What We Know About Those Damn Emails (Again)

I’ve been reluctant to say too much on the email story that came out last  weekend. Director Comey’s letter provided little information and functioned primarily as an invitation for baseless speculation. Since I did not have any facts to go on, I did not want to add this site to the chorus of speculation. Some more details have emerged, so here are my thoughts on what we know at the moment.

First, the big picture. These two key things were true a week ago and they are still true today:

  1. The FBI conducted an exhaustive review of Clinton’s emails and found no evidence of criminality.
  2. To date, the FBI has not found anything that in any way changes that determination.

This story came about because, in an unrelated investigation into Anthony Weiner, investigators found emails on Weiner’s personal computer belonging to his wife, longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Emails belonging to Abedin could be relevant to the investigation into Hillary Clinton and the State Department. However, it is important to remember, the FBI’s inquiry was not limited to looking into Hillary Clinton. The FBI also examined whether other state department employees were following appropriate precautions. Notably, Comey’s letter does not state how Abedin’s emails are relevant to the investigation.Reports vary on what information may be in the emails on Abedin’s computer and it is possible all the emails relevant to Clinton are duplicates of those previously reviewed by the FBI.

Most notably, at the time Director Comey wrote the letter, the FBI did not have the emails from Abedin and did not even have a warrant to obtain them. Comey’s decision to make a public comment on the investigation was a mistake and against policy. The issue is not that Comey investigated Clinton or authorized further investigation into the email issue after deciding not to recommend an indictment months earlier. Depending on the facts, these could all have been appropriate. What was not appropriate, however, was making a public comment about the investigation when he had no meaningful information less than two weeks before an election. Comey has been rightly criticized by an unusually bipartisan group of people from Eric Holder to Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzalez.

The vagueness of Comey’s letter allows endless speculation. Because the letter said nothing, everything is possible.Since the letter was sent before the FBI even had the emails, there is no way to fact-check even the most absurd conspiracy theories. The Clinton campaign is now in unusual position of pressing the FBI to investigate the emails and quickly to try to clear her name against allegations that may or may not exist. And now, there is the risk this will be breathlessly reported as a pending verdict on whether Clinton is suitable for office.

While the situation is disturbing, a few things suggest that this may not be the bombshell it was immediately expected to be. First, few serious observers actually believe anything of significance will turn up in this investigation because it is extremely unlikely that Clinton acted with the intent necessary to support an indictment. Second, I think the email issue has largely been litigated in the public and in the minds of voters. I suspect polls will dip a little which reflects a drop in enthusiasm among Democrats but they will stabilize. Maybe I am being too optimistic, but I think voters are able to see Clinton’s conduct as a mistake but not a criminal or disqualifying act.Thanks to Comey, a lot is riding on voters’ ability to appreciate this nuance.