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US election 2016: FBI's James Comey effect on the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump race

Irrespective of who wins the US presidential election, if there is one man who will be at the centre of a storm of criticism after the dust kicked up by the result has settled, it is Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey.

Comey is already facing a lot of criticism for his 'disclosure' in a letter, merely 11 days before the election, that investigators found more emails possibly related to Democrat Hillary Clinton's use of a private email set-up as Secretary of State.

Even though Comey had made it clear that the FBI did not know if the emails were significant and did not provide a time frame for the probe, the damage to the Democrats was already done.

At a time when a lot of Americans had begun casting their ballots for the election as early voting began, Hillary Clinton's double-digit lead over Republican Donald Trump began slipping. That lead has now been reduced to a thin single-digit lead.

And then, on Sunday — two days before the election — Comey wrote another letter to the Congress, indicating the bureau had completed its review of thousands of emails and found no evidence of criminality.

If Trump defies all odds and actually wins, Comey will probably receive much harsher criticism than he is already facing. If Clinton wins, Comey and the FBI will still come under the scanner for this massive U-turn days before the election, especially because officials from the US Department of Justice had advised Comey not to make his disclosure before the first letter. It is longstanding Justice Department protocol to avoid taking investigative action in the run-up to an election that could affect its outcome.

Even Comey's revelations are good news for the Clinton campaign, it might be too late for the latest FBI letter to affect the outcome of this election.

An article in Express said that the damage done to the Clinton campaign because of the first letter was "irreversible". The first letter had reinforced the public perception that Hillary Clinton was not a trustworthy candidate.

FBI Director James Comey. Reuters

FBI Director James Comey. Reuters

"With only two days until voting, it's more than likely that the dust kicked up by this story won't have fully settled by the time Americans head to the polls," said another article in BBC. It further said that the race between Trump and Clinton had already been tightening before the first FBI letter came out on 28 October.

The first letter's impact on the election will also be more because apart from shifting focus on the email scandal, it also diverted attention from the various sexual assault allegations made against Trump.

Speaking of Trump, his rant after the release of the second FBI letter is another reason why there will not be much impact on the results now.

"Right now she's being protected by a rigged system. It's a totally rigged system. I've been saying it for a long time," he had declared, as his supporters chanted "Lock her up!" at a rally in Michigan. "Hillary Clinton is guilty, she knows it, the FBI knows it, the people know it and now it's up to the American people to deliver justice at the ballot box on 8 November," AFP had quoted Trump as saying.

Suspicious timing of the first Comey letter

Almost all reports agree that the impact of the first Comey letter on this election is much more than the second one.

This leads to the pertinent question of whether James Comey was right in making that announcement in the first place.

The short answer is no. The long answer is that even though Comey had his own reasons for going public with his first disclosure, he had better reasons not to do it.

According to The Associated Press, Comey had said that there were no easy decisions on the timing in this case. And he is partially right. If releasing the first letter before the election led to criticism that Comey was revealing too significant a development close to the election, keeping the information under the wraps would have to led to criticism that he had withheld major news until after the election.

Moreover, Comey had also promised extraordinary transparency when the email scandal probe had ended in July, promising to keep the Congress and the public informed if anything major came up.

But let's not forget that the Department of Justice had advised Comey not to go public with this information. If he faced criticism after the election of withholding information, he could have had the Department of Justice on his side.

Additionally, if Comey had just waited for a few more days, he himself would have come to the conclusion that nothing incriminating were found in the new emails.

In fact, former US attorney general Eric Holder wrote an article in The Washington Post titled 'James Comey is a good man, but he made a serious mistake'. Holder said that the way Comey conducted the investigation was against the guidelines that he had put in place four years ago.

"The department has a practice of not commenting on ongoing investigations. Indeed, except in exceptional circumstances, the department will not even acknowledge the existence of an investigation," Holder wrote. Note that Holder wrote this article even before the second Comey letter came out.

Lastly, this is not the first time that James Comey has unnecessarily commented on ongoing investigations. An article in The Economist said that Comey's criticism of Clinton's "carelessness" in July was careless and he should have limited his remarks to the progress and outcome of the probe at that time, which by the way, had never even remotely suggested that Clinton's flouting of State Department rules on personal emails warranted an indictment.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: May 04, 2017 10:36 AM

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