We should have known, I guess, that it wasn’t going to be that easy. The woman one third of America thinks is probably a murderer just wasn’t going to waltz her way into the White House, even against Donald Trump. And now, after what FBI director James Comey did Friday, we know that Hillary Clinton is going to have to dig down deeper than she ever has and fight like she never has.
She’s been there before—in February 1992, when a bombshell revelation about Bill Clinton and the Vietnam-era draft looked like it was going to finish him off. But that was as the candidate’s spouse, not the candidate. We’ll circle back to that story, because it has application to this moment.
But first: where does this stand as of Saturday morning. Here’s what we know:
1. How Comey could release such a letter without even having read the emails is astounding. You’ve read by now or at least seen reference to former Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller’s Friday afternoon tweetstorm savaging Comey for violating department protocols by doing something like this so close to an election (60 days out is the usual limit, Miller said). This new information, as Miller noted, might not even involve Clinton. Or it might involve her but be completely benign—some email exchanges with Huma Abedin that has nothing whatever to do with classified information. Comey’s a Republican, of course, and Republicans and conservatives have hammered him every day since he announced no indictment of Clinton back in July. Looks like it worked, even if the move was made to protect himself and his career.
2. Even if you think it was defensible for Comey to do this 11 days before an election, it’s virtually impossible to think that the way he did it was responsible. His letter was vague as to be open to all kinds of dire interpretations, and it’s hard to imagine that wasn’t intentional. The actual, real-life summary of what happened yesterday is: FBI is investigating Anthony Weiner, and there may or may not be some emails on his laptop that have to do with Clinton, and we have no idea how many or what they said. But the wording of Comey’s letter allowed Republicans to exclaim that the FBI had “reopened” its investigation into Clinton, which so far overstates what has happened here. Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and others tweeted that right after they got the letter via email, and it set the tone of the hyperventilating coverage Friday starting around 1 pm.
3. That said, the Clinton campaign pushback in the first 12 hours was hard and effective. I have up on my screen the home pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post. The headlines aren’t just about “New Clinton Email Scandal Erupts,” which one might have expected. The Times leads with how the story “Jolts Race” but also notes that Clinton demanded Friday night that Comey release everything the bureau knows and adds a sidebar that Comey is under fire for his handling of this. The Washington Post home page is even more circumspect, with three headlines saying Clinton urges FBI to explain; Comey under fire; and Clinton campaign blasts decision (a fourth headline emphasized Trump’s delighted reaction). That kind of homepage treatment tells us the phase one pushback was pretty effective in making journalism, after that initial rush, say “hey, wait a minute.”
4. Today, Saturday, is critical. There are a few key questions that need firm answers, questions to which we’ve all read all kinds of answers, depending on who was doing the leaking. One, how many emails to Clinton are we talking about? One reads about “thousands,” but if you read closely that’s a reference to the number of emails on the laptop, not the number from Abedin to Clinton. Was that 100, or 50, or three?
Then there’s this paragraph from the Los Angeles Times write-up Friday: “The emails were not to or from Clinton, and contained information that appeared to be more of what agents had already uncovered, the official said, but in an abundance of caution, they felt they needed to further scrutinize them.” Seriously? Not even to or from her? If that’s true, why are we even hearing about this?
Comey now has to provide answers to all these questions soon. Like today or tomorrow. And then we’ll just have to see. If it’s all benign, I think most of the toothpaste that splattered out Friday afternoon can actually be squeezed back into the tube. And if it’s not, then Clinton may well be in deep trouble.
And what if it’s somewhere in between—if there’s even one email that has the State and intelligence bureaucracies haggling over whether one little kernel of information about opposition groups in Burundi should have been classified? Sometimes, even when there’s only smoke, people die of smoke inhalation. In that kind of circumstance, Clinton will have to step up and frame this conversation the way she needs it to be framed.
This takes us back to 1992. On February 6, exactly 12 days before the New Hampshire primary, The Wall Street Journal broke the story about Bill Clinton’s famous letter to that Arkansas ROTC colonel thanking him for helping him avoid the draft and using that phrase about accepting the risk of being drafted so as to maintain his “political viability.” It was devastating. Clinton’s poll numbers were dropping, as he later recalled, “like a turd in a well.”
Some aides counseled withdrawal, but Bill was having none of that. He campaigned nonstop and told voters in essence, don’t let the media and others decide this for you, and don’t let it be about past actions. It’s about your future. It worked well enough for him to finish second to Paul Tsongas (a near favorite-son candidate), which counted as a moral victory. George Stephanopoulos wrote in his memoir that Clinton persuaded voters that “the best way to strike a blow against the obsession with scandal was to vote for the candidate most plagued by scandal.”
The difference is that the draft letter was 23 years old, while the email story is decidedly not. But the need to shift the conversation in that general direction is very much the same. She’s been tough in this race, as I noted recently. But she’s clearly going to have to get tougher still.