This presidential election cycle has been marked by a presidential candidate openly declaring war on the media and all too frequent October Surprises (and September Surprises and August Surprises…). With so few days left until Election Day, every bombshell risks potentially changing the minds of voters or swaying the results of the election. Notions of protocol and accountability become all the more important as November 8 approaches.
However, all respect for such accountability and following procedures seemed to be forgotten in the latest October surprise: the revelation that the FBI had began a new inquiry into emails found on a device belonging to Anthony Weiner, ex-Congressman and estranged husband of Huma Abedin, a top aide to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. These emails were discovered during a separate FBI investigation of Weiner’s inappropriate online interactions with a teenager.
Just eleven days before Election Day, James Comey, the director of the FBI, sent a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee notifying them of the agency’s decision to investigate the newly discovered emails.This unprecedented move had been strongly discouraged by top officials in both the Justice Department and the the FBI, including by Attorney General Loretta Lynch. His independent decision went against longstanding governmental practices to not comment publicly about politically sensitive investigations within 60 days of an election. This was also not the first time the director had strayed from the beaten path by dipping his toe in politics. His press conference in July was highly unusual, given the fact that the Department of Justice in the past had always refused to comment on ongoing cases.
The letter quickly reignited the firestorm surrounding Clinton’s use of a private server for emails. Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz was the first to tweet that the case into Clinton’s emails had been “reopened” — when it had not been. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan quickly repeated Chaffetz’s false claim and called that Clinton not be granted any more classified intelligence briefings. That same day, in rallies in New Hampshire, Republican nominee Donald Trump used the same inflammatory language, telling his supporters that the FBI had “discovered new emails and were reopening into the case of her criminal and illegal conduct.”
This distorted spin on the story first started by Chaffetz was immediately picked up by major news outlets including Fox News, NPR, and USA Today, who reported that the FBI had “reopened” the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. All of the three cable news networks also covered the story continuously since it first broke, using the same inflammatory rhetoric and framing the issue as a game-changing jolt to the election.
With another round of email headlines landing on the front pages of major newspapers, many speculated that this would turn voters against Clinton and unearth old conspiratorial claims, although so far there had been no new evidence of wrongdoing. Contrary to suggestions by the GOP and news outlets, the newly found emails had not been withheld by Clinton or her campaign, the emails had not been sent by Clinton and they didn’t not originate from her private server.
Citing an obligation to the American people, Comey has since justified his decision by claiming that it would be misleading to them if he didn’t “supplement the record” on the prior investigation into Clinton’s emails. Others have interpreted this move as a power grab reminiscent of his predecessor J. Edgar Hoover or as an act of personal moral rectitude. In light of both its timing and his own admitted lack of knowledge regarding the full scope of the case, Comey’s decision may have branded him as the FBI Director who, with the single click of a button, lost the trust of millions of Americans and who cracked open the door on intrusion into the once-separate sphere of politics.