Election 2016 · James Comey · Political Coverage · Russian Hacking Scandal

Comey, Interrupted

An uncanny confluence of news stories emerged today concerning the impact of FBI Director James B. Comey’s letter to Congress concerning Hillary Clinton’s emails, reported publicly on October 28th, just 11 days before the Election Day last year.

The political news day began with Comey’s vehement defense of his decision before the Senate Intelligence Committee. During his testimony, he argued that he had to choose between one of two possible decisions–concealing his reopening of the investigation, or informing Congress and the public of the new emails discovered on the laptop of former congressman Anthony Weiner–describing the former decision as being “catastrophic.” His voice rife with emotion, he defended his decision to openly inform Congress and expressed frustrated remorse over the possibility that his decision impacted the vote. He said,

It makes me mildly nauseous to think we might have had some impact on the election. But honestly it wouldn’t change the decision.

One can almost hear the world’s most exasperated sigh from a majority of Americans who would likely say that the election of Donald J. Trump, on November 8th, 2016, left them with a case of permanent nausea. Comey’s words minimized the election results that have so far had a catastrophic effect on our nation’s political system–results impacted by his decision to (in his words) avoid a catastrophe. The irony of his words are almost palpable.

Comey’s testimony segued naturally to Nate Silver’s analysis, published today on fivethirtyeight.com, that concluded Comey’s letter, among the many other factors that could have impacted last year’s election, had the most identifiable impact on the election results.

“Hillary Clinton would probably be president if James Comey had not sent a letter to Congress,” he writes, engaging in an earnest analysis into how the letter swung the vote just enough to hand Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona. In the article, he demonstrates that Clinton’s lead, already on a slight decline since mid-October, “cratered” following the release of the letter, and given Trump’s diminutive victories in those swing states, has a high likelihood of having been a deciding factor in handing him the election.

Silver also rightfully scolds the political press for granting excessive attention to the matter that ultimately turned out as having no impact on the original FBI investigation–and while the press likely followed a story they thought to be newsworthy, the constant focus of press coverage and commentary on this nothing burger of additional scandal surrounding the Clinton campaign undoubtedly fanned the flames that Comey ignited. Many mainstream press articles and stories warned about the exhausting press coverage granted to Clinton’s email scandal before and after the election, and they would be correct to incorporate their editorial decisions to grant such extensive coverage to the story as part of their post-election mea culpa.

Comey continued to maintain he would make the same decision despite the fallout being “one of the most painful experiences.” And he may very well be sincere in his defense. His exasperated tone revealed a great deal of pent-up angst finally released before Congress and the public. But Nate Silver has demonstrated that Comey has ample reasons to truly grieve over his decision, and if the FBI’s investigation reveals collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, he and the press both must conclude that they became unwitting vessels for one of the most successful, astounding manipulations of the American electorate ever conducted during a presidential campaign.

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