
— Donald Trump was running around the country telling everyone that the election was rigged
Ultimately, Comey made the decision he made for reasons similar to why Obama made the decision he made. If Obama had emphasized the Russian connections and Hillary had won, we’d have never heard the end of it. Trump and his supporters would have insisted that the election was rigged, and that President Obama had helped to rig it by playing up what — at the time — sounded like a wild conspiracy theory (it sounds much less so, now, of course).
Meanwhile, Comey went against FBI policy and revealed that the investigation into Clinton had been reopened because if he hadn’t, and Clinton had won — as we had all anticipated — Trump and his supporters would have called into question Clinton’s legitimacy and suggested that Comey covered up the investigation to aid Clinton’s chances.
Comey, however, made two miscalculations: 1) He assumed that Trump could not win (and that his letter wouldn’t have turned the election in Trump’s favor), and 2) more crucially, Comey believed that there was anything he could have done to prevent Trump and his supporters from calling Clinton an illegitimate President. Clinton could have been a perfect candidate and it wouldn’t have stopped Trump and his supporters from calling her legitimacy into question. Hell, Obama was the most scandal-free, ethically upright President we have had since Jimmy Carter, and Trump spent years trying to delegitimize him.
James Comey should not have said anything, not about Clinton and not about Trump, not until he had concluded the investigations. And if he had insisted upon revealing that he had re-opened the investigation into Clinton, he should have revealed the same about the investigation into Trump regardless of whether he believed Trump had a chance of winning. But Comey, like the rest of us, underestimated Trump’s chances. He made decisions based not on fairness to both candidates, but based on the assumption that Trump would lose. Comey, like the media, treated Trump as a reality-show novelty instead of an actual threat to our democracy.
All of which is to say: Comey didn’t want Trump to win; he was just bad at his job.