Hillary Clinton often says she wants to “close my campaign the way I began my career: fighting for kids and families.”
Instead, she is closing it the way she began 18 months ago, with a bombshell FBI investigation into her emails looming, as well as a new round of questions concerning Bill Clinton’s alleged leveraging of the Clinton Foundation for personal financial gain.
Dashed are the hopes that the campaign could come to a conclusion on a high note, instilling in Americans a feeling that casting a history-making vote for Clinton is something more than merely a repudiation of Donald Trump.
Instead, Clinton is finding herself once again burdened by the twin scandals that have hung over her campaign since before she had a campaign — and devastating her image as an honest and trustworthy leader, even as she tried to make the case that she is the most experienced modern-day candidate for president, and the only option in the race who is responsible enough to handle the nuclear codes.
FBI Director James Comey’s extraordinary announcement Friday afternoon that he was reviewing new evidence in the email investigation he shuttered in July rattled the confidence of Clinton’s top allies. “People are shocked,” admitted one close Clinton confidant.
In recent weeks, Clinton operatives have been shifting their attention to down-ballot races, as well as mulling key personnel decisions the former secretary of state would make after the election they feel increasingly confident she will win. The RealClearPolitics polling average gives her a steady 5.2 point lead over Trump, nationally.
But Friday’s cryptic announcement — Comey did not immediately specify where the “additional emails” under review had materialized from, or any time frame for their review — threatened to disrupt the dynamics of the race, with 11 critical days to go.
“Until we know more, this looks like a bombshell of October surprise proportions,” worried another longtime Clinton adviser.
Even more unsettling was a New York Times report that the new emails were obtained from a review of electronic devices belonging to former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is married to top Clinton aide Huma Abedin and is under investigation for exchanging lewd text messages with a 15-year-old girl.
Clinton has painted Trump as an erratic bully whose attacks are generally grounded more in projection than fact. But the revelation seemed to give credence to at least one of Trump’s charges on Clinton’s staff. “I only worry for the country in that Hillary Clinton was careless and negligent in allowing Weiner to have such close proximity to highly classified information,” Trump said last August, after Abedin announced she was separating from her husband.
The Comey announcement is expected to allow Trump to revisit questions of Clinton’s judgment, which have also emerged in the hacked personal emails of campaign chairman John Podesta. In those emails, posted on WikiLeaks, top aides gripe about Clinton’s “terrible” political instincts and expressed shock that her State Department advisers indulged in her penchant for secrecy by allowing her to set up the problematic private email server in the first place.
In recent days, Clinton’s campaign has also been fending off new revelations about the money-making aspects of Bill Clinton’s post-presidential life. A memo from a former aide posted on WikiLeaks raised questions about whether foundation donors were pressed to offer paid speeches to Bill Clinton. The for-profit college system Laureate International Universities, for example, put the former president on its payroll after first becoming a donor to the foundation.
On Thursday, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri said that the foundation issues are not “something that voters are going to focus on … or care about” in the voting booth.
That is the Clinton campaign’s best hope — that feelings about the emails and the foundation are “baked in” at this point, and don’t rank when stacked up against more than a dozen women who have come forward to accuse Trump of assault.
Clinton’s confidence in her position in the race, since her steely performances in all three debates, has stemmed more from her opponent’s gaping deficiencies than from any soaring popularity she has engendered on her own. She still suffers a 43 percent approval rating and has been relying in a large part on more popular surrogates like Michelle and Barack Obama to help drive home the positive, exciting case for her candidacy.
Her team has already been deploying staff in battleground states to encourage early voting — an effort to lock in as much as 40 percent of the overall vote before Nov. 8, and pre-empt any rockets that could come out of the slow drip of emails released daily by WikiLeaks, or any other allegations that Trump might unearth.
Democrats said one of their biggest worries is that revisiting the email scandal would energize Trump supporters, who may have become disheartened by the Republican nominee’s talk of a rigged election, as well as his general downward spiral in the final phase of the race.
And they immediately blasted Comey and the FBI, arguing it was “unfair” to raise the possibility that Clinton mishandled classified information when there was no way an investigation could be concluded before Election Day. “It’s so unfair to Hillary,” fumed one Democratic ally. “It raises the possibility that she did something illegal, and there is no way she can be cleared.”
Others speculated that Comey was making a political play of his own — trying to appease Republicans after appearing to let Clinton off the hook last July, when he announced the FBI was closing the investigation and recommending no criminal charges for Clinton’s handling of classified information.
“It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election,” Podesta said in a statement. He hinted at the political pressure, noting that Republicans have been “baselessly second-guessing the FBI” and “browbeating” career officials to revisit the conclusion. “The Director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining. We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July.”
Surrogates had received no campaign-approved talking points Friday afternoon, but some jumped into defense mode based on muscle memory. “Hillary Clinton, like every other American, is entitled to the presumption of innocence,” said former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. “This is a woman who has been more investigated than anyone in the history of the United States and no one has ever found that she did anything wrong. I would ask everyone to take a deep breath and wait to make any conclusions.”
Clinton’s campaign appeared caught off guard by the announcement. On Friday, Clinton was traveling with Abedin as well as her childhood best friend, Betsy Ebeling, on what was supposed to be a quotidian day on the trail with two rallies in Iowa. She participated in a photo shoot with fashion photographer Annie Leibovitz aboard her campaign plane before landing in Cedar Rapids for a picturesque outdoor rally, DJ’d by Samantha Ronson. Earlier in the morning, the campaign announced that Clinton would visit Arizona in the final week of campaigning, a sign of confidence that a red state was in play for the first time in 20 years.
But the pendulum quickly shifted in the other direction, with Republicans pouncing on the latest Clinton road bump. “The FBI’s decision to reopen their criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton’s secret email server just eleven days before the election shows how serious this discovery must be,” RNC chairman Reince Priebus said in a statement. “This stunning development raises serious questions about what records may not have been turned over and why, and whether they show intent to violate the law.”
Democrats said their best hope was that, like most Clinton scandals, there was no crime underneath the appearance of secrecy and deception.
“Absent some really significant new piece of information,” said one former Obama operative now supporting Clinton, “everyone already knows the emails are a mess.”
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