In a normal election, with a typical Republican candidate, Tuesday morning’s remarks by FBI Director James Comey would have instantly translated into an electoral strategy. Comey recommended that Hillary Clinton not be indicted over her email scandal, but his press conference was nevertheless a brutal one for the presumptive Democratic nominee, a catalog of potentially disqualifying mistakes. Clinton was “extremely careless” with classified emails, Comey said; she “should have known” not to house those emails on unprotected servers; and, perhaps most importantly, she put state secrets at risk.
For any Republican presidential candidate not named Donald Trump, this would have been enough. From now until November 7, the campaign would air clips of Comey’s remarks accompanied by ominous minor-key music. Even Clinton-leaning voters would have a hard time not seeing something disturbing about the director of the FBI labeling a presidential candidate irresponsible. Indeed, Senator Marco Rubio essentially hit upon this strategy in this statement, which ignored the fact that the FBI decided not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton.
“The FBI concluded what many Americans have known for quite some time, which is that Hillary Clinton’s conduct as Secretary of State and her mishandling of classified information was disgraceful and unbecoming of someone who aspires to the presidency,” he said. “There is simply no excuse for Hillary Clinton’s decision to set up a home-cooked email system which left sensitive and classified national security information vulnerable to theft and exploitation by America’s enemies. Her actions were grossly negligent, damaged national security and put lives at risk.”
And yet there’s every reason to think that Trump is about to let Clinton off the hook. He’ll continue to call her corrupt, of course, and Comey’s remarks will lead him to double down on his preferred nickname, “Crooked Hillary.” (Like The B Sharps, Trump likes nicknames that sound witty at first, but become less funny every time you hear them.) But the strategy that Rubio grasped intuitively will elude the Republican nominee. Not because he isn’t clever enough, but because Trump is incapable of delivering a sharp, precise jab when there’s a chance to go conspiratorial—thereby falling into the same trap that Clinton’s right-wing critics have been falling into for years.
The far-right fringe has been calling for Clinton to be jailed since the mid-’90s, and Trump has picked up their whistle, repeatedly saying—months before Comey’s speech—that she should be sent to prison. He has fundraised off a promise, if elected president, to ask the attorney general to indict her. So it’s no surprise that on Tuesday morning, rather than focus on Clinton’s lack of judgment, Trump went full Drudge by appealing to his party’s radicalized majority rather than the rest of the country.
Less than an hour after Comey spoke, Trump tweeted, “The system is rigged. General Petraeus got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment.” (Gen. Petraeus knowingly provided classified information to his mistress; Clinton did not knowingly provide classified information to anyone.) Moments later, he again tweeted about the rigged system:
And on Tuesday afternoon, he released a statement on “Hillary Clinton’s judgment and the rigged system” that focused primarily on the latter:
Because of our rigged system that holds the American people to one standard and people like Hillary Clinton to another, it does not look like she will be facing the criminal charges that she deserves.
Bill Clinton didn’t accidentally run into the Attorney General on the airport tarmac last week in Phoenix. Hillary Clinton didn’t accidentally sneak into the FBI during one of the country’s biggest holiday weekends to testify on her illegal activities, something that wouldn’t be afforded to others under investigation (and on a Saturday of all days). It was no accident that charges were not recommended against Hillary the exact same day as President Obama campaigns with her for the first time.
Folks—the system is rigged. The normal punishment, in this case, would include losing authority to handle classified information, and that too disqualifies Hillary Clinton from being President.
This is a tactical blunder for several reasons. By making Comey one of the many alleged riggers of the system, Trump has made it difficult for himself to credibly use Comey’s damaging criticisms as attacks. And he hasn’t just exaggerated Clinton’s wrongdoing; he’s attempted to weave it into an incoherent argument about the “rigged system” from which she supposedly benefits. To Trump, the lack of an indictment is proof that he is right about a host of other supposedly “rigged” issues, like trade. Here’s Trump in a recent speech:
The people who rigged the system for their benefit will do anything–and say anything —to keep things exactly as they are.
The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing will ever change.
The inner cities will remain poor.
The factories will remain closed.
The borders will remain open.
The special interests will remain firmly in control.
While comparisons between Trump and Bernie Sanders rarely pass muster, the real estate magnate’s wailing about a rigged system does, in the broadest strokes, recall the Vermont senator’s critique of an American economic system that’s set up to benefit elites; at times, this rhetoric also recalls potential Clinton vice presidential pick Elizabeth Warren. But the problem with Trump’s argument is that it’s less about specific antagonists or legislation and more about shadowy actors and cabals. It’s not a radical version of an argument with mainstream appeal—it’s an attempt to wedge a radical argument (that Clinton has rigged the system specifically in her favor) into an argument with mainstream appeal (that there are larger economic forces at work that are screwing over American workers). There’s a reason Sanders didn’t want to talk about Clinton’s “damn emails”: Her emails have no connection whatsoever to deindustrialization, or TPP, or a host of other issues that actually matter in this election. But they do expose flaws in Clinton’s decision-making—something Trump’s broad-brushed attacks obscures.
From Whitewater to Vince Foster to Travelgate to Benghazi, the far right has continued to make the same mistake with the Clintons. In every instance, there is plenty of evidence that the Clintons at least exercised bad judgment. In none of these instances was that judgment necessarily “disqualifying,” though it very much should have been a subject of debate. But in every instance, instead of focusing on the Clintons’ carelessness or recklessness, the right vastly inflated it: run-of-the-mill scandals got blown up into House of Cards–level dramatics.
One of the many ironies of Hillary’s old, widely mocked claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her and her husband is that both of them have, in a perverse way, benefited from the conspiracy theories that so often surround them: Overstated attacks often provoke sympathy and outrage from the general public, insulating the Clintons from more precise, and potentially damaging, criticisms. Trump’s fan fiction about Hillary might delight the thousands who proudly display “Hillary for Prison” bumper stickers on their cars and think that 13 Hours is a documentary, but he should take a closer look at what happened in the 1990s. The impeachment scandal proved that many voters are either turned off by over-the-top attacks or catch a big whiff of bullshit.
By focusing so intently on criminality, Trump effectively moved the conversation surrounding Clinton’s use of a private email server from being about her judgment to being about an indictment. Bad judgment, for Trump and for so many of the Clinton’s most rabid critics, is never enough: There is always a larger conspiracy, covering up a larger evil. In doing so, Trump made the email furor look like a political witch hunt, which it was, and which further distracted from the serious questions that the episode raises about Clinton. There never should have been any expectation that Clinton would be indicted; as Comey said on Tuesday afternoon, “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” And yet, Trump seized on the most improbable outcome and decided it was the only just one. It’s red meat for his most rabid followers, and unappetizing to everyone else.
But Trump is hardly a lone actor here. His attack strategy is merely an amplification of the one employed for decades by the very party that has only grudgingly accepted him. For all of the talk about Trump destroying the GOP, he found success in the primary not by tearing up the Republican playbook but by exaggerating it: racial dog whistles became outright racism, “illegals” became “rapists,” and Muslims became radical Islamists by default. So it was only a matter of time before Trump reached the playbook’s long anti-Clinton chapter, which was already conspiratorial to the Nth degree, and made it even more sensational. It’s perhaps the only thing he is legitimately great at.