The Ahab cau­cus re­turns to port empty-handed, again

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Eugene Robin­son

— Next to the word “over­reach” in the dic­tionary should be a group pic­ture of the House Re­pub­li­can cau­cus. Once again, in their Ahab-like pur­suit of Hil­lary Clin­ton, they have man­aged to make them­selves look des­per­ately par­ti­san and woe­fully in­com­pe­tent.

What were they think­ing when they hauled FBI Direc­tor James Comey to Capi­tol Hill to chal­lenge his de­ci­sion about Clin­ton and her emails? Did they ex­pect Comey, a very tough nut, to crack un­der their with­er­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion? Did they be­lieve they could some­how make him change his mind? Did they not an­tic­i­pate that he would stand by his de­ci­sion and

WASHINGTON

back it up with facts, prece­dent and logic?

Thurs­day’s hear­ing — called on an “emer­gency” ba­sis, no less — was ef­fec­tively over just min­utes af­ter it be­gan. House Over­sight Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ja­son Chaf­fetz, R-Utah, asked Comey the bot­tom-line ques­tion: “Did Hil­lary Clin­ton break the law?”

Comey’s re­ply: “In con­nec­tion with her use of the email server? My judg­ment is that she did not.”

At that point, Chaf­fetz should just have thanked the wit­ness, pounded his gavel and sent ev­ery­one home. In­stead, Repub­li­cans went on at length in a vain at­tempt to chal­lenge Comey’s knowl­edge of the law and his per­sonal in­tegrity. In the end, he suf­fered not a dent, not a nick, not even a scratch.

The GOP’s the­ory of the case is ba­si­cally that Clin­ton com­mit­ted acts that would have led to prose­cu­tion if she had been any­one else. But be­cause she is the pre­sump­tive Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee or be­cause she is a Clin­ton or be­cause she is an “elite” or for some other rea­son, this the­ory goes, she was given a pass.

Comey pa­tiently ex­plained that this view was wrong. Quite the op­po­site, he said: De­cid­ing to rec­om­mend charges would have con­sti­tuted spe­cial treat­ment.

The key ques­tion was in­tent: Comey said the FBI could not find ev­i­dence that Clin­ton in­tended to do any­thing il­le­gal. A low-rank­ing gov­ern­ment em­ployee who han­dled clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion in the same “care­less” man­ner might well be sub­ject to ad­min­is­tra­tive sanc­tion, in­clud­ing fir­ing. But that “John Doe” em­ployee would not be pros­e­cuted; and if he or she had al­ready left gov­ern­ment ser­vice, the case would sim­ply be dropped.

Much was made of a fed- eral statute that would seem to al­low charges in the case of “gross neg­li­gence” on Clin­ton’s be­half. But Comey said that the law in ques­tion, passed in 1917, has been used by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors only once in 99 years. There are ques­tions, he said, about the statute’s con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity.

Comey did not budge from his view that no “rea­son­able pros­e­cu­tor” would seek to bring charges against Clin­ton given the facts of the case. He said the de­ci­sion to rec­om­mend against prose­cu­tion was unan­i­mous among the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­volved, adding that no one out­side of the bureau knew of this de­ci­sion un­til he an­nounced it Tues­day.

The hear­ing was a pretty sorry spec­ta­cle. Comey’s would-be in­quisi­tors could not come out and call him a com­pli­ant Demo­cratic toady be­cause clearly he is noth­ing of the sort. Comey served as deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. As is proper for some­one who oc­cu­pies the of­fice of FBI direc­tor, over­see­ing an agency he de­scribed as “res­o­lutely apo­lit­i­cal,” he is not now reg­is­tered as a mem­ber of any party. But for most of his adult life, he tes­ti­fied, he was a loyal Re­pub­li­can.

How em­bar­rass­ing did the hear­ing get? Some Repub­li­cans on the com­mit­tee, fan­cy­ing them­selves ju­nior G-men, de­manded to know the spe­cific ques­tions FBI agents asked Clin­ton when they in­ter­viewed her. Oth­ers sought to parse the lan­guage of var­i­ous fed­eral statutes, per­haps hop­ing to make Comey break down and cry, “OK, you got me there.” Spoiler alert: He didn’t.

To­ward the end, Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., felt obliged to ask Comey, “Do you feel like this has been a Re­pub­li­can witch hunt?” Comey po­litely said no.

I dis­agree. It was obvi- ously just that, a par­ti­san at­tempt to wring an­other news cy­cle’s worth of head­lines out of a “scan­dal” whose dy­ing em­bers were be­ing defini­tively snuffed out. I doubt those head­lines will be the ones they were hop­ing for.

I’m cer­tain that some Repub­li­cans sin­cerely be­lieve that Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton are the great­est mas­ter crim­i­nals of our times. But an unim­peach­able au­thor­ity fig­ure and a team of FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors have de­cided that Hil­lary Clin­ton’s han­dling of her emails — which, as I have writ­ten, was wrong — was not a crime. De­cid­ing other­wise, Comey said, would be “celebrity hunt­ing.”

Which is what Repub­li­cans tried to do at Thurs­day’s hear­ing. But they came home red-faced and emp­ty­handed.

Eugene Robin­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at eu­gen­er­obin­son@wash­post. com.

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