Presidential races

FBI drama injects uncertainty into frantic final week of race

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The presidential campaign is entering its final full week amid high drama and volatility as both sides grapple with the fallout from the FBI’s announcement that it is examining newly discovered emails that “appear to be pertinent” to an earlier investigation of Hillary Clinton.

The shock announcement came on Friday and sucked up political oxygen throughout the weekend, dominating cable news networks and the Sunday talk shows.

{mosads}Democrats are furious about what they see as political meddling on the part of the bureau and its director, James Comey. 

The Clinton campaign sent a release late Sunday evening signed by nearly 100 former prosecutors and Department of Justice officials questioning Comey’s “break with longstanding practices” by making public statements about an ongoing investigation or even acknowledging the existence of one. 

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) suggested on Sunday that Comey may have violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal government officials from using their authority to influence an election.

Republicans, including presidential nominee Donald Trump, have commended the bureau. Behind the scenes, GOP activists are gleeful about the prospect of the FBI announcement helping to shift down-ballot races, as well as the presidential contest, in their favor.

GOP control of the Senate has looked in serious danger, and Republicans will try to stave off the possibility of losing their majority by pressing Democrats onto the defensive. One endangered GOP senator, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, told a Philadelphia radio station soon after the news broke that “it looks to me like Hillary Clinton is in a world of hot water.”

Uncertainty on several key points is fueling the feverish atmosphere that has gripped the political world. 

The impact of the Comey announcement on public opinion cannot be reliably assessed because no major opinion polls have yet emerged that were conducted wholly in its aftermath. 

But a Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll released on Sunday, which included data from both before and after the revelation, carried ominous news for Clinton.

The poll found that 34 percent of likely voters said they were “less likely” to vote for the Democratic nominee as a result of Comey’s announcement. A clear majority of those people were Republican or Republican-leaning, the Post reported, and therefore may never have intended to vote for Clinton.

But 17 percent of those who said they had been deterred from backing Clinton leaned Democratic, and a further 9 percent were self-described independents. Any shift in their ranks could be pivotal in an election that appeared to be tightening even before the Comey bombshell. 

Also unknown is whether the FBI will make further comment on the matter before Election Day. 

Many experts believe such comment is unlikely given that agents only obtained a search warrant to look through the relevant emails — some 650,000 — on Sunday.

The ultimate conclusion to the matter could fall anywhere on a very broad spectrum. 

The emails, apparently found on a laptop once shared by close Clinton aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), could be mere duplicates of messages already examined by the FBI during its probe of the private email server Clinton used while secretary of State. If that were the case, Clinton might benefit from a perception that she had been smeared — and criticism of Comey would reach a new level.

At the other end of the range of possibilities, the emails could lead to the criminal indictment of a president-elect, a scenario that would envelop an already tense nation in chaos.

If Clinton were to lose the election on Nov. 8, it seems all but certain that disappointed supporters of the Democratic nominee would blame the FBI. Trump has stated a number of times that he believes the process is “rigged” against him, spurring fears that his most fervent backers will not accept the legitimacy of the outcome if he loses. 

Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, asserted that Clinton has “a very casual relationship with the truth” on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday. She was building on a case already made by the nominee himself, who reacted to the Comey announcement by arguing that “Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before.” In a statement, he warned voters not to let the former secretary of State “take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.”

But the Clinton team, moving past its initial shock at the news, has sought to shift onto a more aggressive footing. Campaign chairman John Podesta called Comey’s conduct “inappropriate” on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, while Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), asserted on ABC’s “This Week” that it was “completely unprecedented.”

Those comments were part of a broader effort by the Clinton campaign to undercut Comey. In talking points sent to surrogates on Saturday afternoon and obtained by The Hill, the campaign suggested emphasizing that the director’s actions were “extraordinary” and accused him of having created a “misleading impression.”

The talking points also noted that both the Clinton and Trump campaigns were calling upon the FBI director to make more information available. 

The two sides clearly have diametrically opposed motives for making that request: the Clinton team believing it could be exculpatory and the Trump camp asserting it could be damning. But their appeals may be in vain, given that agents are only now beginning to look through the enormous cache of emails. 

The episode is just one more unprecedented twist in a campaign that has been chock-full of them. And the drama may not be over yet. 

On Sunday evening, WikiLeaks, the organization that has published hacked emails from Podesta and from Democratic National Committee staffers in recent months, tweeted that it would “commence Phase 3 of our US election coverage” this week.

Amie Parnes contributed.

Tags Donald Trump Harry Reid Hillary Clinton Tim Kaine

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