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Comey and the Clinton Rules


We are getting the first reports of Comey’s defense of his history-altering misconduct in October 2016, and I think one element deserves some pushback:

In his new book, Comey all but confirms the Democrats’ complaints. Comey announced he had closed the investigation into Clinton’s private email server, then announced 10 days before the election he was opening it back up again. Why? Because, as many people suspected, he considered Clinton a lead-pipe cinch to win. “It is entirely possible that, because I was making decisions in an environment where Hillary Clinton was sure to be the next president, my concern about making her an illegitimate president by concealing the restarted investigation bore greater weight than it would have if the election appeared closer or if Donald Trump were ahead in all polls,” he confesses. Contemporaneous text messages between agents assigned to the Clinton case confirm that the agency was acting as though Clinton was certain to win.

To interrupt for a second, I have to say I find Comey’s assertion that he was primarily concerned with shielding Hillary Clinton. as opposed to James Comey, from criticism from Jason Chaffetz to, ah, strain the bounds of plausibility. But moving right along…

Without Comey’s intervention, Clinton very likely would have won, as Nate Silver later showed. But the race was close enough that the shock of Comey’s announcement put her small lead in serious danger.

But Comey’s decision can at least be understood, if not defended, by the context in which he operated. The belief that Clinton would certainly win was not reflected in hard-headed data journalism by sources like FiveThirtyEight or the Upshot — which repeatedly emphasized that Trump’s chances were very real — but it was the assumption of reporters framing the campaign.

More importantly, Comey had serious reason to believe that, if he did not pursue the new lead against Clinton, it would haunt both him and her. The Republican Party has spent decades building up a partisan news environment capable of turning nonevents into imagined first-tier scandals. Conservatives spent years whipping up outrage at the “IRS scandal,” which was nothing more than the agency’s attempt to enforce murky campaign finance law against both liberal and conservative activists alike, as a sinister Obama plot to crush his enemies. They did the same with Benghazi, a case of a bureaucracy caught flat-footed by a terrorist attack, which Republicans depicted as a sinister plot to mislead the public, or even worse.

I agree with all this as far as it goes. I don’t think that Comey thought that the letter would change the result of the election. The widespread assumption that Hillary Clinton’s victory was inevitable and Donald Trump was a joke was indeed crucial to Comey’s actions, just as it was crucial to explaining why coverage of a minor Hillary Clinton scandal and a Hillary Clinton non-scandal overwhelmed coverage of the many vastly more serious (and, generally, scandalous in ways of more obvious purient interest) scandals of her opponent.

But there’s a missing piece here. Comey didn’t just believe the media narrative that Clinton’s victory was inevitable; he pretty clearly believe the media narrative that Clinton was a uniquely corrupt and malign candidate.  This is evident not only in his first inappropriate intervention into the election but also in the assumptions surrounding the decision to send the letter that blew up the world.  If you assume (correctly) that by far the most likely outcome is the outcome that happened — i.e. the new trove of EMAILS would be determined to be immaterial and redundant less than two weeks after obtaining the search warrant — then the dilemma Comey thought he was facing vanishes.  Why did Congress have to be informed ex ante about a lead that went nowhere? The dilemma presumably existed because Comey thought there was a real chance the investigation would lead to something, although there was no actual reason to think this. It’s pure Clinton Rules and it’s overwhelmingly likely that it was an important, if subconscious, factor in his decision-making.

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