The Briefing, Vol. IV, Issue 35-
- FBI news dump terrible for Clinton
- Is she really that incompetent, or was she lying?
- Trump’s shift from Point A to Point A on immigration
As we noted last week, Donald Trump has been underperforming in polls of key states that he needs to win, as well as key states where Republicans need to defend vulnerable Senate seats. If the election had been held last Thursday, there would be no question that Hillary Clinton would have won by a large margin.
But as of today, the picture has grown a lot more complicated. More information has emerged that throws further doubts upon the main argument for electing Clinton — her competence — to say nothing of her already-tarnished honesty.
Suddenly, it does not seem unthinkable that the presidential contest will be a real race. Here’s why.
Clinton FBI dump: There are ten official long weekends in the federal calendar, and on the Friday afternoon before each one you can expect some federal agency to dump a whole bunch of bad news for someone. This Labor Day weekend was no different.
On Friday afternoon, the FBI released its 50-page report on its investigation of Hillary Clinton, along with 11 pages of notes about FBI investigators’ interview with her.
To say the report contains bad news for her is a dramatic understatement. The fact is, there is no way of interpreting the contents that turns out good for her. In a normal presidential year, it would obliterate her chances of winning an election. But of course, this is not a normal presidential year.
Liar, or incompetent? There are only two ways of looking at the answers Clinton gave interviewers. Either she played dumb and lied through her teeth about nearly everything — a federal crime for which others (Scooter Libby, Martha Stewart, etc.) have been sent to prison, or she literally did not know even basic elements of the high-ranking government job to which she was appointed. Take your pick.
It is hard to believe, for example, that America’s top diplomat — second to the president himself — would not know that the marking “(C)” on a document refers to the fact that it’s classified as “confidential.” But Clinton told the FBI just that — that she had no idea what it meant. As the FBI interviewers’ notes put it, “When asked what the parenthetical ‘C’ meant before a paragraph … Clinton stated she did not know and could only speculate it was referencing paragraphs marked in alphabetical order.”
Even worse, Clinton was asked about one of the emails containing classified information that she had risked exposing by sending it over her private email server. This particular email (originally reported on in June) was about a potential drone strike that the U.S. was considering in Pakistan. The FBI interviewers asked Clinton about this email, and whether it raised any concerns for her in terms of confidentiality.
Her answer? “Clinton stated deliberation over a future drone strike did not give her cause for concern regarding classification…Clinton understood this type of conversation as part of the routine deliberation process … Clinton believed the classification level of future drone strikes depended on the context.”
That’s quite amazing. We’re talking about a drone strike in a sovereign country where U.S. military activity is extremely controversial and, at least in theory, requires plausible deniability. (Bear in mind that the doctor who helped the U.S. find Osama bin Laden in Pakistan was actually arrested and originally sentenced to three decades in prison.) Yet someone who served as secretary of State for four years somehow doesn’t understand that this is not something to be shared with the public.
For the record, Clinton said she didn’t see any classification problem about many emails that investigators brought to her attention. She also said many times that she did “not recall” various things that nearly anyone should be able to recall. She had her lawyer present at the interview. It was that sort of thing.
So was Clinton really this clueless throughout her time as secretary, or was she playing dumb in order to deceive the FBI? (Not that those are mutually exclusive.) It’s not clear which interpretation is worse for her as a candidate. Neither is good.
There are a lot of other little things to be gleaned from the 58 pages the FBI released. One is that Clinton’s team lost a laptop filled with all her emails (including the classified ones) in the actual postal mail. Another is that she used 13 different devices to access her private/work email system, again giving the lie to the idea that she had created her unprecedented private server setup for the sake of convenience so as to use just one device. (Some of these devices were apparently destroyed with a hammer, but the whereabouts of some remain unclear.) Yet another is that Clinton’s server was breached by someone who knew how to cover his tracks using dark-web tools.
None of this makes the Justice Department’s decision not to prosecute Clinton for reckless handling of classified information look particularly brilliant. Nor, of course, FBI Director James Comey’s recommendation to that effect.
Another concern: Between facts known previously and this FBI report, it seems that Clinton’s team may have destroyed evidence while it was under congressional subpoena. This is huge no-no, obviously — another federal crime.
The bottom line: Trump’s negatives are historically high for a presidential candidate. So are Clinton’s, but at every point in this race so far, they haven’t been quite as high as his. Trump’s chances in 2016 depend on Clinton being the more unattractive option.
This FBI report won’t necessarily accomplish that on its own, but it’s certainly a step in that direction. The result is that Trump’s odds look a bit better today than they did early last week.
Damn the torpedoes: At the beginning of last week, Trump seemed to be (and actually said he was) on the verge of adopting an immigration plan resembling what he had previously denounced as “amnesty.” He was possibly going to get behind a plan that allowed illegal immigrants present in the U.S. to gain legal status. He was openly discussing the fact that it’s difficult to tear families apart through the strict enforcement of immigration laws.
Well, a path to legal status may actually still be on the cards, but you wouldn’t know it from his Phoenix immigration speech last week, which seemed to offer a resounding answer: “Nope.”
The speech went for more than an hour, and Trump extended it by going off on every possible tangent. But importantly for his die-hard supporters, he held the line on immigration.
The emphasis in his speech, however, evinced a subtle change: His rhetoric focuses now not on the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., but on the swift deportation of criminal immigrants.
Trump is approaching this as a law-and-order issue, much like he did in his very first speech. And that’s not an unpopular approach. Most people support the immediate deportation of criminal immigrants, and in recent years U.S. enforcement efforts have actually swerved in that direction, resulting in a dramatic increase in criminal deportations even as overall removals of illegal immigrants have declined.
From the beginning, Trump has been assailed for his harsh tone on immigration. But whether he can overcome that to win the election, there remains quite a bit of room for a candidate who prioritizes a zero-tolerance policy for criminal immigrants in the United States.
The fact that the Obama administration voluntarily adopted a no-funding policy for sanctuary cities, for example, demonstrates that there is political power behind the idea of using immigration policy to keep American streets safe. The main question in this election is whether Trump himself can exploit that power, given that his negatives are so unusually high.