Donald Trump lost one of his sharpest attacks against Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid after the FBI director said Tuesday the presumptive Democratic nominee shouldn’t face criminal charges over her e-mail practices while serving as secretary of state.
But Director James B. Comey also provided potentially damaging fodder for Trump to continue to vilify Clinton, whom Trump is seeking to brand as “crooked.” While Comey said “no reasonable prosecutor” would bring charges, he described her and her aides’ use of email as “extremely careless.”
After Trump called Clinton “guilty as hell” during his campaign and said she deserved to go to jail, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee was left with no choice on Tuesday but to attack the judicial process itself as corrupt.
“The system is rigged,” Trump wrote in one Twitter post within minutes of Comey’s announcement, the speedy response underscoring the political importance of the decision. “FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem,” Trump wrote in a second tweet.
House Speaker Paul Ryan echoed the attack in a less harsh tone, saying it “appears damage is being done to the rule of law” by ignoring the “criminal actions” by Clinton that he said the investigation uncovered.
The Clinton campaign was slower to react, issuing a short statement noting her “mistake to use her personal email.”
“We are glad that this matter is now resolved,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said.
It was unclear how much Comey’s conclusions would marginalize an issue that has threatened Clinton’s presidential aspirations from the start, or whether the decision would dilute the potency of Trump’s main criticism of the Washington establishment.
The charge of a rigged system has become a trademark for Trump, who has used similar adjectives to attack the political system and nearly all aspects of Washington. He may have a harder time getting it to stick this time.
While President Barack Obama nominated Comey as the head of the FBI, the director is a Republican who backed Obama’s opponents in 2008 and 2012. He served as deputy attorney general under former President George W. Bush, a Republican, launching an investigation that led to the conviction of a top aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Comey began his remarks on the investigation into Clinton’s email practices by openly acknowledging the doubts his probe faced, and confronted them head on. “They do not know what I am about to say,” he told reporters in Washington, referring to his superiors at the Justice Department and the White House.
And he closed by predicting that an “intense public debate” would follow, hoping that his assurance that “no outside influence of any kind was brought to bear” would ultimately win out.
Trump has tried to leverage polling that shows voters say he is more believable than Clinton, a charge that could be strengthened by Comey’s rebuke.
“Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of the classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” Comey said.
Trump was judged more honest and trustworthy than Clinton, 45 percent to 37 percent, in a Quinnipiac University national poll of registered voters conducted June 21-27. His next public appearance is Tuesday night in North Carolina, where Obama and Clinton are campaigning on Tuesday as well.
Clinton’s use of private email has been a political anvil around her campaign’s neck. The issue dominated her news conference in March 2015, about a month before she officially announced her bid for the White House, as she responded to the first reports about her e-mail system.
Questions about the emails resurrected many of the same political attacks that have been used for years against Clinton, giving her opponents the opportunity to paint her as manipulative, dishonest, and acting as if she were above the law. Nearly all of the major Republican presidential candidates in 2016 used the issue to criticize her.
Her one brief respite was when Sen. Bernie Sanders, her top challenger for the Democratic nomination, deflated the attacks during their first debate. When CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked about the scandal, Sanders said, “The secretary of state is right, the American people are sick and tired about hearing about your damn e-mails.”
“Enough of the emails” Sanders said. “Let’s talk about the real issues facing the American people.”
(c) 2016, Bloomberg · Michael C. Bender