FBI director James Comey has now dominated election news with his letters to Congress and to his staff about new developments in the Hillary Clinton email investigation. But the letters are the political equivalent of a rice cake: crunchy, but with no actual nutritional content.
First, the sordid background. The FBI is investigating former Congressman Anthony Weiner for sexting an underage girl. His estranged wife is Huma Abedin, a top aide to Hillary Clinton. Some of Clinton’s emails are on Weiner’s laptop, so the FBI is going to look into whether they reveal anything about Clinton’s email behavior. Naturally, Trump says this is bigger than Watergate, and Clinton says there’s nothing new to report. But why did Comey bring this up 11 days before the election — and two weeks after his agents found the emails?
Let’s take a close look at the two letters Comey has sent about the investigation.
Comey’s first letter is 84% nothing
The news blew up when he sent the first letter Friday. I’ve put the only meaningful words in bold, and the weasel words in italic.
In previous Congressional testimony, I referred to the fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had completed its investigation of former Secretary Clinton’s personal email server. Due to recent developments, I am writing to supplement my previous testimony.
In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation. I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.
Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether this material may be significant, and I cannot predict how long it will take us to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your Committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.
Of the 158 words in this letter, only 25 are meaningful, for a vacuous meaning ratio of 16%. Effective writing has a meaning ratio of 70% or higher, so this is basically fluff. Here’s the full meaning of this statement (27 words):
The FBI found some more of Hillary Clinton’s emails when we were looking at something else, but we have no idea what’s in them. We’ll keep looking.
The second letter clarifies Comey’s proclamation of ignorance
It’s unusual (and some have said, criminal) for the FBI to release such a controversial statement with so little actual content. So Comey followed up with a letter to FBI employees.
This morning I sent a letter to Congress in connection with the Secretary Clinton email investigation. Yesterday, the investigative team briefed me on their recommendation with respect to seeking access to emails that have recently been found in an unrelated case. Because those emails appear to be pertinent to our investigation, I agreed that we should take appropriate steps to obtain and review them.
Of course, we don’t ordinarily tell Congress about ongoing investigations, but here I feel an obligation to do so given that I testified repeatedly in recent months that our investigation was completed. I also think it would be misleading to the American people were we not to supplement the record. At the same time, however, given that we don’t know the significance of this newly discovered collection of emails, I don’t want to create a misleading impression. In trying to strike that balance, in a brief letter and in the middle of an election season, there is significant risk of being misunderstood, but I wanted you to hear directly from me about it.
With the help of this letter, we can now definitively write the letter Comey should have written. It looks like this:
I thought I was done with Hillary Clinton’s emails. With the new ones we found on Weiner’s laptop (eww), I can now definitively state that I have no idea what’s happening next. I wanted to make sure everyone in Congress and the entire FBI — and by extension, the entire nation — was aware that the department was now in a state of ignorance. Since there is no actual content, the news media, the candidates, the spinmeisters, and the entire government can make up any stories they want and discuss them in the last 11 days of the election cycle, displacing any actual election news or stories about Donald Trump. Ready . . . go!
Another sad truth about Election 2016
The irony of this whole saga is that before this, the media were talking about Trump and his behavior (and his polls were tanking). Now they are talking about Clinton and hers. In this election cycle, the more they talk about a candidate, the worse it is for that candidate. That’s sad.