Flood of leaks turns coverage against Comey, but impact on Clinton unclear

Remember when we used to talk about whether Hillary Clinton would win the FBI primary?

Well, now there’s been a recount.

And as the bureau’s new probe of Clinton’s email mess has transformed the media and political environment, there’s been a sharp shift in the coverage over the last few days. The reporting and analysis is now far more skeptical toward James Comey than when the story erupted on Friday afternoon.

That’s been coupled with a frantic reassessment—and plenty of confusion—of whether the new investigation is indeed shaking up the race. The tentative conventional wisdom: not so much.

As an old Justice Department reporter, I can tell you that I’ve never seen anything like the torrent of leaks coming out of the FBI and DOJ. And that reflects dissension within the department and the bureau over how this should have been handled.

Comey went public despite his own agents not knowing what is in the many thousands of emails found on Anthony Weiner’s laptop, according to sources cited by the media. His laptop appears to have been backing up data from his wife Huma Abedin’s phone, according to sources cited by the media. Comey sent his letter to the Hill over the objections of Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who felt he should stick with department guidelines and not comment on a criminal probe so close to the election, according to sources cited by the media.

But Comey also worried that he would like he was part of a coverup if the new email trove turned out to be significant after Clinton was elected—again, according to sources cited by the media.

Add to this leak-a-thon the assault on Comey by Clinton, her team and her allies: while Nancy Pelosi called Comey a “great man” in July, Harry Reid now says he may have violated the Hatch Act. And that has generated lots of headlines.

A New York Times news story today likens Comey (fairly or unfairly, it says) to J. Edgar Hoover.

And then there are the op-ed wars. Not surprisingly, former Obama attorney general Eric Holder rips his former colleague in the Washington Post:

“Director Comey broke with these fundamental principles. I fear he has unintentionally and negatively affected public trust in both the Justice Department and the FBI.”

But National Review’s Andrew McCarthy makes the counterargument:

“How rich of Hillary Clinton to complain now that FBI director James Comey is threatening the democratic process by commenting publicly about a criminal investigation on the eve of an election. Put aside that Comey did not say a single thing last week that implicates Clinton in a crime. The biggest coup for Clinton in the waning months of the campaign has been Comey’s decision not to prosecute her — a decision outside the responsibilities of the FBI director and publicly announced in a manner that contradicts law-enforcement protocols…

“Now, suddenly, Mrs. Clinton is worried about law-enforcement interference in politics…

“Law-enforcement people will tell you that taking action too close to Election Day can affect the outcome of the vote; therefore, it should not be done because law enforcement is supposed to be apolitical. But of course, not taking action one would take but for the political timing is as political as it gets.”

But even with the more critical coverage, the FBI investigation is still diverting the spotlight of whatever else Clinton wants to talk about.

And yes, I know that Bill Clinton pounced on George H.W. Bush days before the 1992 election when special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh brought an indictment against his former Pentagon chief Caspar Weinberger, which was later tossed out. This isn’t the first time politics has tainted the end of a campaign.

So how is the Comey controversy affecting the campaign, now that we’re a week out?

A New York Times news story says “the race is still exceedingly close.”

But the Times Upshot blog gives Clinton a 90 percent chance of winning, which is not exactly close.

The news story is more nuanced:

“Hillary Clinton has established a slim edge over Donald J. Trump in early-voter turnout in several vital swing states, pressing her longstanding advantages in state-level organization and potentially mitigating the fallout from her campaign’s latest scrap with the F.B.I.”

The Washington Post’s Fix blog has a ray of hope for the Republican nominee: “Donald Trump has a path to victory again thanks to Florida.”

But despite polls showing Trump ahead or virtually tied in Florida, the column says: “There's been some movement toward Donald Trump in both national and swing state polling over the past week. Trump's problem is that, at least as of today, it's just not enough.”

Politico also hedges its bets:

“The first national polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the election’s latest October surprise suggest it’s having a limited impact on the presidential polls so far. But there are a few swing states where the bombshell letter FBI Director James Comey sent to Congress Friday could still have a disproportionate effect.”

One more set of numbers, from an ABC/Post poll: While 63 percent of those surveyed say the FBI review makes no difference to them, 34 percent say it makes them less likely to vote for Clinton—but those are “disproportionately” Republicans and GOP-leaning independents.

I think all this hurts Hillary at the margins, at the very least by knocking her off stride, and convincing Trump supporters that he can win as he goes to such solid Democratic states as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to try to expand his path to 270.

If what Jim Comey has done is deeply troubling to you, you probably weren’t voting for Clinton anyway. If you’re dismissing Comey’s move, you were probably already in Clinton’s column. But the uproar does foster a sense, which clearly helps Trump, that this thing ain’t over.