The Comey Effect: The FBI Director's Meddling in the Election Dominates the News While Clinton Focuses on Turning Out Voters

There has not been a presidential October surprise like the “Comey Effect” for decades; an out-of-the-blue development that threatens to rock the race's finale.

Since Friday’s release of FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress saying the FBI was interested in emails from ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton found on an aide's computer, there’s been far more chaos than clarity, and more questions than answers.


Did Comey really believe if he didn't tell Congress, FBI agents (many of whom support Donald Trump) would have leaked it, as his defenders said? Didn’t Comey not just break federal rules about commenting on investigations and interfering in elections, as Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid raised in a letter to the FBI director, but more insidiously is hiding evidence that Trump has been helped by the Russian government?

The Comey Effect, as analyst Larry Sabato is calling it, is dominating the race’s final week. The focus has turned away from the candidates and the stakes, including yet more mundane evidence that Trump's words and promises are worthless, as evidenced by Monday’s disclosure that he’s not paying his pollster almost $1 million that's owed.

Clinton's campaign is holding steady and pushing its message that Trump is unqualified in every imaginable way. It has a big ground force compared to Trump, and is in gear from coast to coast, where its surrogates are pushing people to ignore the noise and vote.

“Already, over 20 million people have voted, which is an all-time record this early in the voting process,” campaign manager Robbie Mook wrote, seeking more volunteers. “The fact that battleground states have that name [is] for a reason—the result will be incredibly close and the presidency could hinge on the outcome.”

The Comey Effect

Still, the relentless Comey coverage “has already had an impact,” Sabato and his colleagues wrote Monday, in an assessment that mentioned other noteworthy factors driving voters. Their bottom line is that Clinton is favored to win.

“Polls were tightening a bit before this, mainly due to some reluctant Republican partisans returning home at the end to their party’s ticket,” they wrote, before delivering some instructive comments on media dynamics. “We also need to remember something that has defined this race: The candidate in the spotlight, except for the convention period, has generally suffered in the polls. After the conclusion of the third debate, the focus seemed to move back to Clinton, as negative headlines about the Affordable Care Act and the daily trickle of sometimes embarrassing emails from WikiLeaks’ John Podesta treasure trove accumulated. This took the focus off of Donald Trump and put it on Clinton—and the Comey Effect has kept the spotlight on her.”

“Republicans will thrill to the Comey Effect. Democrats will heatedly denounce it. Yet it is real and impossible to ignore,” they said. “As of this writing (Monday afternoon), Clinton leads in every national poll now except for the controversial University of Southern California/Los Angeles Times panel, a survey that has had a pronounced Republican lean the entire cycle. Some of the national polls, though, are very close.”

The extent to which the latest FBI email fray is affecting voters remains to be seen. There have not been enough battleground state polls since Friday to get an accurate picture. On the other hand, it does appear that Democrats are facing an increasingly uphill fight to regain a Senate majority. The biggest money PACs supporting Democrats unexpectedly gave $2 million to the Wisconsin race of ex-Sen. Russ Feingold, who is seeking to return to the Senate. That signals a race that was thought to be a sure bet is in play.

A half-dozen other Senate races are considered toss-ups, meaning they could go either way—in Nevada, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Indiana, North Carolina and New Hampshire. One dynamic in Senate races is that many Republicans who don’t want to vote for Trump are inclined to support Senate candidates as a check on what they see as an inevitable Clinton White House.    

The FBI and the Trump Campaign

Right now, however, it appears that the FBI controversy will dominate the campaign's close. That’s because it raises so many issues that go beyond Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Comey’s action poses additional questions, like why didn’t Attorney General Loretta Lynch order him to stand down? Or if she didn’t want to interfere in a hyper-politicized case, why didn’t she ask the DOJ's internal ethics office to oversee the matter?    

The most alarming questions come in Reid's letter to Comey, where he accused the FBI director of violating federal laws that bar electioneering and said the the FBI was covering up evidence that Russia is helping the Trump campaign.

"In my communications with you and other top officials in the national security community, it has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisers, and the Russian government—a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States, which Trump praises at every opportunity," Reid wrote. "The public has a right to know this information. I wrote to you months ago calling for this information to be released to the public. There is no danger to American interests from releasing it. And yet, you continue to resist calls to inform the public of this critical information."
 
The FBI itself is seen as a bastion of Trump support among federal agencies, adding another dimension to the stew of motives surrounding Comey. It is among the whitest of federal agencies, the most male-dominated, and the most sympathetic to any candidate who reflexively sides with “law and order” policies and the police. The demographics of Trump supporters track with the overall cohort of FBI agents who are whiter, older, male and conservative.  

“The agency’s elite law-enforcement roster is 4.5 percent black, down from 5.7 percent in 1998 and 5.1 percent in 2008. Another 6.8 percent of special agents are Latino, down from 7.1 percent in 1998 and 7.9 percent in 2008, according to bureau statistics,” said a 2015 report by the Marshall Project, which covers criminal justice. That same report said FBI agents were 83.3 percent white. These percentages are much less diverse than America as a whole.

“The media treat the FBI like it’s a sacrosanct agency. They are a far-right-wing agency,” said a public defender who didn’t want his name used because of his clients, who "are a lot of white people who are very conservative. The FBI is uniquely right-wing.”  

That point was made by some of Comey’s defenders, who said Trump-supporting agents would have leaked the developments in the case had Comey not written to Congress.

“It is plausible, even likely, that had Comey not made some kind of statement, the information would have leaked in a manner far more harmful to Clinton,” wrote Jack Goldsmith and Benjamin Wittes for lawfareblog.com. On the other hand, Comey’s involvement raised the issue’s profile much higher than an anonymous leak, like the anti-Clinton Wikileaks disclosures this fall.

Consider the Source

It’s important to note that virtually every detail that has become front-page news in recent days that was not in Comey’s vague letter to Congress is the result of illegal leaks. Sunday’s news a search warrant had been issued for Huma Abedin’s computer, for example, is supposed to be kept secret. So is Monday’s news that Abedin’s emails are being screened to determine if they are duplicates of what the FBI has already seen, which Comey said in July did not rise to the level of justifying a prosecution.

That was another case of things Comey should not have been talking about. The reason the Justice Department has a rule barring public statements about investigations, and especially anything that can affect election outcomes, is because of what is unfolding now: it smears candidates and diverts attention from the candidates' flaws and qualifications for office.

How much this latest deluge of innuendo and incomplete information will affect voter decisions and turnout remains to be seen. The Clinton campaign is hoping that Americans know more than enough about Trump and why they should elect her president instead. But Trump and the GOP are hoping it will discourage Democrats from voting and help retain their Senate majority.

Meanwhile, the impact of Reid's letter accusing the FBI of covering up a Russia-Trump axis is another wild card, one that echoes the deal Ronald Reagan cut in 1980 with Iran to delay the release of American hostages until after Election Day.

"If Reid is right, then James Comey is guilty of something that goes far beyond just using his office to provide a competitive advantage to a candidate," the Daily Kos' Mark Sumner wrote. "Comey is using the full weight of the FBI to swing the election to a man he knows is in service to a foreign power."

By midweek, there should be new polls to determine what the Comey Effect is doing in battleground states. The speculation will be replaced by actual measurements of just how disruptive the FBI director's unilateral actions are. 

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