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The FBI’s ‘October Surprise’ Could Cost Hillary Clinton the Oval Office

The reopening of the probe into Clinton’s email server is re-energising Donald Trump’s voters while potentially depressing the Democratic Party base.

US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

Washington: The latest intervention by the FBI director to reopen the probe into Hillary Clinton’s private email server has brought the Democratic nominee under pressure and thrown a lifeline to her Republican challenger Donald Trump in this already ugly and divisive US presidential election.

Thanks to the “October surprise,” Clinton’s emails are back in the news and questions about Trump’s sexual behaviour have been pushed into the background. Innuendos are flying thick and fast from the Republican side as Democrats duck and defend their nominee. There is exaggerated talk of ‘Emailgate’ being bigger than the Watergate scandal – a classic in political dirty tricks.

FBI director James Comey’s announcement on Friday, that he was reopening the probe into Clinton’s private email server, has fuelled endless speculation about the extent and limit of the probe. Comey has come under intense scrutiny for possibly having acted under pressure from the Republican conservatives in the FBI and in the US Congress.

His actions, which come just days before the vote, have the potential to affect the outcome of the election. Until recently, it was only the Russians who were being blamed for interfering in the US election process via WikiLeaks.

Comey’s announcement has certainly given Trump a second wind. The billionaire Republican candidate has made the decision of the FBI to reopen the probe into Clinton’s private email server the focus of his attack on Clinton, saying it could reveal “the mother lode” of incriminating information against her.

Latest polls show that the gap between the two candidates may be narrowing, reversing the lead Clinton had enjoyed after at least 11 women publicly accused Trump of groping them without their consent.

The Los Angeles Times/USC tracking poll released Monday shows Trump is leading by four points at 47% while Clinton is at 43%.

The Washington Post/ABC poll has Clinton at 46% in a four-way race with Trump at 45%, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party at 4% and Jill Stein of the Green Party at 2%. The same poll has Clinton ahead by two points against Trump in a two-way race.

Nate Silver, founder and editor of the popular forecast website FiveThirtyEight, said Clinton’s lead in the popular vote was down to 4.7 points from 5.7 on Friday before the news of the investigation broke. But whether Comey’s decision to restart the investigation is why Trump is catching up is unclear. It is more likely that Trump is drawing some voters from the “undecided camp” for other reasons.

Trump has gained in battleground states such as Florida by relentlessly criticising Obamacare because health care premiums in the state are expected to go up. He is attracting some “independent” voters by vowing to repeal Barack Obama’s signature achievement and with Clinton facing another bout of wall-to-wall negative publicity, he may gain some more.

The probe was reactivated because of the discovery of thousands of emails on a computer seized in the investigation of a sexting scandal involving Congressman Anthony Weiner – the estranged husband of Clinton’s key aide Huma Abedin. Apparently, Abedin and Weiner shared a computer at home while they were together.

Trump has been gleefully thanking Weiner at his rallies for preserving the emails that could bring down Clinton while also making the larger point that she has poor judgment for having allowed people like Weiner any proximity to power via Abedin.

The main focus of Comey’s renewed investigation is to find if the latest trove of emails contained any classified information and whether they are relevant to the earlier investigation of Clinton’s private email server.

Clinton has called Comey’s actions “unprecedented” and “deeply troubling.” Her aides have accused him of having “double standards” because he prevented the FBI from publicly identifying Russia as the source of the hacking attacks on the Democratic Party officials and later against John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Senator Harry Reid, the lead Democrat on Capitol Hill, has accused Comey of being in violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from using their office to indulge in political games. Comey, a Republican, is a respected public official and was appointed by Obama to promote bipartisanship.

The latest twist in this bizarre election has the potential of re-energising Trump’s voters while potentially depressing the Democratic Party base. But it still may not change the big picture and Clinton’s ability to garner more electoral votes than Trump. According to predictions, she has the possibility of winning 294 electoral votes while Trump could win only 180. To win the presidency, a candidate must get 270 electoral votes.

The New York Times on Monday said that Clinton has an 89% chance of winning against 11% for Trump. But if Trump manages to win Florida and Ohio – where he is neck and neck with Clinton – there could likely be a November surprise.

Seema Sirohi is a Washington DC-based commentator.