A recent editorial in the New York Times makes a convincing argument in favor of a special prosecutor to look into Trump’s ties to the Russia campaign — futile, but not wrong. In an epic moment of non-self-awareness, it contains this graf:
James Comey, the embattled F.B.I. director, can’t be trusted to be a neutral investigator, either — not after his one-sided interference in the 2016 election compromised the bureau’s integrity and damaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign in its final days. Anyway, Mr. Comey reports directly to the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who was not only Mr. Trump’s first and most ardent supporter in the Senate, but the chairman of the Trump campaign’s national security advisory committee.
This is, of course, accurate as far as it goes — Comey is a partisan hack who violated clear rules and norms to damage one candidate for president on the one hand while actively running interference for the other candidate who faced more serious allegations on the other, and it is extremely likely that these actions changed the outcome of the election.
The giant weasel in the room, however, is the question of how Comey was able to influence the election the way he did. I have the answer!
If [EMAILS!] sounds far too boring and unimportant to have conceivably dominated the 2016 presidential campaign, then it is difficult to disagree with you. And yet the facts are what they are. Indeed, by September 2015 — more than a year before the voting — Washington Post political writer Chris Cillizza had already written at least 50 items about the email controversy.
Email fever reached its peak on two separate major occasions. One was when Comey closed the investigation. Instead of simply saying “we looked into it and there was no crime,” Comey sought to immunize himself from Clinton critics by breaking with standard procedure to offer extended negative commentary on Clinton’s behavior. He said she was “extremely careless.”
Comey then brought the email story back to the center of the campaign in late October by writing a letter to Congress indicating that the email case had been reopened due to new discoveries on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. It turned out that the new discoveries were an awfully flimsy basis for a subpoena, and the subpoena turned up nothing.
This all still sounds unimportant, but it was not at the time:
- The New York Times dedicated 100 percent of its above-the-fold space to coverage of Comey’s letter to Congress.
- Throughout the campaign season, network newscasts dedicated more time to Clinton’s email server stories than to stories about all policy issues combined.
- Donald Trump’s campaign rallies featured regular “lock her up” chants, centering the email server as the opposition’s main criticism of Clinton.
- Across five television networks and six major newspapers, 11 percent of campaign coverage was stories about Clinton’s email server.
Critically, one useful function of email-based criticism of Hillary Clinton was to pull together the Trumpian and establishment wings of the Republican Party. That’s why it served as the central theme of the 2016 Republican convention, allowing the likes of Scott Walker and Rick Perry to deliver on-message speeches rather than clashing with Trump’s message.
And it’s even worse than this — when the FBI wanted to insulate Trump from the serious questions about Russian attempts to influence the election, the Times was there to put out the FBI’s story on the front page.
The Times was far from the only offender, and probably not the most important one. But it’s pretty rich for the editors to straightforwardly observe that Comey is a hack with no credibility who put his foot on the electoral scale when it has at no point acknowledged its major role in laundering and amplifying Comey’s dirty work.
Needless to say, none of this is a defense of Comey, who horribly abused his office with literally world-historical consequences. But the utter failure of the media to reckon with its accountability for this silly trivia dominating electoral coverage is a serious problem going forward. If you think this can’t happen again to another Democratic candidate, or that there’s some magic trick Democrats can use to ensure that every presidential election is outside the potential ratfucking range, you’re as delusional as the country’s prominent editors are oblivious.