Hillary Clinton had not planned to spend the closing week of the year-and-a-half presidential election waging war with the director of the FBI. Yet, after James Comey vaguely announced the discovery of new emails that may or may not have been pertinent to its previous investigation into Clinton’s private email account, her campaign concluded it had no other option. As Donald Rumsfeld once said, you go to war with the army you have.
In interviews with Democrats in and around the campaign since Comey’s announcement, The Huffington Post found that none second-guessed the decision to ratchet up the attacks on the FBI director for interjecting the bureau into an election so close to Election Day ― a move that breaks from Department of Justice precedent. Not only was the criticism morally justified, they argued, it was the only prudent political option.
“I don’t think they have any choice but to go hard after him. If they didn’t do that, the story would be dictated by [Donald] Trump and the misleading attacks that he has launched off of it,” said Tad Devine, a top strategist to the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
Still, as the pressure on Comey heightened over the weekend, there was concern that the Clinton campaign’s reaction could boomerang in damaging ways.
“They have a legitimate grievance in that Comey, in an apparent effort to protect his reputation and that of his bureau, intruded on the race in an awkward and potentially prejudicial way,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Barack Obama aide and CNN commentator. “But pushing it too far, by implying that he had the intent to put his finger on the scale, would be risky, particularly in light of their past, laudatory statements.”
I don’t think they have any choice but to go hard after him Tad Devine on the Clinton campaign's attacks on FBI Director James Comey
Clinton’s campaign against Comey comes with pitfalls. There is the risk of looking craven because, as Axelrod notes, people in and around the campaign praised the FBI director’s conduct in past moments. There is also the risk of elongating a story that the campaign would rather have go away entirely. (Democrats may be changing the subject from Clinton’s conduct to Comey’s, but the conversation still revolves around an FBI investigation.)
And then there is the risk of blowback. One worry in Democratic circles is that the FBI will selectively leak information to justify the investigation, thereby producing a continuous drip of context-free stories. A Wall Street Journal item on Sunday, detailing the discovery of the potentially related emails on the computer shared by Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), is seen as an illustration of what might happen when Comey comes under siege.
“They didn’t have any choice but to go after Comey,” said Matthew Miller a former spokesman for the Department of Justice and a vocal critic of Comey. “What he did put them in a terrible situation in which there was no way for them to respond on the underlying substance because no one knows what it is. The FBI seems to be already retaliating with leaks, but based on their track record so far, they probably would’ve done that anyway.”
Inside the Clinton campaign, these risks are appreciated. But they are underwhelming when placed alongside the other (non-existent) options. Comey’s letter on Friday left aides blindsided. Abedin, aides say, is unclear how her emails ended up on the computer, and even the FBI hadn’t been given access to review the emails when the letter was sent. Without the ability to point to exonerating evidence, the Clinton team felt the need to turn the saga into a process story.
Part of the calculus was to rally Clinton’s base of voters, who otherwise would have been deflated by the latest email drama. But part of it was also a sense of aggrievement with how Comey handled matters.
The campaign moved swiftly. After the Comey letter dropped on Friday, the Clinton team put out a statement from chairman John Podesta and had surrogates fan out on the airwaves. Saturday morning, it held a press briefing with Podesta and campaign manager Robby Mook, this time calling more explicitly for more information from Comey about the case. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus held an event in Ohio to make a similar case. Clinton brought up the news on the stump. The campaign put out a video “fact-checking” the claims being made about the latest email revelations. And it blasted out op-eds critical of Comey, including one from his former boss, Attorney General Eric Holder.
The biggest pushback came Sunday. The campaign organized a letter signed by former federal prosecutors criticizing Comey. Also, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote a blistering letter to Comey, accusing him of violating the Hatch Act, suggesting he was sitting on information tying Trump to Russia, and arguing that he had violated the faith and trust of those lawmakers who had confirmed his nomination.
“We’re not worried,” a Senate Democratic aide said of the collective pushback against Comey going too far. Asked if there was any hesitation in Reid writing Comey, the aide replied, “No.”
Monday brought some indication that the Clinton campaign’s strategy was working. Several Republican officials, including ones comically critical of Clinton in the past, publicly questioned Comey’s decision. Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general under George W. Bush, called the FBI director’s decision “a mistake.” This proved, one Clinton aide argued, that all sides agreed that Comey’s “actions were an indisputable breach of protocol, especially given he didn’t know the facts behind these emails.”
That is certainly optimistic spin at this point. Comey may well be under a harsh spotlight now. But it’s hard to see this playing out as a net positive for Clinton: Even if she were exonerated before the election, voters have absorbed the initial headlines and her critics will point to that exoneration as evidence of a system rigged against Trump. And should Comey say nothing at all until Nov. 8, then it is left to the voter to sort out the story between the initial letter and the subsequent leaks.
But Clinton had no other option. You go to war with the army you have.
“I think it is the only card they can play, but a bad hand nonetheless. Comey has mishandled this since July, but he isn’t dumb. He didn’t do this for fun. I doubt he is voting for Donald Trump, and he has a 10-year term,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic operative. “So not a great situation for us, and the polls were tightening before now. We need another debate!”