In academia, you’ll often see a paper end with a simple, unsatisfying conclusion: More research is needed.
So it goes with the latest Hillary Clinton news. More information is needed.
The text of FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress is very simple. During the course of another investigation — which we now know to be the investigation into Anthony Weiner’s alleged sexting of a 15-year-old — the FBI discovered emails that “appear to be pertinent to the investigation” of Clinton’s handling of classified material. Since Comey had previously told Congress all the evidence had been reviewed and the investigation into Clinton closed, he needed to tell Congress there’s now new evidence and the FBI will look into it.
So what happens next? The FBI is going to review the new emails to “determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.” Subsequent reporting from the New York Times emphasizes that the FBI does “not know how long it [will] take to review the emails, or whether the new information was significant.”
So far, all this is pretty straightforward. You can sum it up in a tweet:
Translation of Comey's letter:— Benjamin Wittes (@benjaminwittes) October 28, 2016
We had a closed matter.
We received some new information.
We are reviewing it.
I'm informing Congress.
There is a lot more panic among Democrats and excitement among Republicans than the facts of the story seem to justify. My sense, reading the chatter, is that both sides are assuming that Comey wouldn’t have sent this letter if he wasn’t previewing something big.
But if we just take Comey at his word — and there’s no obvious reason not to — the truth is simpler: The FBI seized computers or phones related to the Weiner investigation. They found emails, likely from Huma Abedin, that might relate to the Clinton investigation. They now need to review those emails, and Comey thought the safest — and perhaps legally required — course of action was to tell Congress those emails exist, and would be reviewed, rather than be criticized later for covering them up until after the election.
The position Comey has put himself in isn’t fun or institutionally safe: Already, the Clinton campaign is demanding Comey release everything he has, rather than just this vague letter. Republicans, of course, will flay Comey if he releases truly damaging information about Clinton only after the election is complete. And the whole thing is coming 11 days before an election where tensions are high, conservatives are looking for good news, and liberals are seeking excuses to panic — so everyone is freaking out.
But for now, the truth is we need more information to know whether this is a big deal — or nothing at all.