Opinion - FBI Director James Comey sent a further letter to Congress this morning announcing that nothing illegal had been found in the further investigation of Hilary Clinton's emails. What will it mean for her campaign?
There is a tradition in American elections for what journalists call the October surprise. It's an event in the lead-up to voting that damages or aides a campaign. Famous cases include the 1980 announcement that the Tehran hostages wouldn't be released, which sank Jimmy Carter; Republican Chris Christie praising Barack Obama after Hurricane Sandy in 2012; and in 2004, an Osama bin Laden video claiming responsibility for 9/11 and threatening America, which boosted Bush against Kerry.
This election has been thick with October surprises, and November ones. Sometimes there have been two or three stories a day that would qualify as earth-shattering in most elections. There have been so many that the public have likely missed most of them, as they were blown off the front page by the next one, and the one after that.
The eleventh hour investigation
The bigger ones included WikiLeaks and Trump's sexual assault boasting. But the surprise of surprises was FBI Director James Comey's 28 October letter to Congress saying he was re-opening an investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails because new evidence had come to light; evidence he hadn't seen yet but which might be relevant. It was a bizarre and quite possibly illegal move that may cost him his job.
Among the problems was that announcing an investigation just nine days out from an election gives no time to reach a conclusion, leaving only innuendo and speculation. The previous email investigation took an entire year.
This morning, James Comey cleared it up. With less than two days before polling day and after nearly a third of all votes have already been cast in early voting, the FBI Director sent a follow-up letter saying, "We have not changed our conclusions expressed in July". Nothing to see here, folks, move along.
Man - that was fast! He might as well have said, "Can we just pretend I never sent that letter last week?" James Comey's bosses, Attorney-General Loretta Lynch and President Obama, have likely been riding him hard for the last week with a "get this finished or you're toast" message. His letter acknowledges that the team have been "working around the clock" and expresses gratitude "to the professionals at the FBI for doing an extraordinary amount of high-quality work in a short period of time".
What he did not say in his letter was, "I'm sorry that I raised this issue without due cause, without a search warrant and without even looking at the evidence, that was really dumb. Please can I keep my job?"
But I think we can take that as read.
What effect will this have?
Initial reactions were predictable. Hillary Clinton's spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, said, "We are glad this matter is resolved." And, having spent the last week praising the FBI, Donald Trump quickly did a 180-degree turn saying "Hillary Clinton is protected by a rigged system".
Nearly a third of the electorate has already voted, most of them while these questions of illegality hung in the air. Regardless of that, evidence suggests that early voting is leaning strongly towards Hillary Clinton.
For those voting on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT), it will likely change very little. Polling suggests that people made up their minds a while ago about whom to support, and subsequent fluctuations in the polls have been driven by the waning and waxing of likely turnout and enthusiasm. The fluctuations caused by the original Comey letter have been diminishing anyway over the last few days. Today's letter may firm up that recalibration.
In this regard, it will have little impact on whether Trump or Clinton wins. But the original letter did rescue the Republican campaign at a time when it was looking like turning into a rout, as the wheels fell off and Trump looked like he'd given up hope. That emotionally driven impact can't be turned around at this late stage.
Today's letter may drive a few extra Democrats to the polls on Tuesday as they feel the air clearing from the innuendo, but it may also drive a few extra Trump supporters to the polls in anger at the world they believe is rigged against them. Those impacts cancel each other out.
James Comey is now probably feeling exhausted and desperately hoping that being fired by Obama after the election would look too much like political revenge, because that may be the only consideration that will save his job.
A series of shocking events
There have been so many outrageous stories throughout this election that many go unnoticed. Here are a series of stories from just the last four days that would be major shocks in most elections:
- Senior staff from Trump surrogate Chris Christie's administration are found guilty at the Bridgegate trial;
- Eric Trump says a right-wing extremist politician deserves to be shot;
- The Associated Press finds proof that Melania Trump worked as a model in the US without a visa (ie she lied about this);
- Rudi Giuliani reveals that the Trump campaign is getting inside information from the FBI;
- Donald Trump releases a campaign advert that is arguably anti-Semitic;
- The New York Times finds evidence that Donald Trump is not nearly as wealthy as he claims;
- Trump Tower in Toronto files for bankruptcy;
- Trump International in Las Vegas is censured for violating labour laws;
- Fox News claims leaks from the FBI that Clinton is 'likely' to be indicted;
- The FBI 'leak' is acknowledged as false, with shrapnel ricocheting back in the opposite direction;
- And the FBI announces nothing illegal in Clinton's emails.
Phil Smith is an award-winning journalist who has reported for RNZ from China, India and Australia. He has spent far too long revelling in the byzantine minutiae of American politics.