UPDATE: With the Fox News retraction of its story about leaks and FBI Director Comey’s announcement that the FBI is not recommending charges against Hillary Clinton, this post is outdated.
Perhaps the most central issue in the election right now concerns the status of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. While the issue was never going away simply because the poor judgment exercised by Clinton in choosing to use a private server in the first place, the questionable legality of her decision to do so, and the unknown implications of the possibility that classified materials were acquired by foreign, and possibly, hostile foreign, actors, there had appeared to be some resolution of the issue in terms of its political effects, particularly with regard to this election. The issue had been seemingly thoroughly investigated by official sources, dissected by political, legal, and media analysts, and debated in a public forum. Voters had an opportunity to consider its importance and make their decisions accordingly.
Yet, the revelation last week that the FBI had grounds for reopening the investigation, coupled with a series of leaks from the FBI about the current status of the investigation, has not only brought the issue back to the forefront, but has also created considerable uncertainty about the implications of this issue for the presidential election. If the leaks turn out to be correct, it is possible that we could have a newly-elected president who might very soon be facing federal indictment. However, it is also possible that the leaks are politically motivated attacks by FBI employees who are either frustrated that higher-ranking officials did not believe that their investigations had produced sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to pursue a case against Hillary Clinton or who are using their positions in government and anonymity to impact the outcome of the election. Of course, if the latter were to be demonstrated, the people leaking the information might very well be more guilty of criminal behavior than the person that they are accusing.
No matter which theory is closer to the truth, however, it is highly unlikely that it will be possible to shed much light on the issue prior to the election next week. Voters will ultimately have to decide based on incomplete information and dramatically conflictual accounts without the ability to process either the probability that either side is more likely to be accurate or the possible implications of one version of events being closer to the reality.
Further complicating this process is that most people are locked in news source “echo chambers” were the only side of any issue is presented and then sourced and re-sourced so that it appears that a sparse bit of information is widely known and widely circulated. People are persuaded by the fact that the same information appears in the several different news sources that they check and use this to conclude that it is more likely to be true. Because they never bother to examine other news sources, partially because they have convinced themselves that these sources are “biased”, they are never exposed to the other side of the argument or potentially contradictory evidence.
Provided below is my best effort to find sources that are commenting on the issue in reasonably intelligent ways. The list is not comprehensive and includes arguments about facts, interpretation of facts, and implication of possible facts that would certainly be disputed by either side. The decision about what sources to include revolved around meeting at least one of these two criteria.
1) Was the news source the original reporter of a story? In other words, it is a report based on a source, even if the source was anonymous. Part of the problem with some news sources is that they take a claim made in original news source and exaggerate the claims made in it and then as these claims get further and further from the original news source, the arguments being made become further and further from reality.
2) Does the news source attempt to consider both sides of the issue? Does the news source attempt to provide the factual evidence or arguments used by both sides of the controversy, even if it ultimately take a position on the claims being made?
Sources that Suggest that This Story is a Serious Issue for Hillary Clinton
Sources that Suggest that This Story is being Exaggerated for Political Purposes
What’s a Voter to Do?
Probably the most rational perspective to take on this is not to draw ANY new conclusions about this issue prior to voting unless an official statement is made of formal legal action by the Department of Justice. The FBI does not have the prosecutorial authority and cannot make decisions about prosecutions under any circumstances. The fact that the FBI is not making any official public announcements about any of these investigations means that, by default, there is, at best, disagreement and uncertainty within the department about these ongoing, and perhaps, completed investigations, and, at worst, no ongoing investigations and these current leaks are simply politically motivated efforts to affect the election.
Trump has considerable motivation to promote this story, as it appears to be one of the few winning arguments for his candidacy relative to Hillary Clinton that has gained traction with voters all year and could conceivably help him win the election next week. Yet, voters should keep in mind that Trump has consistently misrepresented basic facts about the FBI investigation. So it is difficult to trust his interpretations of this issue when he has consistently made inaccurate statements about what is known and unknown about the past and current investigations.
It is probably also important to keep in mind that these new stories are appearing in the context of accusations made about Donald Trump with regard to his relationship with Russia and its role in hacking into the Democratic National Committee. There are inquiries being made about the ties of current and former Trump advisors and their connection to the Russian government. There have been accusations that Trump has his own server problem in that there were links between a Trump campaign server and a Russian government server, suggesting possible communication between the two. It is possible that these stories are being generated either from within or from outside of the FBI to detract attention away from possible Trump scandals.
There are also reports of ongoing FBI investigations into an outside source providing faked documents to the FBI to provoke new investigations into the Clinton campaign. The existence of these documents has not been confirmed by the FBI and obviously, if they do exist, their source would not be known. However, it is possible that the news stories relating to the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton over the past week have been orchestrated by the Trump campaign to produce to the “game-changing” event that it needed to save itself from what was almost certain defeat.
It is still possible that there is evidence that will lead to a future indictment against Hillary Clinton. But there has been no new information that has been made public suggesting that this is any more likely than it was one month ago. Indeed, the most disturbing accusations came from Bret Bair’s Fox News Report which he has subsequently retracted.
The problem with Hillary Clinton and the integrity of her conduct has always been an issue in this election and it continues to be one. However, a voter that believed that the integrity issue was not serious enough to prevent him or her from voting for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump should likely not change his or her mind now based on these news reports. There is no good reason to think that these reports are indications of any change in the investigation or new revelations about her conduct that would change how one perceives the issues or the candidates. Both candidates come with great risk. If one concluded before the past two weeks that Clinton was a safer choice than Trump, the events of the past two weeks should probably do nothing that alters that assessment.