One Year Since the Comey Letter

James Comey, former director of the FBI, potentially swayed the 2016 election in favor of Trump by releasing his letter 12 days before Election Day

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

“Oh is that today?” Hillary Clinton wrote, snarkily responding to a tweet stating that it was the one-year anniversary of the Comey letter, which had probably been decisive in the election.

Last year on Oct. 28, 12 days before election day, James Comey sent a letter to Congress stating that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. The idea of an investigation initially started in July of 2015, when the FBI received a letter from the inspector general for the intelligence community stating that Clinton mishandled classified information by using her private email server. To convict Clinton, the FBI would have to prove that she had intent to receive classified information and that her home server was installed for that reason.

This investigation continued for nine months, until it became clear to Comey and the FBI that they did not have enough evidence to force Clinton to face charges. The FBI struggled to decide who would be the spokesperson to announce that Clinton would receive no criminal charges. The options were either Comey or Loretta Lynch, the attorney general at the time. However, Lynch was unable to address the public after a spontaneous meeting with Bill Clinton in which they had a 20-minute conversation aboard Lynch’s plane. If Lynch broke the news, the public could assume that she was helping the Clintons.

Comey had to address the public alone. He had a speech at the FBI headquarters in which he berated Clinton for her incaution with classified information and made it clear that the FBI did not approve of her actions. In the last two minutes of the speech, he declared that Clinton was not charged with any criminal offenses.

Due to the harshness of Comey’s speech, there was severe backlash from both sides. Democrats claimed that because he spent the majority of his speech insulting Clinton, it was not clear that the investigation had failed to discover any crime and was therefore over. Republicans were furious that Comey’s investigation turned up nothing on Clinton.

Comey’s investigation of Clinton may have been over, but he began an investigation on Donald Trump in late July of 2016. This case involved the possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Russian hackers had been trying to breach voter registration processes, and it was said that Russian intelligence attempted to communicate with members of Trump’s team. It was clear to the FBI that Russia was trying to interfere with the election.

Democrats claimed that because he spent the majority of his speech insulting Clinton, it was not clear that the investigation discovered any crime and was therefore over. Republicans were furious that Comey’s investigation turned up nothing on Clinton.

In Senate hearings, Comey refused to disclose any information involving the ongoing investigation of Trump, explaining that it would undermine his active case. However, in Comey’s speech about the result of the investigation on Clinton, he revealed documents and people he interviewed, along with detailed information about the case. Comey declared that the reason he gave out information on that case was because it was “exceptional circumstances.” He also stated in a meeting with the White House that a response from the FBI about Russian meddling would appear too politically charged since it would be released so close to the election.

In the second review of Clinton’s emails, the FBI only found around 3,000 emails that were work-related, and only about a dozen chains that contained classified information. These dozen emails had already been seen and reviewed by the FBI in their initial investigation. Two days before the election, Comey announced in his second letter to Congress, “We have not changed our conclusions.” The second investigation into Clinton’s emails provided no evidence of crime and were just as inconclusive as the first one. Despite this, Clinton dropped in the polls.

First and foremost, it is clear that Donald Trump ran a better campaign than Hillary Clinton. Trump appealed to a voting base that felt it had been politically unheard for years. His message was clear and his campaign lingo was recognizable. Trump focused his campaign in swing states and motivated his supporters to go to the voting booth; whereas Clinton based her campaign on her gender and continuing previous efforts from Obama.

Although Clinton’s loss cannot be fully attributed to Comey’s letter, it is clear in the quantifiable difference it made on her polling numbers that it had a significant effect. The news of reopening the investigation almost immediately sank Clinton in the polls. Before, Clinton held a steady, near 6 percent lead over Donald Trump, and a week later, her polls had dropped by nearly three points. In the Midwest, exit polls showed that undecided voters began leaning toward Trump.

Comey was never seriously reprimanded for his inappropriate timing for reopening Clinton’s investigation. Comey lasted until May with the Trump administration. Trump fired him due to apparent public insecurities toward the FBI.