House Republicans could mess up a political dream.
And they appear to be on the verge of doing so when FBI Director James Comey testifies Thursday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
After Comey announced Tuesday that the FBI had determined no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over the particulars of her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, Republicans started taking shots at the Obama appointee — who just happens to have been the No. 2 in George W. Bush’s Justice Department and a donor to the last two Republican presidential nominees.
“What really just mystifies me is the case he makes and then the conclusion he draws,” House Speaker Paul D. Ryan told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on Tuesday night, impeaching the integrity of the highly respected FBI director on national television.
Up and down the Republican Party, from Donald Trump to the conservative Twitterati, Comey was treated as a villain, a co-conspirator in the administration’s plot to save Clinton’s presidential campaign.
That happened even though Comey used the vast majority of his unorthodox public statement to excoriate Clinton for playing by her own set of rules, carelessly sending American secrets back and forth through cyberspace and possibly violating the law.
In belittling Comey, and challenging his commitment to justice, Republicans found a rallying point. The problem is that they all ran to the soccer ball and booted it into their own net.
They should have simply echoed Comey’s staggering indictment of Clinton’s judgment and truthfulness. The legal case is over, and his words about her conduct amount to the best case any Republican has made so far to make voters pause before they think about choosing her.
Thursday’s committee hearing is a mulligan for the GOP. They could spend a few hours getting Comey to repeat what he said in his statement and put even more flesh on the bone. The news media and the public love stories about conflict. To this point, a secondary motif in the Clinton-won’t-face-charges-but-got-burned-by-the-FBI-director narrative has been the GOP’s fight with the Republican in the Obama administration.
That’s terrible for Republicans. They should hug Comey and use him as a weapon against Clinton. Smart Democrats embraced him yesterday, putting distance between the GOP and the impartial arbiter who believes that even if Clinton committed a crime, a prosecution of her would be ill-advised.
The basic test for any prosecutor is whether he or she thinks the case can be won. That involves a lot more than the question of whether a crime was committed. It includes the leanings of a jury, almost certainly made up of residents of the District of Columbia, who are overwhelmingly supportive of Clinton. And imagine if a prosecution went forward against the nominee of a major party, throwing the presidential election to the other side, and she was then found not guilty.
Comey bent over backward to make sure Clinton didn’t escape unscathed, but he didn’t hand the election to the Republican Party. He rendered honest public service on both counts.
Republicans may be happy enough to win the White House by default. But with Trump spouting conspiracy theories and calling for his rival to be jailed without conviction, trial, charges or even a recommendation of prosecution by the FBI, they’re diving down a rabbit hole on Comey now that it's clear the election will be decided by voters.
That’s not new territory. The warrens of rabbitville are full of House Republican hearings intended to bring political pain to President Obama and members of his Cabinet that either fizzled or backfired. The most illustrative example is the gift the Benghazi committee gave to Clinton last October, when 11 hours of testimony resulted in a bounce in the polls for her and widespread ridicule for the panel.
Politics is at its best when the players on both sides understand the game and play it well. Right now, Republicans are failing to do that, and miserably.
The magic of a good public hearing is that it’s run in a straight-up manner and has the effect of making a political opponent look bad by bringing the truth to light. House Republicans would be well-advised to rediscover that lost art before the gavel bangs and Comey begins to testify.
Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen is co-author of the New York Times-bestselling Clinton biography “HRC” and has covered Congress, the White House and elections over the past 15 years.