It’s a familiar story in 2016: one major political party is praising FBI Director James Comey for his integrity and handling of a sensitive investigation; the other party, meanwhile, is blasting him as biased and irresponsible.
And over the last 72 hours, who’s praising and who’s criticizing has completely flipped.
With the surprise news on Friday that Comey had informed Congress the FBI will be investigating additional material related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, Comey has yet again become a polarizing figure in the 2016 election. This time, though, it’s Democrats who are leading the charge against him and Republicans who are saying Comey is in the right. The only area of agreement between the two parties is that both are calling for more information about the new information and what it means.
Nowhere is that drastic shift in discussion more salient than with Trump himself. Back in July when Comey announced the agency would not be pursuing charges against Clinton, Trump tweeted that it was proof the system is “rigged.”
“FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow!” he tweeted, with the hashtag “#RiggedSystem.”
That has been a familiar refrain for Trump. In an interview with Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly Thursday night—less than 24 hours before the news broke—Trump was citing the FBI investigation as proof that he’s not getting a fair shake in the campaign.
“I think the biggest rigging of all is what has happened with the FBI and the Justice Department with respect to Hillary Clinton,” he said. “Because she is so guilty in so many different ways that she shouldn’t even be allowed to run for president.”
The next day, at a rally in New Hampshire, Trump said: “It might not be as rigged as I thought.”
His campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, used similar language in the wake of Friday’s news. On Saturday, she tweeted to criticize Clinton and her allies for their reaction to Comey. “Astonished by the all-out assault on Comey by Team Clinton,” Conway tweeted. “Suggesting he is a partisan interfering with the election is dangerous & unfair.”
But a month ago, on Sept. 30, she had tweeted out a Wall Street Journal story about Comey, saying, “zero accountability.”
The rhetoric from Clinton and her aides and allies toward Comey is equally changed—but in the opposite direction. Back in July, Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said the campaign was “pleased” with Comey’s announcement and defended him against the criticism he was receiving from Republicans unhappy with the final result.
“For weeks Republicans have said they trusted FBI Director Comey to lead an independent review into Secretary Clinton’s emails, but now they are second-guessing his judgment because his findings do not align with their conspiracy theories,” he said. “The bottom line is the career officials who handled this case have determined that no further action is appropriate here, no matter how much Republicans may seek to continuing politicizing this.”
But when Clinton herself addressed the new letter from Comey at a campaign event on Friday, she described the new developments as “troubling”—and she and her campaign began immediately calling on Comey to release additional details.
“It is pretty strange -- it’s pretty strange to put something like that out with such little information right before an election,” she said in Daytona Beach, Fla. “In fact, it’s not just strange. It’s unprecedented, and it’s deeply troubling because voters deserve to get full and complete facts.”
Her chief strategist, Joel Benenson, said Sunday that Comey needs to explain the situation to the American people.
“He should put out all the fact she has, clarify this and I think that’s totally reasonable under the circumstances and the critique he’s getting,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The same is true of allies of both politicians. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) in July touted the FBI’s investigation of Clinton, noting that it came after “months of painstaking work” and praising him for a “thorough, objective review.”
This month, Feinstein used different language to describe the FBI director: “shocked” and “appalling.” “The F.B.I. has a history of extreme caution near Election Day so as not to influence the results,” she said in a statement. “Today’s break from that tradition is appalling.”
Clinton chief strategist Joel Benenson explained the drastic shift in rhetoric Sunday morning: he said Friday’s letter from Comey was an “intervening event.”
“The FBI director took an unprecedented action,” he said. “We’ve seen in the last 24 to 48 hours former law enforcement officials, both Democratic and Republican, having served in administrations from either party, have said this is contrary to policy at the Department of Justice, the statement he put out on Friday.”
Conway, too, attempted an explanation for Trump-world’s similar shift, saying she had never “besmirched the reputation” of Comey and the FBI, and had merely been critical of the investigation process.
“Had Jim Comey simply come forward … back in July and said, ‘We decline to press charges, the investigation is over, there will be no further charges’—had he just said that, then we would accept that result,” Conway said on CNN. “What he did was, he went on to explain why his conclusion was wrong. I guess he was trying to clear his own conscience.”