For months, Hillary Clinton’s foes — Republican and Democrat alike — hung their hopes on the prospect she would be indicted for using an unsecured home server to handle her emails as secretary of state.
The threat was cited by backers of Donald Trump as a response to his myriad and many stumbles; however poorly he performed or whatever discouraging news turned up in opinion surveys, they suggested, a criminally charged Clinton would be in even worse political shape come November.
A similar notion was cited by supporters of Bernie Sanders as the reason the Vermont senator should persist in his bid for the Democratic nomination, long after it was evident he would fall short.
Those hopes were dashed Tuesday.
By ruling out an indictment, FBI Director James Comey — a Republican and a former top Justice Department official under President George W. Bush — removed the single biggest obstacle standing between the presumptive Democratic nominee and the White House. Last week, she cleared another, albeit lesser, hurdle when congressional Republicans closed the book on their Benghazi investigation without finding any new wrongdoing by Clinton.
But Tuesday’s announcement was hardly a clean bill of health, ensuring the issue will continue to plague Clinton for weeks and months to come.
Comey was unsparing in his criticism of Clinton, and the language that he used to describe her handling of classified materials — in particular the words “extremely careless” — are certain to resurface in an unending Republican playback loop between now and November.
It is a cliche, but no less true because of it: There is a vast gulf between a courthouse and the court of public opinion.
While there may have been, in Comey’s estimation, no reasonable legal basis to bring a case against Clinton, the standards are far different when voters are the ones doing the judging. And the notion of careless and dangerous behavior is a particularly damaging one for Clinton, whose greatest political strength has long been her projection of steadiness and competence.
Whether Tuesday’s events will change the minds of a great many voters, however, is a different question.
Already, nearly 7 in 10 voters have concerns that Clinton’s record or reputation makes her untrustworthy, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found last month.
In the immediate aftermath of Comey’s announcement, Clinton’s supporters adopted a line that Democrats will likely echo from now until Election Day: She may have shown poor judgment, but it was a mere lapse that could and should be forgiven.
Trump and other Republicans just as quickly asserted that Comey’s statement proved what they had said all along, that Clinton is hopelessly deceitful and the beneficiary of a corrupt political system that protects its own.
“FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem.”
Other Republicans quickly took up his cause, including such erstwhile rivals as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
“It’s only a matter of time before the next shoe drops and the nexus of corruption and controversy that has surrounded Hillary Clinton throughout her time in public office produces yet another scandal for the American people to endure,” Rubio said, dredging up memories of past Clinton family scandals. “Given the consequential and challenging times in which we live, America simply cannot afford any more Clinton drama.”
Those still undecided will likely weigh the former secretary of state’s actions, her nonindictment and Comey’s condemnation against a welter of other considerations, not least Trump’s own behavior and brash persona.
Her campaign issued a bland statement expressing satisfaction “that the career officials handling the case have determined that no further action” was appropriate.
Justice Department officials will review the FBI’s recommendation, but the chances that they would overturn Comey’s recommendation are next to nothing. Attorney General Loretta Lynch last week announced that she would defer to the judgment of the FBI and career prosecutors; that in itself was a response to another misjudgment, when Clinton’s husband, Bill, held an ill-considered and impromptu visit with Lynch during a layover at the Phoenix airport.
A more ominous possibility for Clinton’s campaign is that some of her aides could still face administrative sanctions, which could include revoking their security clearances. If that were to happen during the fall campaign, it would certainly add to the political damage.
In the campaign’s formal statement, spokesman Brian Fallon reiterated Clinton’s repeated statement that it was a mistake to subvert official channels and use her own personal email server and was something she would never do again.
In conclusion, he said, “We are glad that this matter is now resolved” — a statement that seemed far more hopeful than realistic.