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Why Team Clinton is linking its criticisms of the FBI to WikiLeaks and Russian hackers

Russian President Putin Attends Russian-Japanese Business Dialogue In Tokyo Photo by Ma Ping - Pool/Getty Images

John Podesta is tearing into the FBI. In an op-ed published Friday in the Washington Post, Hillary Clinton’s former campaign chair didn’t just fault the bureau for devoting too many resources to investigating her private email server — or for not doing enough to go after evidence that the Russian government was hacking the election to help Donald Trump.

Instead, Podesta argued that it was the combination of these two decisions — the overzealousness of the Clinton server investigation coupled with its relative indifference to Russian meddling — that really made the agency’s behavior outrageous, and even worthy of a congressional investigation.

“The former acting director of the CIA has called the Russian cyberattack the political equivalent of 9/11. Just as after the real 9/11, we need a robust, independent investigation into what went wrong inside the government and how to better protect our country in the future,” Podesta wrote.

He added: “Comparing the FBI’s massive response to the overblown email scandal with the seemingly lackadaisical response to the very real Russian plot to subvert a national election shows that something is deeply broken at the FBI.”

Podesta is attempting to link a well-founded belief that the FBI’s conduct made a big difference in 2016 to a much more speculative claim about the influence of the Russian government on the election outcome. Hillary Clinton herself offered a similarly blended argument in private remarks to donors. Strategically, this makes a lot of sense. Vladimir Putin, whom members of Congress from both parties have criticized for years, is a much better “bad guy” for Democrats than FBI head James Comey, who was the recipient of bipartisan acclaim until Democrats started turning against him over the handling of his email investigation.

Comey’s letter did clearer damage to Clinton than WikiLeaks

Since the election, some liberals have focused on just how badly they were screwed by the Russian government. In a video released this week titled “The Resistance,” former MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann called Trump a “Russian whore” who had been elected because of a “Russian coup.” Slate’s Theodore Johnson has argued that Russia “hacked the voters.” The Hamilton Electors, the group that wants the Electoral College to overturn the election results, says Russia “won Trump the presidency.”

This is overstated. There’s reason for concern over the basic fact that a foreign government would commit crimes to try to influence the American election. President Obama is certainly taking the threat seriously, vowing to respond to the brazenness of Putin’s actions.

But whether the hacks did, in fact, have a major impact on moving votes is a separate issue.

And it’s a much tougher case to make. For one, some reporters still don’t buy that Russia can be traced to the DNC breach. But even for those who did, the most they could claim is that Russia provided the emails that led WikiLeaks to publish its trove of documents about Clinton’s campaign.

These aren’t the emails that hurt Clinton the most. When it comes to that question, the evidence suggests that the most damaging “Clinton email” stories were, by far, the ones that emerged from the FBI’s criminal investigation into whether she broke classification law by setting up a private email server during her time as secretary of state.

Just look at the chart below of changes in Clinton scandal coverage. The vast majority of the DNC and Podesta email leaks — the ones that emerged from the Russian hack — had already been published by mid-October. On October 20, I could write about having read through more than 20,000 pages of Podesta’s emails. There was some discussion of Clinton’s behind-closed-doors claim to bankers to want “open trade and open borders” that came up during the debate, but no major controversies would emerge from them. Certainly none got a ton of play after mid-October.

By contrast, the most relentless barrage of negative Clinton coverage wouldn’t spike until the FBI investigation spilled into public view again. On October 28, Comey wrote a letter to Republican Congress members announcing that the bureau had found new emails on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin, and that the criminal investigation had not been closed. That was when the blitzkrieg of anti-Clinton email coverage really surged. You could argue that it outrageously made a bullshit scandal into a national story that tipped the scales of the race, as Vox’s Matt Yglesias has. But Putin and the Russians can’t plausibly be said to have had something to do with it.

In other words, Weiner’s sexting to teenage girls had a much greater electoral effect than Vladimir Putin’s thirst for world domination — even if Putin is a much more compelling villain for the party.

Podesta wants to link Comey and Putin

Over the course of the campaign, there was a lot of talk about “Clinton’s emails” that often had the effect of confusing rather than clarifying the underlying issues at hand.

Because everything tied to Hillary Clinton the person and the electronic messaging form of communication known as email can plausibly be said to be a “Hillary Clinton email story,” the press feasted on a torrent of them — even when there were actually several separate controversies at work, and each was less than the sum of its parts.

This same dynamic is still at work post-election, just now in a different way. Saying that the Russians are to blame for the Clinton email scandal is partly true, insofar as they helped contribute to a general stream of stories about Clinton and emails. But it also misses which Clinton email controversy the Russian hacking controversy contributed to.

Podesta’s op-ed represents an attempt to get around that. By blaming the FBI for not going after Russian interference hard enough and for going too hard against her over the private email server, he’s connecting the thing that really did hurt her to Russian hacking and interference, for which there’s less direct evidence.

It’s an argument that makes sense, even if it deflects blame from the failures of the Democratic Party’s own messaging to take down the most widely disliked presidential candidate in modern American history. It’s just not clear that it’s one the Republicans in Congress will be particularly eager to take up.

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