At a surprise press conference in Washington D.C. on Tuesday morning, F.B.I. Director James Comey announced that the bureau would not recommend criminal charges against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for her mishandling of classified information during her tenure as President Obama’s secretary of state. But in the same statement, Mr. Comey, a former federal prosecutor, blasted Mrs. Clinton for her “extremely careless” management of classified data, lending credence to her critics’ claims that she is untrustworthy and unfit to serve as president.
Although there is evidence of potential violations of the statutes regarding the handling of classified information, our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.
– F.B.I. Director James Comey
There was something in Mr. Comey’s statement for everyone. For Mrs. Clinton’s backers, the non-indictment vindicated her conduct, demonstrating that the candidate’s critics have made far too much of what was really a simple mistake. To her opponents, however, the substance of the statement confirmed a long-standing pattern of dishonesty from the Clinton campaign and Mrs. Clinton herself with respect to her handling of closely-held national secrets.
The Republican Party wasted no time in responding to Mr. Comey’s announcement, tweeting a video juxtaposing Mrs. Clinton’s early claim that she “did not email any classified material” with Mr. Comey’s finding that “110 e-mails in 52 email chains […] contain[ed] classified information at the time they were sent or received.” Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump also weighed in, pointing out Mr. Comey’s decision as stark evidence of the “rigged” system which he has railed against throughout his campaign:
The system is rigged. General Petraeus got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 5, 2016
Among the highlights of his address, Mr. Comey revealed that during the course of its investigation, the F.B.I. came upon “several thousand” work-related emails which Mrs. Clinton had failed to turn over. Three of these emails contained classified information, but Mr. Comey emphasized that investigators “found no evidence that any of the additional work-related e-mails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them.”
The F.B.I. director also disclosed the bureau’s findings regarding the safety of the classified information housed on Mrs. Clinton’s server—saying that it was “possible” that hostile governments or individuals had accessed the unsecured data—and in an unusual intra-bureaucratic strafe, slammed the State Department for a “security culture” which was “lacking in the kind of care for classified information found elsewhere in the government.”
None of these e-mails should have been on any kind of unclassified system, but their presence is especially concerning because all of these e-mails were housed on unclassified personal servers not even supported by full-time security staff, like those found at Departments and Agencies of the U.S. Government—or even with a commercial service like Gmail.
– F.B.I. Director James Comey
The political fallout from Mr. Comey’s recommendation is unclear. Allies of Mrs. Clinton, including David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist with long-standing personal ties to the Clinton family, seem to think the non-indictment will strengthen her campaign, but more clear-eyed pundits disagree. Had the F.B.I. recommended an indictment, she likely would have been forced to step out of the Democratic race, permitting a less-flawed candidate to take her place and deal a knock-out blow to Donald Trump. But by escaping indictment, Mrs. Clinton has handed months-worth of ammunition to the Trump campaign and Republican political operatives, who will have their work cut out for them as they seek to portray her as a corrupt elitist who cannot be trusted with the presidency.
— David Axelrod (@davidaxelrod) July 5, 2016
But Republicans also have to face the possibility that a world in which Mrs. Clinton is no longer under federal investigation will be less hospitable to their critiques. With a dramatic overthrow of the Democrats’ presumptive nominee upon her indictment off the table, the news media will move on from this email issue onto others which can generate higher ratings. Additionally, with so many vulnerabilities to exploit, the GOP risks overplaying its hand, launching broad, unfocused attacks which do little to tarnish Mrs. Clinton’s public image. In a post on FiveThirtyEight, a data-driven news site, moments after the F.B.I. press statement, statistical guru Nate Silver diagnosed this exact problem:
In a weird way, Trump has in microcosm the issue that Clinton usually has with Trump: There are so many ways to attack that maybe you get flustered and aren’t particularly effective because you have trouble picking the right one. You can attack on email on grounds including trustworthiness, security risks, the system being rigged, Clinton being above the fray, etc. But if you do all four at once, it just seems like kind of a muddle.
In order to derive the maximal benefit from Mrs. Clinton’s non-indictment, Republicans will need to seize upon a compelling angle of attack and hammer it repeatedly. But some angles will prove to be less effective than others, and focusing Mr. Trump—who prides himself on his unprepared, off-the-cuff style—upon a particular criticism of Mrs. Clinton may prove to be a herculean task in itself.
The biggest winner after Tuesday’s announcement was neither Mrs. Clinton nor her Republican critics. It was the F.B.I.’s Mr. Comey, who balanced a razor-sharp critique of Mrs. Clinton’s failure to maintain the security of the classified information entrusted to her with a thorough explanation of the agency’s ultimate recommendation not to indict. He also directly addressed fears that the F.B.I. had been unduly influenced by the Obama administration and the Justice Department.
“What I can assure the American people is that this investigation was done competently, honestly, and independently,” Mr. Comey emphasized, looking directly at the camera. “Only facts matter, and the F.B.I. found them here in an entirely apolitical and professional way.”
“I couldn’t be prouder to be part of this organization.”