In a letter sent to members of Congress on Sunday, Director of the FBI James Comey said that a week of intense review of emails possibly related to Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server ultimately has "not changed [the bureau's] conclusions" of their prior investigation and appeared to put to rest the idea anything explosive was contained in the recently discovered data or that charges would be warranted in the case.
Sunday's announcement by Comey comes just two days ahead of Tuesday's national elections and nine days after the director sparked widespread speculation about the potential content or nature of the emails, discovered during an unrelated investigation, on a laptop belonging to former Congressman Anthony Weiner, the currently estranged husband of one of Clinton's top aides Huma Abedin.
"We reviewed all communications that were to or from Hillary Clinton while she served as secretary of state," Comey wrote in his letter to Congress. "Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton." It was those comments in July that many critics of Comey said opened the door to criticism of the director for injecting personal opinions and judgements into an ongoing investigation. At the time he said that no criminal charges would be brought against Clinton though he did criticize her for the way she handled some sensitive information.
As the Associated Press notes, Comey's new letter "appeared designed to resolve any lingering ambiguity about the prospect that Clinton might face criminal charges, though it still left many questions unresolved—including the number of emails, their content, how the messages wound up on Weiner's computer and what, if anything, the announcement means for Abedin."
Since Comey sparked controversy on October 28, Republicans have been championing Comey for going public with the new information while Clinton and her supporters—as well as many outside critics—blasted Comey for acting in a way that could be interpreted as trying to influence the election. As the Washington Post reports:
Comey had come under fire for inserting the FBI into the campaign’s final days with the announcement. Department of Justice policy discourages the agency from taking steps in days before an election, to avoid the perception that the FBI is trying to the influence the outcome of the vote.
A spokesman for the FBI declined to comment beyond Comey’s letter. A Department of Justice spokesman said only that the department and FBI had "dedicated all necessary resources to conduct this review expeditiously."
Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted in response: "We were always confident nothing would cause the July decision to be revisited. Now Director Comey has confirmed it."
In response to the news, Clinton is reported to have rolled her eyes in "understated exasperation over all the drama" surrounding the situation. Meanwhile, Donald Trump used the development as a new way to convince supporters that the system "is rigged" in favor of his opponent.
"You can’t review 650,000 new emails in eight days," Trump told attendees at a rally in Sterling Heights, Michigan. "You can’t do it, folks. Hillary Clinton is guilty. She knows it, the FBI knows it, the people know it."
Trump then said it was up to voters to hold Clinton accountable for what he alleged was past criminal behavior. "Now it is up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box on November 8," he said. "It’s unbelievable. It’s unbelievable what she gets away with."
Writing for The Nation, political writer George Zornick described Comey's letter on Sunday as "one of the most consequential 'oh, neverminds' in American history" and argued that even though Clinton has ("once again") been cleared of criminal wrong doing when it comes to her private server, the "damage is already done." He explained:
In the nine days between Comey’s first announcement and Sunday’s "nevermind," Donald Trump blanketed the airwaves with ads like this, claiming Clinton was "under FBI investigation again" for e-mails found "on pervert Anthony’ Weiner’s computer."
Perhaps those sledgehammer ads only riled up Trump’s base, but overall the scandal had a demonstrable effect on Democratic enthusiasm. Several top Democratic pollsters who spoke with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent this week told him the poll numbers turned "grisly," that Comey’s initial letter "limits the scope of (Clinton’s) win," and that the episode may have cost Democrats some down-ballot races. Millennials, in particular, were turned off of Clinton and the political process in general.
Though the possible impact this series of events will have on the election is the topic of much speculation, the Guardian's Spencer Ackerman argues its impact on Comey's career and reputation is not likely to be a positive one.
Ackerman described the episode as a "spectacular fall" for a director once lauded and respected by lawmakers and operatives on both sides of the political aisle. "He built his public persona as the man who stood up to pressure from George W Bush’s White House over mass surveillance. The real story, hidden from public view until Edward Snowden’s leaks, showed Comey to be significantly less heroic, but the persona was enough to persuade Barack Obama to elevate him to run the FBI weeks after the Guardian began publishing material Snowden disclosed. After Comey picked a fight with Apple over encryption and lost, his judgment appeared shaky."
But now, Ackerman concluded, "Comey has committed an unforced error that has drained his reservoir of goodwill in Washington. With the FBI’s integrity in the balance, Comey faces several difficult months, if not years, in Washington, regardless of the country’s vote in two days."