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Witcover: Comey's colossal blunder

Sometimes, the best of intentions lead to calamity. That is the case in FBI Director James Comey's unfortunate report to Congress that another trove of discovered emails might -- just might -- have some bearing on Hillary Clinton's use of her private server as secretary of state in the first Obama presidential term.

In alerting not only the congressional investigative committees but also the American public only days before the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Comey has unleashed a political hornet's nest that could affect the outcome.

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His action has triggered outrage from Ms. Clinton and her campaign and reinforced rival Donald Trump's allegations of a rigged election process. It all happens without an iota of factual evidence that the new batch of emails are relevant to Ms. Clinton's tenure at the State Department or thereafter.

At a minimum, Mr. Comey has sidestepped a longstanding Justice Department policy against commenting on any ongoing investigation. He has defended doing so on grounds he considered himself obliged to clarify the situation after having earlier ruled that the investigation was complete.

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Apparently, however, the only obligation he had was to himself, wishing to demonstrate that he remained above-board in reporting at the time that he had found no basis for legal action against Ms. Clinton for improper use of classified material. With some 650,000 new emails from the computer of former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner to sift through -- to determine if any pertain to the Clinton case -- it seems a herculean if not impossible task for FBI personnel to complete a review before Election Day, now less than a week away.

Mr. Weiner, the estranged husband of Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's closest personal and campaign aide, is being investigated for indecent texts allegedly sent to a minor. Whether any of the emails have anything to do with Ms. Clinton remains unestablished. So it is hard to see why Mr. Comey felt obliged to take the action he did at the critical end of this riotous presidential campaign.

Mr. Comey's old boss, former Attorney General Eric Holder, has been quick to deplore his action while adding: "I served with Jim Comey and I know him well. ... He is a man of integrity and honor. I respect him. But good men make mistakes.

"In this instance, he has committed a serious error with potentially severe implications. It is incumbent upon him -- or the leadership of the department -- to dispel the uncertainty he has created before Election Day. It is up to the director to correct his mistake -- not for the sake of a political candidate or campaign but in order to protect our system of justice and best serve the American people."

That advice, however, is easier said than done. How can Mr. Comey or anyone else put this particular cat back in its box, or produce in a timely manner the information in so many emails as Ms. Clinton and her campaign and Mr. Trump and his campaign have demanded?

Given the nature of Ms. Clinton's voter support, built among women desirous of breaking the glass ceiling by electing a woman with a clear liberal Democratic agenda, it seems less likely to be seriously diminished by this latest unspecific email data dump.

But among the Trump target electorate swelled by dislike or mistrust of Ms. Clinton, Comey's ill-timed notice to Congress that there may be more to come may persuade more undecided voters and Republican loyalists reluctant to swallow Mr. Trump finally to get aboard his campaign.

Mr. Trump himself, who once loudly criticized Mr. Comey for his earlier failure to seek an indictment of Clinton and who personally pledged to throw her in jail if he is elected next Wednesday, now uses this latest suggestion of scandal as a major rallying cry for his own get-out-the-vote effort across the country.

President Obama, struggling to get the whole controversy behind him without weighing in, is essentially opting out. His press secretary says the president neither condones nor criticizes his FBI director's action. Nevertheless, at a minimum Mr. Comey warrants a reprimand from his boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, for breaching the longtime Department of Justice policy of discussing any details of an ongoing investigation until it is completed.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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