By Megan McArdle, Bloomberg View
FBI Director James Comey held a press conference Tuesday morning to announce the results of an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. Sorry — make that “servers,” for one of the revelations of the announcement was that there was actually more than one server, more than one administrator, and an attitude towards data handling and records preservation that was, to say the least, breathtakingly insouciant.
Nonetheless, there will be no indictment recommended, for while the FBI found that the individuals involved were extremely careless, Comey says: “In looking back at our investigations into mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.”
What else did the inquiry find? That Clinton sent and received emails about information classified Top Secret/Special Access via her private server. That we don’t really know whether the server(s) was (were) hacked. That normal people caught doing this sort of thing would often face “administrative or security sanctions” — i.e., having their security clearance stripped and/or getting fired or otherwise punished for the violation.
So there we are. Hillary Clinton displayed colossally poor judgment and a breathtaking disregard for the rules that apply to everyone else. She’d be punished if she were not Hillary Clinton, but instead all she gets is a politically embarrassing scolding by the FBI.
Republicans can stop hoping that the FBI is going to ride to their rescue with an indictment. And it looks very like we are going to hand the keys to the oval office to someone who would have had the book thrown at her if she’d been a GS-11.
Could this mean that Donald Trump now has a serious shot at the presidency? Um … no. Perhaps this helps Trump a little bit, on the margin. But I doubt that it does any more than confirm what everyone already thought. Democrats will continue to stick their fingers in their ears and say Lalalalala-I can’t-hear-you-and-anyway-Colin-Powell-did-it-too (he didn’t). Republicans already thought she was a crook. Low-information voters, aka the people who swing elections, will not follow this closely enough to take subtle new insights from the wording of Comey’s statement; they will go forward with the same vague sense that the Clintons are not very ethical people. When they weigh this against their similarly vague sense that Trump isn’t very ethical either, it’s probably a wash.
Especially since Trump is the Republican worst positioned to take advantage of this opening. How many people are going to think that if Trump had been in Clinton’s place, he would have said: “Heavens no, we can’t go having a private server! That would be unethical and strictly against the rules! Put my emails on the State Department system so that it will be open to FOIA!” We’re talking about a man whose dubious real estate seminars targeted parents with hungry kids, who has been sued for fraud more than once, who bans news outlets from his campaign events if he thinks they’ve been too mean to him. This is the man who’s supposed to deliver hard-hitting attacks on Clinton’s honesty and transparency?
In fact, rather than helping Trump, I wonder if this hurts him. Republicans, and especially Trump supporters, have been talking about the indictment the way people on the losing side of major wars start talking about some implausible outside relief, like England getting into the Civil War on the side of the Confederacy. The indictment was never very likely, and now that it has been put to rest, Republicans are going to have to look at Trump’s chances without a deus ex machina to turn the tables for them.
I don’t rate the chances of a Dump Trump movement all that highly, but I have to think that they’re higher today than they were yesterday, simply because Republicans now know that this is all they’ve got. The cavalry is not coming to the rescue. And the infantry’s too busy fighting within their own ranks to mount a successful attack.