There wasn’t a call for a criminal indictment against Hillary Clinton, but there was plenty of political ammunition for Republicans in the FBI’s detailing of the email case Tuesday.
Republicans, in criticizing FBI Director James Comey for not seeking charges against Clinton for her “extremely careless” use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, showcased how they will use some of his damning revelations against her in November.
Comey’s comments provided new fuel to the GOP narrative that challenges Clinton’s trustworthiness and a renewed talking point for Republicans that the system is rigged for political elites such as Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.
Republican consultant Whit Ayres noted that Comey’s phrase “extremely careless” to describe Clinton’s handling of classified information is likely to be used repeatedly in TV and radio spots.
“Today may have closed the legal case on the email scandal, but it’s hardly closed the political case,” he said. “The worst criticism any candidate can receive is one that reinforces pre-existing doubts, and this certainly reinforces the pre-existing doubts about Hillary Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness. There is a reason she’s not deemed by most Americans to be honest and trustworthy, and it’s the kind of thing that Comey discussed.”
Still, Ayres was not yet certain that the controversy would end up changing Clinton’s standing in the polls or the eyes of the voters.
“The question is whether this is already built into the price of the stock,” he said. “Are doubts about Hillary Clinton’s honesty and trustworthiness already built into the numbers we see in the polls or does this have the potential to move those numbers?”
The findings of this investigation also make clear that Secretary Clinton misled the American people when she was confronted with her criminal actions.
House Speaker Paul Ryan
Whether Republicans can capitalize on Clinton’s missteps is an open question. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has shown an inclination to squander opportunity, including spending weeks after he clinched the nomination embroiled in controversy over remarks about a judge who’s hearing a Trump University lawsuit.
Still, Republicans wasted no time Tuesday in attacking Clinton with Comey’s words.
“Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. “The findings of this investigation also make clear that Secretary Clinton misled the American people when she was confronted with her criminal actions.”
Trump tweeted “The system is rigged” and added that former CIA Director David Petraeus had had to resign when it was revealed that he’d shared classified information with a female biographer with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
A pro-Trump super political action committee, Great America, seized on the report to raise money for Clinton attack ads, urging supporters to “do something about this corrupt, rigged system right now” by making a campaign contribution.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said Comey’s decision not to indict “shows just what the American people are so tired of: a system where the Clintons and the politically connected few get to play by a different set of rules from everyone else.”
It also gave Republicans an opportunity to renew calls for an independent counsel to investigate Clinton.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the nonpartisan Rothenberg & Gonzales Report, said using Comey’s pointed critique of Clinton’s handling of email to attack her could help Republicans sway some undecided voters who might have previously viewed the private email server case as a purely partisan issue.
Clinton now leads Trump by 5 percentage points, 45.6 percent to 40.4 percent according to a USA Today/Suffolk University Poll released Tuesday. That’s closer than two months ago, when she led in the USA Today survey by double digits, 50-39 percent.
Just 12 percent of those surveyed for the USA Today poll are undecided, but Gonzales said that was a bloc of voters “who aren’t satisfied with either choice and can be influenced by information and news.”
“Comey brings credibility to the issue beyond the partisan arguments,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a few weeks before we know whether Comey’s words convince voters in the middle to vote against Hillary Clinton.”
Bill Dal Col, a Republican strategist who ran publisher Steve Forbes’ 1994 presidential campaign, doubts that Republicans will gain much traction from the Clinton email server decision beyond further firing up the party base.
Republicans needed an indictment of somebody – from Clinton to even a lowly aide – to reap significant political benefits from the email server.
“He cleared her. It’s done,” Dal Col said of Comey. “If Hillary’s campaign handles it properly, which I think they will, people will give her the benefit of the doubt. The trust issue? Sure that will be in play. But the drip, drip, drip, and using it as a weapon beyond our base, it’s over.”
Dal Col said he wouldn’t be surprised if Clinton employed political “jiujitsu” and used the email server issue the Republicans hoped would bring her down to attack them instead by asserting that she’d emerged from a federal investigation, and the 25-month, $7 million House Benghazi Committee, without criminal charges.
“The Clintons are like cats,” Dal Col marveled. “They have nine lives.”