For months, Hillary Clinton’s foes — Republican and Democrat alike — hanged their hopes on the prospect she would be indicted for using an unsecured home server to handle her emails as secretary of State.
The threat was cited by backers of Donald Trump as a response to his myriad stumbles; however poorly he performed or whatever discouraging news turned up in opinion surveys, they suggested, a criminally charged Clinton would be in even worse political shape come November.
A similar notion was offered by supporters of Bernie Sanders as the reason the Vermont senator should persist in his bid for the Democratic nomination, long after it was evident he would fall short.
Those hopes were dashed Tuesday.
Last week, she cleared another, albeit lesser, hurdle when congressional Republicans closed the book on their investigation into the 2012 deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, without producing any shattering new revelations.
But Tuesday’s announcement by the FBI chief was hardly a clean bill of health, ensuring the email issue will continue to plague Clinton for weeks and months to come.
As Mike Murphy, a Republican campaign strategist, put it: "Not being indicted for doing something bad does not make that something a good thing.”
Comey was unsparing in his criticism of Clinton, and the language that he used to describe her handling of classified materials— in particular the words “extremely careless” — are certain to resurface in an unending Republican playback loop between now and November.
It is something of a cliché, but no less true because of it: There is a vast gulf between a courthouse and the court of public opinion.
While there may have been, in Comey’s estimation, no reasonable legal basis to bring a criminal case against Clinton or her aides, the standards are far different when voters are the ones doing the judging. And the notion of careless and dangerous behavior is a particularly damaging one for Clinton, whose greatest political strength has long been her projection of steadiness and competence.
The flip side has been a reputation for conniving, cutting corners and exhibiting what her critics have regarded as an almost Nixonian level of paranoia that has too often clouded her judgment. The decision to set up a private, unsecured email server in the basement of her New York home fit squarely into that pattern.
There is a vast gulf between a courthouse and the court of public opinion.
Whether Tuesday’s events will change the minds of a great many voters, however, is a different question.
Repeated polls have shown a majority of Americans do not believe Clinton to be honest and trustworthy; nearly 7 in 10 voters expressed doubts about her character and integrity in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.
In the immediate aftermath of Comey’s announcement, Clinton’s supporters adopted a line that Democrats will likely echo from now until election day: She may have shown poor judgment, but it was a mere lapse that could and should be forgiven — especially, they suggested, when contrasted with Trump’s record.
“Secretary Clinton made 55,000 pages of emails available … to the FBI to scour through,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, a leading Clinton surrogate who sought to help move her campaign off the defensive. “Donald Trump hasn’t released one single tax return…. So who’s hiding something?”
Trump and other Republicans just as quickly asserted that Comey’s harsh presentation proved what they had said all along: that Clinton is hopelessly deceitful and the beneficiary of a corrupt political system that protects its own.
“The FBI director laid out today a detailed case of how Hillary Clinton compromised the safety of the American people by storing highly classified information on a private email server with no security,” Trump said in a written statement. “He confirmed that her email could easily have been hacked by hostile actors.”
“Folks — the system is rigged,” Trump continued. “The normal punishment, in this case, would include losing the authority to handle classified information, and that too disqualifies Hillary Clinton from being president.”
Other Republicans quickly took up his cause, including such erstwhile rivals as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
But elections aren’t held in a vacuum.
Those still undecided will likely weigh the former secretary of State’s actions, her non-indictment and Comey’s condemnation against a welter of other considerations, not least Trump’s own behavior, his position on issues and his brash persona.
“I don’t think this changes any minds that already are set, which covers 92% of voters. The question is among swing voters,” said Murphy, the GOP strategist, who has been severely critical of Trump. “Clinton has clearly shown terrible judgment here. The lucky thing for her is that Trump has been even less appealing to swing voters.”
Clinton’s campaign issued a bland statement expressing satisfaction “that the career officials handling the case have determined that no further action” was appropriate.
Justice Department officials will review the FBI’s recommendation, but it’s highly unlikely they would overturn Comey’s recommendation. Atty. Gen. Loretta Lynch last week announced that she would defer to the judgment of the FBI and career prosecutors; that in itself was a response to another misjudgment, when Clinton’s husband held an ill-considered and impromptu visit with Lynch during a layover at the Phoenix airport.
There is still the chance that some Clinton aides could face administrative sanctions, which might include revoking their security clearances. If that were to happen during the fall campaign, it would certainly add to the political damage she faces.
In the campaign’s official statement, spokesman Brian Fallon reiterated Clinton’s repeated acknowledgment that it was a mistake to subvert official channels and use her own personal email server. It was something, he said, she would never do again.
“We are glad that this matter is now resolved,” Fallon added – a statement that seemed, at best, to be wishful thinking.
3:50 p.m.: The story was updated with additional reaction and analysis.
The story was initially published at 11:25 a.m.