As the US presidential election enters the “death zone”, where there remains little scope for altering voter intentions, the resurfacing of Hillary Clinton’s email saga is generating a lot of noise. It may, however, be generating less movement.
The tenuous link between Hillary Clinton, a sense of wrong-doing and the emails in question has been beside the point. FBI Director James Comey’s announcement, just 11 days before the election that his organisation will “re-examine” emails linked to Clinton, appears to have reconfirmed the “crooked Hillary” paradigm, at least to those who believe it, if not to those who don’t.
While the announcement was initially seen as damaging the Clinton campaign, within 24 hours the announcement was looking like a double-edged sword. Not only have senior Democrats, including Clinton, rounded on Comey and the unprecedented timing of the announcement, so have some Republicans, as well as independent commentators.
The emails being “re-examined” by the FBI are from disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, to a 15-year-old girl. Weiner is the estranged husband of senior Clinton aide Huma Abedin. Abedin handled Clinton’s email traffic and Weiner had used the server to also send emails, including those being investigated.
In the face of mounting criticism over the timing and tenuous link, Comey admitted that “we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails”. This followed Clinton being cleared by the FBI in July of wrong-doing for using a non-secure email server.
[Rundle: someone should’ve told Clinton, it’s a long way down from the high road]
Given the potential political significance of the issue, the further announcement about “re-examining” the emails during a presidential election campaign is being seen by some in the US as undermining the principle of the separation of powers between (a component of) the judiciary and government. That the emails being investigated by the FBI in this case were not from Clinton, much less that they imply any wrong-doing on her part, is being construed as political interference.
Coming in the middle of Trump’s claims that the election has been “rigged”, not least because Clinton had not been charged over the earlier email affair, there was some thought that the Comey’s new statement could have taken the heat out of such allegations. Yet while congratulating the FBI on this new announcement, Trump actually stepped up the “rigged” accusations, expanding them to claim the use of dead voters, illegal migrant voters, compromised and fraudulent voting systems and, of course, the “rigged” media.
It remains possible that the revived email affair might influence some undecided voters, although it will be another day or two before new polls can show any such movement. But, in truth, the email affairs — “the worst since Watergate”, according to Trump — is simply another bizarre twist in a strange election campaign.
For those who like circuses, including clowns, jugglers and high-wire acts, this campaign has offered more entertainment than the cheesy “reality” television programs for which Trump is famous. But for those who care about electoral politics and, in particular, the health of the US political system and its role in global politics, the conduct of this election has been and remains a disconcerting indictment. As a reflection of the health of American democracy, it is also a bit scary.
*Damien Kingsbury is professor of international politics at Deakin University