Hillary Clinton

Welcome to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, Director Comey!

The weekend reactions are both a reminder and a preview of how Clinton handles a scandal.


James Comey
Dennis Brack/picture alliance / dpa/Newscom

You would think FBI Director James Comey had sent his Friday announcement to Congress on Trump-Pence letterhead the way Hillary Clinton and Democrats have responded.

To recap, for the benefit of those who spent the weekend preparing their racially and culturally tasteful and sensitive Halloween costumes instead of following the news: During the course of investigating scandal-tainted Democratic former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner and an accusation he was sexting with a minor, the FBI found hundreds of thousands of emails on a laptop he and/or his likely-soon-to-be-ex-wife Huma Abedin had been using. The metadata suggested that many of these emails might have been sent to or from Clinton's private server.

So now the FBI has to investigate to determine whether any of these emails were classified or were connected in any way to Clinton's previous mess. The letters may turn out to be duplicates or nothing interesting in particular. It seems very unlikely they're going to find any new smoking guns (insert joke about dick pics here). But Comey, after previously declaring that the FBI would not recommend any charges over Clinton's "extremely careless" handling of classified communications, decided to send a brief letter to various leaders in Congress to inform them that the FBI would be reviewing these letters to see if they were at all relevant to their previous investigation. His letter was brief (three whole paragraphs) and did not accuse Clinton of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

But, boy, has that letter opened possibly a bigger can of worms than the Wikileaks email dump somehow. To this outside observer who is completely over the election at this point, Comey's letter looks like a simple ass-covering move so the FBI doesn't get accused of ignoring evidence. But to Democrats and the Clinton camp and some others, that short letter is a full-on assault on the democratic republic and the sanctity of this election.

Over the weekend, dozens of former federal prosecutors signed on to letter criticizing Comey's decision to send the letter, noting:

Director Comey's letter is inconsistent with prevailing Department policy, and it breaks with longstanding practices followed by officials of both parties during past elections. Moreover, setting aside whether Director Comey's original statements in July were warranted, by failing to responsibly supplement the public record with any substantive, explanatory information, his letter begs the question that further commentary was necessary. For example, the letter provides no details regarding the content, source or recipient of the material; whether the newly-discovered evidence contains any classified or confidential information; whether the information duplicates material previously reviewed by the FBI; or even "whether or not [the] material may be significant."

Perhaps most troubling to us is the precedent set by this departure from the Department's widely-respected, non-partisan traditions. The admonitions that warn officials against making public statements during election periods have helped to maintain the independence and integrity of both the Department's important work and public confidence in the hardworking men and women who conduct themselves in a nonpartisan manner.

The Clinton campaign took this call for respect for non-partisan traditions and tossed it right up on their website. Former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. signed on to the letter and also wrote a separate commentary for the Washington Post saying much of the same things. The talking points have been established. This goes against procedure! This is not the way things are done! Even Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld criticized Comey's letter and said Attorney General Loretta Lynch should maybe step in and "order him to stand down" if more information gets leaked.

Of course, law enforcement officials leak information to the press all the time. In fact, that might actually be a problem here that Comey couldn't avoid. The Wall Street Journal reports that there's a feud within the FBI over how thoroughly the Clinton Foundation should be investigated for possible corruption, and there are internal disagreements over whether Clintons is being treated too harshly or too loosely. It's easy to imagine some disgruntled FBI worker leaking this information out, and imagine how much more confused and possibly partisan that kind of coverage might have been.

And it's worth reminding for the umpteenth time that this is all a mess of Clinton's own making, due to her paranoia and obsession with avoiding transparency. This response is entirely in line with this very attitude, as well. They're attacking transparency as something inappropriate and out of line with "respected traditions" that could impact the electoral viability of politicians, which is kind of hilarious and kind of enraging on its own. It's not just journalists obsessed with presenting a completely unrealistic and unbelievable veneer of nonpartisanship. And, needless to say, we won't have dozens of prosecutors signing onto a letter if somebody at the FBI leaks info about you or me or some corporate CEO who has pissed off the wrong government lawyer.

Reliably awful Democratic Party hack and outgoing Sen. Harry Reid took the whole thing to a new, terrible level by accusing Comey of possibly violating the Hatch Act through his "partisan actions," and claimed that Comey was sitting on information about a relationship between Donald Trump and Russia. Former White House lawyer Richard Painter also accused Comey of possibly violating the Act, which bars public officials from attempting to influence the outcome of elections.

Ah, loudly attacking the character of somebody whose behavior may present a threat to Clinton's power. That sounds familiar. This entire reaction should seem like déjà vu to anybody who lived through President Bill Clinton's scandals. Back in the April 2000 issue of Reason magazine, as Bill Clinton's presidency approached its end, Charles Paul Freund explained the five-step process by which the Clintons managed out outlast every scandal that came their way during that presidency. Read Freund's piece and elements of it are eerily familiar. (Declaring that the latest information is "old news"? It's old news.) Note in Freund's a peek at Comey's possible fate:

This White House has responded to every major problem by introducing the character of its critics or opponents–and even its own victims–at the first opportunity, impugning those characters, and questioning motives. To the degree that it could, using allies in Congress and the press or acting directly, it has turned scandal narratives into character melodramas.

The major example of this reflex was the regular slandering of Kenneth Starr as a sex-obsessed maniac. But Starr had plenty of company; Clinton and his allies have tried to smear everybody whom they perceive as a threat. Gennifer Flowers was characterized as a gold-digging slut. Monica Lewinsky was characterized as a nutty stalker. Billy Dale of the White House Travel Office was falsely characterized as personally dishonest. Linda Tripp, thanks to a New Yorkerstory, was falsely characterized as a felon. Kathleen Willey was characterized as a delusional liar. Paula Jones was infamously characterized as trailer-park trash. UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who questioned the administration's resolve to rid Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, was characterized as a petty man jealous of his superiors' limousine perks. House Republicans were characterized as sexual McCarthyites attempting a political coup. Of course, the entire community of Clinton critics was notoriously characterized by Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as "a vast right-wing conspiracy."

This is actually the centerpiece of the Clinton strategy of clogging Washington's scandal machinery: Blunt every threatening story by infusing it with self-serving elements that subsequent press coverage will necessarily include. Hillary's accusation of conspiracy, made in the course of an NBC "interview" conducted by a supine Matt Lauer, was both desperate and ludicrous, and it is likely that almost everyone in the press (and in the White House, too) saw it in just those terms. Yet in the wake of Hillary's NBC appearance, most news-related talk shows devoted at least some time to absurd exchanges around the topic, "Is there a vast right-wing conspiracy?" At a minimum, Hillary's statement bought time; at best, it introduced an explanation for her husband's problems, one consistent with the rest of the Clinton scandal narrative: That he is the innocent victim, year in and year out, of dreadful people with evil motives and low characters.

Indeed, a good part of the discussion is now about Comey's motives, not about the information itself. This, folks, is a very good preview of the kind of administration Clinton will have. Under President Barack Obama we endured condescending lectures to justify the administration's massive expansion of executive and regulatory authority. Under President Hillary Clinton, we may endure condescending lectures telling us why we shouldn't care about whatever stonewalling and her staff may do to keep Americans out of the loop about her behavior.