With 11 days left in the presidential election, the FBI’s decision to launch another investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email system for government business threatens to upend an already volatile race.
At the most, it could turn at least some voters to rival Donald Trump, who has rested much of his pitch on the argument that Clinton is dishonest and who grabbed at the news immediately as a gift to salvage his trailing campaign. With less but still important impact, it could freeze the momentum to Clinton that has helped her pull ahead in past weeks. At a minimum, it could have a nominal effect on an electorate that already had doubts about her honesty, and has already started voting.
FBI Director James Comey set off the late October furor with a letter to Congress on Friday saying the agency was launching another investigation into Clinton’s personal email server after obtaining additional information in an unrelated case Thursday.
“The FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” Comey wrote in the letter. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta called the announcement so late in the campaign “extraordinary” and urged the FBI to release all of the details of what it is examining. “We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July,” Podesta said, referring to the FBI decision earlier not to seek any prosecution of Clinton.
His eagerness to address the matter as fast as possible underscored the mysterious nature of the new investigation and the impact it could have.
The news spread quickly, including through the battleground state of North Carolina, one of several where a turn of a few percentage points still could decide the race.
“This is definitely going to influence me,” said Democrat James Smythers, a warehouse manager from Princeton, North Carolina. “I’ll lean to Trump if he makes her pay for what she’s done.”
“The perception she’s untrustworthy has existed for years,” said Luke Perrin, a North Carolina State University sophomore from Hickory, North Carolina, who’s a Clinton supporter. “This is going to add to that perception.”
At a rally featuring Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence in Raleigh, the mood was buoyant among those waiting, but not overwhelmingly so.
“Five days ago I was down in the dumps, reading the polls,” said Republican Suzanne Morse, a retiree from Clayton, North Carolina. “Now I think there’s hope. It may not make a big difference, it may not be in the millions, but every vote counts.”
Even if it doesn’t drive voters to Trump, it could stop any momentum to Clinton.
“Voters who are on the bubble and maybe leaning toward Hillary, this puts the brake on,” said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse.
Clinton, leading in both national polls and battleground-state surveys, had been trying not to cause any waves as the election winds down. She had benefited greatly from bad news about her opponent – multiple women accusing Trump of sexual assault following the release of a decade-old video in which he bragged about groping women – and was working to avoid any change in that narrative.
Now Republicans will work hard in the next few days to use the latest development to drive the argument that Clinton is unfit.
“Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before,” Trump said Friday in Manchester, New Hampshire, as the crowd broke into chants of “lock her up.” “We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.”
Trump will have to rely on news media coverage to drive much of that message, having made the tactical decision much earlier not to spend as much time as Clinton did raising money – money he now could use to buy ads on the FBI news.
New fundraising reports just this week showed Clinton and associated Democratic committees had more than $62 million on hand as of Oct. 20, nearly four times the almost $16 million Trump and Republicans had.
And he may have a bit of an uphill battle, given how many voters likely have already made up their minds about Clinton – or have already voted.
“Is it an unfortunate piece of the agenda?” asked Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “The fact that we’re sitting here 11 days before the election talking about emails again? Yes, but I don’t think it fundamentally alters the race.”
“The truth is this is a story that’s been out there a long time,” he said. “Most people have reached a conclusion on it one way or the other.”
Indeed, voters have already seen thousands of Clinton’s emails released by the State Department and thousands of her aides’ emails released, some illegally, by news organizations, conservative groups and the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
“Most people have already decided who they’re going to vote for and I don’t think this will influence people who have decided,” said Jacob Trubey, a North Carolina State University freshman from Cary, North Carolina, who is not affiliated with either party.
“I just think it’s going to be salacious for the next 10 days unless there’s some bombshell out there,” said Kim Alfano, a Republican strategist. “I don’t think this will do anything dramatic to the race.”
Another potential mitigating effect: The news comes after millions already have voted.
Nancy Gray, a retired high school counselor from Monterey Bay, Caliornia., for example, said she’d already voted for Clinton by mail and had tuned out politics until election night.
“I’m not even paying attention, I’m so sick and tired of all the political stuff,” she said.
John Fetterman, mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania, and a Clinton surrogate who was about to introduce former President Bill Clinton to a crowd in Reading, Pennsylvania, on Friday, said he hadn’t gotten any “panicked calls from the campaign.”
“I don’t know how to quote a shoulder shrug,” Fetterman said of his reaction to the email development. “It’s just kind of a nothing burger. Could it move the needle a couple of points? Possibly. But I don’t think it’s going to be meaningful. I really feel Pennsylvania is comfortably blue.”
Vera Bergengruen and Lesley Clark contributed to this report.