His announcement last Friday about a fledgling investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails broke with regulations and tradition by thrusting the FBI into the presidential race just days before Election Day. His decision to do so remains something of a mystery, and one plausible explanation was that he was trying to stay ahead of potential leaks that could have been more damaging for Clinton and the FBI. But if that was what Comey was trying to do, it just backfired big time.
CNBC is reporting that Comey and the FBI concluded that “a foreign power [Russia] was trying to undermine the election,” but that Comey decided not to publicize the conclusion because of its potential to affect the election. This is obviously a big deal—a number of national security officials have suggested that Russia is working to influence the results of the election, but the FBI had stopped short of saying exactly that. On October 7, as CNBC notes, it released this, somewhat more tepid announcement:
“The U.S. intelligence community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations…These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.”
It’s also a big deal for Comey, though. Now we know that Comey believed he had to notify Congress (and by extension the American people) about Clinton’s emails, but not Russian attempts to influence the election, the impression that he was irresponsibly intruding into the election will be even harder to scrub away. And ironically, this outcome was precisely what Comey was most likely trying to avoid when he made the announcement on Friday: The FBI being seen as a political tool to be used by one candidate or another.