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FBI director should have known what his Clinton emails letter would unleash

The FBI will investigate and determine whether classified materials were properly handled in newly discovered emails.

In a sane world that wasn’t 11 days away from a presidential election, one might be able to defend the letter that FBI Director James Comey sent Friday to several congressional committees. In the letter, Comey said that the agency had recently “learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent” to its previous investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

The letter doesn't mean that the FBI will reverse its earlier recommendation that no criminal charges be filed against the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential nominee. It's not even clear that the criminal investigation of Clinton will be reactivated.

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Comey certainly held out that possibility, but only if an examination of the newly discovered emails — which emerged in connection with "another case" — turned out to contain classified information and were shown to have some relationship to the Clinton probe. He noted in the letter that the FBI "cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant" and said he couldn't predict how long it would take for the agency to complete "this additional work."

All in all, a careful, lawyerly statement. The problem, of course, is that this letter wasn’t sent in a vacuum. As soon as it was released, Republicans from Donald Trump on down jumped to the conclusion that it augured disaster for Clinton.

At a rally in New Hampshire, Trump told supporters who were shouting "Lock her up!" that "This is bigger than Watergate!" Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) shamelessly chimed in by renewing his call for the director of national intelligence to suspend all classified briefings for Clinton "until this matter is fully resolved." Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus said: "The FBI's decision to reopen their criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's secret email server just 11 days before the election shows how serious this discovery must be."

Comey is a lawyer, not a politician, but he arguably made a political calculation in going public this summer with his recommendation to the Justice Department that no criminal charges be filed against Clinton in connection with her use of a private email server. But when Republicans in Congress reacted apoplectically, he went before Congress to defend his decision and — fatefully — promised his interrogators that he would provide them with further information. He redeemed this pledge by turning over to Congress documents related to interviews with Clinton and other witnesses, an unusual though not unprecedented step.

Now he is updating Congress with a terse letter about new and potentially relevant information that Republicans predictably are hyping as the smoking gun that Comey failed to deliver to them earlier. Comey is wise enough in the ways of Washington to know how his words would be twisted.

Having raised new doubts about Clinton so close to an election, Comey has an obligation —a moral obligation if not a legal one — to do everything he can to expedite the "additional work" required to determine whether this new information does, in fact, cast doubt on his earlier conclusion that Clinton wasn't criminally culpable.

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