Although Donald Trump was closing fast before FBI Director James Comey told Congress that his probe of Hillary Clinton’s emails was back on, history likely will point to this news as the tipping point in what now increasingly looks like a Trump victory.
Why was this the straw that broke the camel’s back? What’s in those emails, and what does it mean to everyday Americans? Good questions all, but we’re unlikely to find the answers anywhere near the newspaper that brought down Richard Nixon.
For The Washington Post, it’s all about Comey. He is “damaging democracy,” wrote two former Justice Department lawyers in a Post op-ed. He gave in to “shameful partisanship,” because he’d been “intimidated by Republicans” to reopen the investigation, according to columnist E.J. Dionne.
He had violated Justice Department policy “and tradition” to avoid doing anything to influence an election, former Attorney General Eric Holder wrote in a Post op-ed. Moreover, Comey had not cleared this with superiors. His letter is vaguely worded. It allowed “misinformation to spread,” although what misinformation is not detailed.
Comey’s decision “to cast last-minute shade over Hillary Clinton, based on emails he and his agents had not even read, was appallingly unfair,” wrote Eugene Robinson in his Post column. It made a Clinton landslide, “the ideal outcome,” he said, “less likely.”
Those are opinion writers, but the front page story was entitled, “FBI chief draws storm of protests.” The question is not, “What do these emails reveal about the woman who wants to control the launch codes?” Rather it’s, “What did Comey know about Justice Department tradition and when did he know it?”
The editorial page led with a piece entitled, “Take a deep breath,” and urged readers to “remember what’s important.” And it’s not those emails. It’s getting Hillary Clinton elected.
It is tempting to point out that this is the American liberal experience in a nutshell. It’s not that Hillary Clinton spent her time as secretary of state off the government grid so she could sell access and policy outcomes through the Clinton Foundation.
It’s not that she has done everything in her, President Obama’s and Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s power to prevent her emails from coming to light—up to and including BleachBitting her illegal homebrew server and using a hammer on her Blackberry. It’s not that, in the process, she exposed the country to perhaps the most serious breach of national security in history.
It’s not even that those 33,000 supposedly lost emails might finally come to light and give the final word on whether she is fit to be president.
It’s that Comey violated Justice Department “tradition” when he told Congress the investigation he’d said was more or less over was, in fact, on again with significant new evidence.
But look, a squirrel. And Bush lost 22 million emails (which, are, in fact, archived). And Putin loves Trump, and Trump loves Putin. And what a shame Comey had to politicize the FBI and that all those agents are quitting because Comey won’t lay off of Clinton.
It speaks highly of Comey that he has had nearly everyone mad at him at one point or other. He delivered some juicy quotes at his press event in July and subsequent congressional testimony, and he cut off a number of lines of retreat for Clinton. But he did not recommend indictment, which enabled her supporters to point out that for all the money and time spent investigating her, he wasn’t able to make a case.
Now, he knows he’s sitting on a bombshell but had told Congress he’s done investigating. What was he to do? Spring this on us in December or January, when we’re stuck with a president under indictment and a vice-president who has categorically underwhelmed on the campaign trail? Talk about not accepting the results. Who would accept those?
And what if the tables were turned, and it was allegations against Trump that came to light? Would Hillary supporters be concerned with Justice Department “tradition” then?
Comey is in uncharted waters. We’ve never had a presidential candidate so mired in scandal yet still within striking distance in an election.
But The Washington Post and other media outlets are in uncharted waters as well. They’ve spent millions upon millions of dollars and decades upon decades building reputations as elite news-gatherers who would rather be first, correct and sometimes even prescient than to be seen as advocating for one candidate or another. The email revelations would have set off a feeding frenzy to see who could report first and most in depth on what was in them.
That’s not happening because, in 2016, they decided Donald Trump was beyond the pale. They had their basket of deplorable insults—racist, misogynist, tax dodger, etc.—and they never even thought about taking seriously Trump or the movement he’s created.
They mocked him and his supporters. They apologized for Hillary’s every misstep, got their stories approved by her campaign, shamelessly fronted campaign attack lines and inflated her numbers in their polls to create a sense of inevitability.
And they absolved themselves of all of it by contending it was in the service of making sure this potty-mouth vulgarian with the anti-establishment ideas never came close to reaching the gates.
The aftermath won’t be pretty for them, even if they somehow get Hillary over the finish line. Readers have to trust that a news organization like the Post recognizes and reports on actual news in a somewhat balanced way. If those 33,000 emails are finally surfacing, and you’re focusing on Comey’s violation of Justice Department “traditions,” you’re not finding the right stories. And your readers know it.