Hillary Clinton’s seemingly smooth path to Election Day abruptly ended Friday.
Clinton’s presidential campaign was thrown back on the defensive by FBI Director James Comey’s decision to review newly discovered e-mails that may be related to the investigation into her use of a private server. The new e-mails surfaced in an unrelated investigation of Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s estranged husband, former Representative Anthony Weiner.
Legally, Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta insisted, the new revelations won’t change Comey’s decision earlier this year to close his investigation. Politically, the immediate effects were unclear but promised to inject chaos into a campaign that had Clinton well positioned to claim victory over Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8.
Clinton, at a hastily called news conference before leaving Iowa, urged the FBI to release more information about its review and said she was confident it wouldn’t change the race for the White House.
“I think people a long time ago made up their minds about the e-mails,” Clinton said.
Still, the FBI announcement was another surprising twist in what has been an unconventional and unpredictable presidential campaign. It’s also possible Comey’s probe into the newly discovered e-mails will not be complete by Election Day, meaning voters will go to the polls with the e-mail question hanging over Clinton.
“The damage has been done,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. “House Republicans and/or the Trump campaign aren’t going to let it go for the next 10 days.”
Before Friday, Clinton and her aides were expressing cautious optimism. Even though some polls showed her race against Trump was tightening, Clinton held a consistent and significant lead.
The campaign announced that she would be traveling to Arizona next week—an expansion of the battleground map meant to show strength as Trump’s routes to 270 electoral votes appeared to dwindle. Her main talking point on the stump was warning against complacency from supporters who may think she had a win secured.
At a minimum, it seemed like that momentum was halted. The question is whether voters—already weary of a year-long debate over Clinton’s e-mails—will turn against her, or will feel like they’ve heard it all before.
Clinton still holds advantages. About 20 million people have already cast ballots, at a time when polls show her in the lead. Those people can’t take those votes back, no matter what Comey’s probe finds.
In addition, Trump comes to this fight already on the defensive and, in the minds of some voters, discredited by accusations that he groped women, and a videotaped boast that he had the right to touch women without their consent because he’s a celebrity. Trump has denied the groping allegations.
Both candidates suffer from a trust deficit with voters. Prior to Friday’s news, likely voters were about split on whether Clinton or Trump was more trustworthy, according to a Bloomberg Politics national poll. Thirty-nine percent said “trustworthy” better described Clinton and 37 percent said Trump — a difference within the margin of error — while 24 percent said they weren’t sure.
Republican strategist Doug Heye said that for those reason the news may not have a big effect on the presidential race.
“I don’t know how impactful it is yet on the general election because everybody’s made up their mind anyway on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a lot of these people have already voted,’’ he said. “And anytime there’s Hillary Clinton news something comes out about Donald Trump” either in an opposition research release or because Trump does something self-destructive.
It may aid Republicans running for Congress, particularly Senate races in North Carolina, Missouri, Florida and Nevada, he said.
“The ability to change that conversation and not wake up tomorrow morning and not have every question be about Donald Trump I think is a tremendous benefit to Republican candidates,’’ Heye said.
Trump pounced on the news immediately at a rally in Manchester, New Hampshire. “Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office,” he told a cheering crowd that broke out in chants of “lock her up!” “I have great respect for the fact that the FBI and the Department of Justice are now willing to have the courage to right the horrible mistake that they made. This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understand. It is everybody’s hope that it is about to be corrected.”
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was more blunt, saying on Twitter, “A great day in our campaign just got even better.”
After Comey said in July that the FBI recommended no criminal charges should be brought in the investigation into Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server, the Democratic nominee’s campaign sought to put the controversy behind.
But another set of e-mails, those of Podesta that were hacked and then were released by WikiLeaks, continued to dog Clinton. Some of the e-mails revealed internal rifts in the campaign and raised new questions about the overlapping charitable and financial interests of former President Bill Clinton, his former key aide Doug Band, and the Clinton Foundation.
The Clinton campaign had no advance warning of Comey’s letter and only learned about it after the candidate’s plane landed in Cedar Rapids. The wifi on the aircraft wasn’t fully operational so questions didn’t come up when campaign manager Robby Mook and communications director Jennifer Palmieri briefed reporters during the flight.
At her two rallies Friday, in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Clinton didn’t address the subject. She mostly stuck to her script, encouraging early voting and criticizing Trump as unfit to be president, especially because of how he talks about and treats women. At her news conference before leaving the state, she said, “The American people deserve to get the full and complete facts immediately.”
Julie Fleming, 53, a self-employed Clinton supporter from Des Moines attending her rally there on Friday, said she’s disappointed the FBI letter has become a distraction. But it doesn’t change her view of Clinton, and she doesn’t think it ultimately will hurt her in the election.
“There are too many things more important,’’ Fleming said, citing women’s health care and “having a president that represents all of America.’’
Podesta urged Comey to immediately provide more information to the public about new evidence the agency is investigating. He said in a statement that Comey’s letter to eight congressional committee chairman left unanswered significant questions.
“It is extraordinary that we would see something like this just 11 days out from a presidential election,” Podesta said. “The Director owes it to the American people to immediately provide the full details of what he is now examining. We are confident this will not produce any conclusions different from the one the FBI reached in July.”
Manley said all Clinton’s campaign can do for now is push for the FBI to provide more information about the e-mails it’s examining and how they’re linked—or not—to Clinton. “They’ve got a problem,” he said. “Their statement just admitted they don’t know what’s going on and they need to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible.”