With or Without Comey, This Presidential Election Was Always Going to Be Close

Photo: Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. Today: a suddenly very close presidential race, Comey’s decision, and CNN’s firing of Donna Brazile.

Less than a week before Election Day, polls are tightening, leaving some Clinton supporters to fear that what once looked like a landslide is still an open race. Could this be a late turning point, or is it just turbulence from a campaign season that always feels like the next scandal is always around the corner?
Polls were tightening even before the James Comey intervention. That was inevitable. Even as some GOP apologists pretend otherwise, Trump is not some outlier but does represent the views of most Republicans in the Obama era. So now they are reverting to form and casting ballots for him, following the august example of such leaders as Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio. That said, polls have consistently shown Clinton ahead, nationally and in most battleground states, and most of them still do, even if by smaller margins. Yet that’s scant solace for Clinton supporters. Almost every prediction about the 2016 election cycle has been wrong. Even the data-crunching nerds at FiveThirtyEight and its progeny chalked up an epic failure in missing Trump’s primary triumph, a fact forgotten by no one. Do you know a Clinton supporter who takes any real comfort in the Upshot’s finding that Clinton has an 86 percent chance of winning? I don’t.

And yes, we don’t know what scandal or other shocking development may yet lie around the corner. For all we know, Melania Trump, scheduled to deliver a major speech in Pennsylvania today, may yet come through with her long-promised public explanation of her immigration history or perhaps will launch another broadside against Billy Bush. In any case, I remain convinced that Trump supporters would not desert him even if he carried out his jest about shooting someone on Fifth Avenue. Nor do I expect that Clinton supporters would desert her even if emails reveal that she once had plans to install Anthony Weiner in a top government job, like, say, FBI director. But voters who are still undecided at this point (a.k.a., in Trump parlance, “the poorly educated”) are another story. Anyone who claims to know where they, or the election, will wind up is delusional. What can be said with little fear of contradiction is that the entire populace can’t wait for it to be over.

With no end to the turmoil over Comey’s decision to publicize the discovery of what might (or might not) be new Hillary Clinton emails just days before the election, President Obama decided to weigh in, telling an interviewer that “we don’t operate on innuendo.” Did Comey overstep his authority?
Overstepped his authority — as in, has he done anything illegal? Probably not. But Obama has it right: In a single statement loaded with innuendo but nearly bereft of hard facts, Comey blew up his reputation as a nonpartisan (if nominally Republican) public servant, upended the authority of the FBI, and tampered with one of the most important presidential elections in the history of the Republic. His letter to Congress offered nothing more than the vague intimation that maybe, just maybe, there was significant new evidence in what he had previously said was a closed case. Incredibly, Comey sounded off before the emails had been examined for any relevance to the saga of Clinton’s arrogant, boneheaded, and careless — but not criminal — use of a private server while Secretary of State. For him to open this Pandora’s box 11 days before an election, overriding Justice Department rules and the advice of Justice officials, is at least as reckless as anything Clinton did. If Donald Trump wins the election in a squeaker, Comey will prove to have been one of the most consequential fools in American history.

What was he thinking? Some see an anti-Clinton animus dating back to his role in the 1990s as a deputy special counsel to the ill-fated Senate investigation of the now-all-but-forgotten Whitewater scandal. But I suspect the real answer is the one that’s been widely reported: He wanted to cover his ass. Fearing that news of a new Clinton email cache would leak out (if indeed it is new), and that the right’s vigilantes would again attack him as a closet Clinton flunky, he undertook his gratuitous gambit to serve himself, not law enforcement. He used the flimsy pretext of transparency to put his own political interests, the last thing a FBI director should be thinking about, above the interests of his agency and his country. That he did so without anticipating the bipartisan revulsion over his blunder suggests that he is isolated in a cocoon of vanity and arrogance redolent of J. Edgar Hoover.

Whatever the motive, the damage is done. No matter what Comey does (if anything) between now and Election Day, it will not undo his undermining of the Clinton campaign in the final stretch; even if he were to announce that all the emails had been examined and judged to be spam, he would raise only more questions that would damage Clinton, with Trump leading the charge in declaring that a fix was in. Yes, polls now show that few, if any, committed Clinton voters have defected because of this fracas. But that’s not the question. What’s worrying the Clinton campaign are the less-than-committed voters in the Democratic base: millennials, African-Americans, and hard-core Bernie supporters. Comey has given them another reason not to turn up on Election Day. He could not have more effectively abetted the last, desperate Trump strategy of suppressing the Clinton vote if he had set out to do so.

After CNN announced it had cut ties with on-air analyst Donna Brazile — who also serves as interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee and, leaked emails reveal, shared possible questions slated for CNN events with the Clinton campaign — some observers have noted that network president Jeff Zucker distanced himself from Brazile for the same reason he brought her in: partisanship and campaign access. Was Zucker right to draw the line where he did?
I don’t think Zucker drew any line, and I agree with all of the other media critics who wish he would. It’s way past time to end the practice of hiring political operatives to serve as commentators on network news, whether cable or broadcast.

Distinctions should be made here. There’s nothing wrong if those who have completely left the political profession choose to become television personalities or embrace television journalism and commentary as a whole new career (see George Stephanopoulos, Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Matthews). But to hire operatives who are still actively involved in partisan political campaigns — indeed are on the payroll of a candidate or a party or a PAC in an election year — is to blur every ethical line. Sure, have them on as unpaid guests to be interviewed or cross-examined like any other political players in an election season. But it pollutes the whole idea of news, debased enough as it is these days, to put them on salary as network-branded experts purporting to advance the reporting and synthesizing of a presidential campaign’s daily developments. They are publicists, talking-point-spouting puppets, and apparatchiks, not founts of information or wisdom.

Brazile’s alleged infractions — conveying CNN debate and town-hall questions to the Clinton forces — crystallized the problem. But her transgression hardly amounted to world-class espionage, given that the main secret she divulged was a predictable softball question about the ongoing crisis in Flint, Michigan, where CNN was staging the event. If Brazile’s breach was “disgusting,” as Zucker called it, what adjective fits his network’s continuing employment of Corey Lewandowski even as he remained on the Trump payroll? This bastardized simulation of “journalism” may well pass muster at Fox News — which was until recently run by one informal Trump adviser (Roger Ailes) and still is a showcase for another (Sean Hannity) — but is that really the standard to which CNN aspires?

With or Without Comey, This Election Was Going to Be Close