Of the many astonishing things that happened during the U.S. election, one stands out and may have had more to do with Hillary Clinton’s defeat than anything else.
The FBI’s clumsy re-entry into the campaign with barely two weeks to go had a huge impact. Without any substance, without any facts, the FBI’s announcement that it was looking at more Hillary Clinton emails cast a heavy, long veil of wrongdoing on Clinton. It killed her momentum. It killed her campaign. The announcement, with two days to go that no wrongdoing was found, landed with no one still listening.
The role of federal police forces in national election campaigns is not new, and the record shows volcanic-like repercussions often follow.
There was a case like that a decade ago in Canada. Paul Martin was trying to win his second election campaign when the RCMP announced it was investigating Ralph Goodale, the finance minister, in an alleged insider trading case.
The news broke during a seven-day Christmas holiday hiatus from campaigning. In a news-starved week, the premise of Liberal corruption prevailed in the media. The story was repeated non-stop, and, like Clinton, the Liberals faced a number of other scandal-like issues, making the RCMP announcement so much more believable.
Before the RCMP’s involvement, the Liberals had a six-point lead in the polls. But that lead dissipated and led to the defeat of the Liberal government in the election of January 23, 2006. Stephen Harper became prime minister and, while Goodale was subsequently exonerated of all suspicion, it was far too late to save Paul Martin and his government.
In Clinton’s case, even with her many liabilities, she was cruising to victory until that late-breaking bombshell – but, like the Liberals in 2006, she just couldn’t overcome the stigma of one more scent of controversy, or, as Donald Trump gleefully called it, “corruption.” That one last thing pushed so many voters away from her.
The FBI has been there before. One of the most interesting stories of FBI involvement in U.S. presidential politics is the story about Watergate, Deep Throat and president Richard Nixon.
The famous break-in at Democratic headquarters occurred on June 17, 1972, almost five months before the election, and yet Richard Nixon was re-elected, sweeping the country in a smashing victory. The Watergate break-in was known and reported upon before the election, but hardly anyone took it seriously.
In those days, it was inconceivable to think a president and his men could be that corrupt. Early on, the media shied away from going full tilt on Watergate because it just didn’t make sense. Nixon was given a pass – or the benefit of the doubt – and he was allowed to win the 1973 election unscathed. By contrast, in today’s world, even the pope wouldn’t get that same benefit of the doubt.
Political justice, of course, caught up with Nixon shortly after his victory, and that is where the FBI once again came in. For more than 30 years, history buffs, journalists and politicos wondered who Deep Throat, the person most instrumental in the Watergate scandal breaking wide open, was.
In 2005, 31 years after Nixon’s resignation, Mark Felt, a former assistant director of the FBI, came forward before his death and acknowledged he was Deep Throat. From the highest echelons of the FBI, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were enabled to go the distance to bring Richard Nixon down.
In political life, people who enable reporters get big stories usually have motives – often selfish ones. Felt was passed over by Nixon to head the FBI and it could be that is what made him so helpful.
But the most fascinating part of the Deep Throat story is that, while three decades went by with most people wondering and guessing who could it be, the answer was readily available from almost day one.
The U.S. Supreme Court forced Nixon to hand over his secret Oval Office audio recordings and, when they were made public, there was an unmistakable recording of Nixon and his advisers talking about who they thought was leaking material to the Washington Post.
As clear as day, Nixon thundered, “It’s that Jew at the FBI.”