Investigations were being conducted into both of America’s two major party nominees by the FBI during the 2016 election. One was being looked at for her use of a private email server, the other for his alleged relations with Russia. The FBI director only gave a speech tearing into one and only released a letter 11 days before the election commenting publicly on one of the investigations.

Co-editor Sumantra Maitra wrote an article for Quillette about how Buzzfeed’s publication of the full document on Trump was irresponsible and causes trust in institutions to die. I recommend you read it. Sumantra is absolutely right.

But it’s not only trust in the press that is dying, trust in all institutions is threatened, including the FBI. One reason for that was FBI Director James Comey’s actions during the election, the double standard he applied to FBI investigations of Clinton versus those of Trump.

First, to make one thing clear: I don’t know whether most or some of the allegations in the report prepared as opposition research by a former British intel officer are true or not. Some of them appear highly unbelievable. Some of them have apparently already been disproven. But if one allegation is disproven that doesn’t mean all of them all. What we do know is that the FBI is investigating. The only fair thing we can say with certainty now is that we don’t know whether some portion of it is true or not.

The argument I present in this article is rather about the FBI and James Comey and how they influenced public discourse over the unverified report.

On January 10, the same day Buzzfeed released the full document, Comey was testifying in front of Congress. Asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.), the same senator who elicited a lie from CIA Director James Clapper about mass intel gathering, Comey refused to comment on an ongoing investigation. “I would never comment on investigations … in an open forum like this,” he said.

What was interesting about Comey’s answer is that it runs exactly counter to his actions of October 2016. On October 28, Comey did just what he said he wouldn’t do: he commented on an ongoing investigation in a letter that was made public and probably influenced the election.

Comey’s letter to Congress stated, “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation [of Hillary Clinton’s email server]. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”

The FBI had not seen the emails in question. They didn’t know whether they were relevant to the investigation of Clinton. They admitted in the letter they didn’t even know whether they were important to their investigation, which had already been concluded with no charges filed. The “unrelated case” Comey was referring to turned out to be that of Anthony Weiner, someone who had no involvement with Clinton’s campaign, and the FBI didn’t even have a warrant at the time the letter was sent.

Despite this all, the Republicans made a big deal about the letter, claiming that Comey was “reopening” the investigation, and the media reported it as such.

Search traffic about Clinton’s server spiked to the highest levels since Clinton’s public exoneration.

Google search chart for "Clinton email server"

Google search chart for “Clinton email server”

Analysis by multiple poll watchers and statisticians confirms the Comey letter had a measurable impact on the polls. Princeton’s Sam Wang shows that Clinton lost 4 points immediately after the letter was released and that 2 of those points were permanent. Nate Silver showed at Five Thirty Eight that Clinton’s chances declined remarkably after the letter, although her chances had already started to decline somewhat after the third debate. Another Five Thirty Eight feature presents a compelling case that a significant amount of voters switched preferences during the final week. Even Trump’s own data team saw trends shifting in their favor, which began slowly before the letter, accelerate markedly after the letter.

According to Bloomberg:

Trump’s analysts had detected this upsurge in the electorate even before FBI Director James Comey delivered his Oct. 28 letter to Congress announcing that he was reopening his investigation into Clinton’s e-mails. But the news of the investigation accelerated the shift of a largely hidden rural mass of voters toward Trump.

Just to be clear, there’s no way to know what exactly the vote would have been in Pennsylvania or Michigan or nationwide in an alternative scenario. My simple claim is that Comey’s letter had a greater than zero impact against Clinton and that he and any other clear-thinking person could have expected as much.

Contrast how Comey handled the Clinton investigation with how he handled the Trump investigation. In October, before the FBI had even applied for a warrant to search the emails on Weiner’s computer, they had already obtained a warrant to wiretap Trump associates as part of an investigation into his potential ties to Russia. In fact, the FBI had applied for a warrant in June.

If applying for a warrant is sufficiently newsworthy to tell Congress, why didn’t Comey alert Congress that the FBI had applied for and been granted a warrant with regard to Trump?

The secrecy with which Comey treated his investigation of Trump was a direct contrast with how public he himself was about the Clinton investigation and with how freely the New York office leaked about the Clinton investigation.

The media, perhaps responding to the FBI, also treated Trump and Clinton differently. According to numbers compiled by Media Matters, a liberal media criticism organization, the three broadcast news networks spent more than three-times as much time covering the email issue as they did policy issues.

An analysis by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, which is not a liberal media criticism organization but rather a part of Harvard, found that during the weeks surrounding the conventions, newscasts featured Trump promoting himself twice as often as they did Clinton. Eight percent of stories about Clinton focused on her email server, 3 percent on scandals, and just 4 percent on policy. Trump, by contrast, had 13 percent of his stories focus on policy issues, despite the fact that he had few detailed policy proposals. (Although the fact that his proposals were out of step with precedent and in some cases fantastical could have justified some amount of increased coverage.)

Even though Trump was facing multiple serious charges of corruption, flouting the law, and misappropriation of resources, including a court case against him for fraud, which he later settled for $25 million; self-dealing by his non-profit foundation; allegations of his connections to Russia; and failure to release his tax returns, he didn’t face the same drumbeat of scandal stories.

The overemphasis on Clinton’s scandals versus Trump’s scandals persisted the whole campaign. The Shorenstein Center’s final report found that 19 percent of all coverage of Clinton dealt with “controversies” and 15 percent of Trump’s. Trump also received more policy-related coverage.

The Shorenstein Center also saw a marked drop-off in negative coverage of Trump and increase in positive coverage of him coinciding with just before the release of Comey’s email. From the week of October 23 to that of October 30, positive coverage of Trump more than tripled and remained at that level the final two weeks. That could have also been part of a conscious or unconscious act to even out the score in the final weeks. By contrast, negative coverage of Clinton increased from 52 percent the week of October 23 to 74 percent and 72 percent the final two weeks, surpassing negative coverage of Trump.

Chart prepared by Shorenstein Center.

Chart prepared by Shorenstein Center.

If the media was “crooked”, it was more arguably biased against Clinton.

Destroying Institutions

If it was wrong for Comey and the FBI to leak unsubstantiated information that appeared to implicate Clinton in wrongdoing, that doesn’t justify sources leaking unsubstantiated information about Trump or Buzzfeed publishing an unverified document in full. What Comey’s actions did do, however, is poison the well and destroy trust in the FBI.

Then-Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid made note of the investigation into Trump in an angry letter he sent to Comey in response to Comey’s letter. Make no mistake: After Comey’s unprecedented actions, liberals and Democrats were hungry for turnabout. That Trump has made a career off of falsely accusing his opponents of things with absolutely no evidence (Obama wasn’t born in America, Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of JFK) means liberals aren’t going to give him any benefit of the doubt.

No, Buzzfeed wasn’t right to publish the document, but it is important to understand how we arrived here.

Comey image by Flickr user thierry ehrmann, used with Creative Commons license.

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