April 26th, 2018


Score Another for The Donald: Trump out-strategized Congress on Comey and Clinton

Margaret Carlson

By Margaret Carlson Bloomberg View

Published May 16, 2016

Say this for Donald Trump: He can make political hay with whatever is at hand.

His unique skills were highlighted by the ham-handed Republicans in Congress, who spent their time on the fruitless task of trying to prove that FBI Director James Comey's recommendation not to indict Hillary Clinton was evidence of bias. Trump, meanwhile, is concentrating on what Comey said, not what he didn't do.

On Tuesday, Trump dramatized Comey's findings, zeroing in on the destruction of more than 30,000 emails that Clinton's lawyer unilaterally deemed personal. As President Barack Obama embarked on his first campaign trip with Clinton, extolling how qualified she was for his job, Trump said the only thing she is good at "is getting out of trouble."

It's true that she has a talent for dodging bullets. Just look at Whitewater, Troopergate, cattle futures, Paula Jones, the Travel Office firings, the Lewinsky scandal, the Mark Rich pardon and furniture being moved out, and back into, the White House.

But she hasn't escaped entirely unscathed. By refusing to indict, the FBI chief handed Clinton a clean legal bill of health but not a political one. Republicans now have in hand Comey's exposition of the facts to contrast with Clinton's evasions, justifications and explanations. Spliced together, they make for a devastating video that can be shown in a continuing loop from now until November, disappointing only to those who want Clinton in prison stripes.

Imagine if Republicans got their indictment. The Democrat that Donald Trump has the best chance of beating would have been chased from the race. Enter Joe Biden, and no wave of white working-class voters who want to build a wall, bar Muslims, start a trade war, and, possibly, a nuclear one would save Trump from defeat.

While Congress saw an opportunity to attack Comey's integrity at a televised hearing, Trump seized on the fresh ammunition he was given to use against "Crooked Hillary." Trump crowed to the New York Post, "I would rather face her than almost anybody else."

Grandstanding members of Congress who clumsily grilled Comey proved no match for the FBI director whose name is synonymous with straight-shooter, a star who once served as deputy to the independent prosecutor Ken Starr and as President George W. Bush's deputy attorney general. Yet moments after Comey's announcement, Republicans decided to tear down one of their own. Former prosecutors rushed to TV studios to attack his integrity, among them former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and former White House counsel Boyden Gray.

Then Comey was summoned to the Hill to play the villain in a morality tale scripted by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Sure, instead of allowing him the courtesy of taking the oath privately, they got the frisson of forcing Comey to raise his right hand in public like a tobacco company executive called to the Hill to discuss a lethal product. But that was their last triumph.

Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, tried to inoculate himself by declaring: "I love the FBI. My grandfather was in the FBI," But the the theme of the day was that Comey practiced a double standard of justice: one for ordinary people and one for the powerful. Comey replied that prosecuting Clinton would have shown a double standard.

Chaffetz inexplicably name-checked Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, who brought the country the Benghazi hearings. That was like turning to the captain of the Titanic for pointers on sailing.

Gowdy conducted a lengthy law school tutorial on intent and exculpatory statements, while instructing Comey to please keep it short. It's a given, he said, that Clinton was "treated differently than the rest of us" and this was not presented in the form of a question.

Apropos of nothing, Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, asked Comey if he'd seen "Hamilton." Neither had. After all, they are men of the people, and tickets to the blockbuster Broadway musical can cost $1,000. It was just a long windup for Mica to call Comey's decision "choreographed." It brought forth Comey at his G-man best: "Look me in the eye and listen to what I'm about to say: I did not coordinate that with anyone."

Committee members gave Comey a soft target with their insistence that Clinton's behavior was worse than that of Gen. David Petraeus, who had to step down as head of the Central Intelligence Agency and cop a plea when he was found to have mishandled classified information. Comey testified that Petraeus was much more culpable, intentionally sharing a vast quantity of classified information with his mistress and lying about it to prosecutors. It turns out that the general even hid documents from the FBI in his attic. That was not the bombshell Republicans were hoping for.

This is not to say that a wounded Clinton makes Trump strong. He still has to run against himself: He campaigns by tweet and keeps insisting that an anti-Hillary ad featuring a Star of David on a pile of money was benign: Just your ordinary sheriff's star or the kind found in a Disney sticker book from the movie "Frozen." He's not an anti-Semite because he has Jewish grandchildren. And he added Saddam Hussein to his list of admired strongmen.

Deflated, Chaffetz demanded that the FBI investigate whether Clinton had lied under oath to Congress. Comey told Chaffetz he would need to make a formal request. "You'll have one," he chortled, "in the next few hours."

Perhaps, Benghazi-like, they could spend another year and $7 million on nothing. Instead, they should call it a day and realize that by not finding enough reasons to indict her, Comey enumerated for them persuasive reasons not to elect her. Watching the drama, or lack of it, play out, it was hard not to think that they had sitting in front of them a person they should treasure in their party -- and who may even be presidential material (are you listening "Never Trump" Republicans?). He's such a straight-shooter, however, he wouldn't consider it.

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Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. A former White House correspondent for Time, she was also Time's first female columnist. She appeared on CNN's "Capital Gang" for 15 years. A former editor at the New Republic, Carlson has been a fellow at Harvard University's Institute of Politics, a Poynter Fellow at Yale University and a journalist-in-residence at the University of Notre Dame.