Follow @csteditorialsIn a healthy democracy, this is basic: Government employees, especially at the highest levels, must never abuse their powers of office to tilt an election.
Yet that is exactly what FBI Director James Comey, out of intent or recklessness, did on Friday. He shoved himself into the U.S. presidential race by announcing to the world that there might be more as-yet-unread emails linked to Hillary Clinton’s private email server and that the FBI is taking “appropriate investigative steps.”
What does that even mean? “Appropriate investigative steps”? It is a statement that says nothing while inviting the worst possible speculation. It is a fact-free bomb thrown at the Clinton campaign in the final days of one of the most important elections of our times.
What Comey has done is inexcusable.
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Comey made his abstruse disclosure — hey, you know, we’re looking at more emails — just 11 days before the Nov. 8 election, leaving Clinton almost no time to respond. He surely must have known that many Americans now would assume the FBI is reconsidering its earlier conclusion that Clinton committed no crimes in her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
On cue, Donald Trump chortled that this is “bigger than Watergate.” Which it is not, obviously, but this is Trump talking. Clinton’s sometimes casual approach to email security rules, out of a desire for personal privacy, did not remotely approach the criminal wrongdoing of Watergate. Clinton was sloppy. Richard Nixon was a crook.
But does it matter? This has been an election impervious to truth. With a week to go before Election Day, Trump and his ethically challenged surrogates will wallow in the mud.
Ironically, Comey’s action overshadowed Newsweek’s disclosure on Monday that Trump’s companies for decades have destroyed or hidden thousands of emails, digital records and paper documents, often defying court orders.
Justice Department officials had warned Comey that releasing his letter about the new emails would undermine longstanding policies — reaffirmed just last March — to stay out of elections. The FBI rarely goes public with new evidence in a case before going through normal legal channels. And no FBI director has ever touched off such a firestorm within days of a presidential election. Such circumspection is written into the 1939 Hatch Act, which says federal employees cannot “use [their] official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or affecting the result of an election.”
Richard W. Painter, chief White House ethics lawyer during part of President George W. Bush’s tenure, has asked the Office of Special Counsel and with the Office of Government Ethics to investigate. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, two former deputy attorneys general and a host of other former federal prosecutors have ripped Comey for his actions.
“I got a lot of respect for Jim Comey, but I don’t understand this idea of dropping this bombshell which could be a big dud,” former federal prosecutor Peter Zeidenberg told Politico. “Doing it in the last week or 10 days of a presidential election without more information, I don’t think that he should because how does it inform a voter? It just invites speculation.”
Even Joe Walsh, the former congressman from Illinois and Tea Party darling, tweeted, “I want Trump to win, but what Comey just did to Hillary Is wrong & really unfair to her.”Over the weekend, FBI agents obtained a warrant to read the emails, which are on the laptop of disgraced former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, the estranged spouse of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin. We don’t know if the emails will turn out to be new. We don’t know if they include sensitive or classified information. And here’s the thing: Comey doesn’t know, either.
We’d love to know what Comey was thinking. Was he honestly motivated by a desire for full transparency? In which case, he should now release all the emails, as the Clinton camp has requested, to end the speculation. Let’s get it all out there.
Or is he a weak man who finally buckled under to Clinton’s most partisan critics? They have been demanding for months that he indict her, facts be damned.
Comey took the low road, telling himself it was the high road, and lost his way.