WASHINGTON -- For months if not years, political insiders -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- have made the same joke: "There is only one person standing between Hillary Clinton and the presidency ... James Comey."
Well, as of today, Comey is no longer in the way. It is theoretically possible that Department of Justice Department prosecutors could still ignore the FBI director's recommendation Tuesday against charging Clinton for email security violations while she was secretary of state. But it is highly unlikely.
Which means that Comey, a 6-foot-8 Irish-American with impeccable bipartisan (but mostly Republican) credentials, has effectively avoided turning the nightmarish circus of the 2016 campaign into a full-blown apocalypse.
Had the FBI recommended prosecution, DOJ lawyers would have almost certainly followed suit -- presenting the Clintons, the Democratic Party and the country with the prospect of an indicted presumptive presidential nominee.
The chaos that could have flowed from that would have been wild beyond imagination, with everyone from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to Vice President Joe Biden to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) -- to who knows who -- rushing forward to fill a void that Clinton herself was fiercely determined not to create.
Now, that alternative history won't happen.
Comey ... has effectively avoided turning the nightmarish circus of the 2016 campaign into a full-blown apocalypse.
Clinton was free on Tuesday to join President Barack Obama on their first campaign trip together ― aboard Air Force One, no less. Significantly, they visited the key swing state of North Carolina, which Obama won in 2008, and where presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump was set to hold one of his patented angry/joyful rallies in Raleigh.
Commentators rightly focused on Comey, one of the few people in Washington generally regarded as an incorruptible straight-shooter. As a lawyer and bureaucrat, he punched all the right tickets to prove his non-partisanship, serving on committees that investigated both Democrats and Republicans, and in the administrations of former President George W. Bush and now Obama.
Comey’s above-the-fray reputation is enhanced by the length of his tenure: an unusually long 10-year span designed to insulate directors. Both Comey and his friend and predecessor Robert Mueller were comfortable in the Republican business and security worlds ― while at the same time, Comey famously stood up to Bush administration officials who wanted to extend a secret and arguably illegal surveillance program.
Yet Comey’s announcement doesn’t mean that Clinton is home free politically, either on the email issue or in general.
First, although he decided not to recommend prosecution, Comey laid into Clinton and her department’s sloppy, even reckless, behavior. In his telling, the former secretary of state and her staff should have known better than to exchange sensitive information over a private server that didn’t even have the standard security one might have with a Gmail account, the use of which plausibly exposed that information to hackers.
Despite the fact that the FBI found no criminal intent to leak classified information ― the gravamen of the case ― Comey expressed appropriate contempt for Clinton’s venality, carelessness and disregard for government processes. It just wasn’t illegal.
And that’s the theme that enemies of the Clintons have pursued for a generation, and that Trump will double down on now: That the Clintons game the system, even if they stay just half a hair on the right side of the black letter of the law. Bill Clinton only reinforced that perception when he charged aboard Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s plane last week.
Trump will pursue another line of attack as well: that the fix was in from a D.C. establishment that only he can dislodge. He’ll cite Obama’s declaration months ago that he saw no security violation in the Clinton matter, and follow the conspiracy chain to Comey. Those who despise Clinton are already with Trump, but the anti-establishment pitch could resonate further with independents.
Still, Comey deprived Trump of the environment of chaos and fury in which he thrives.
More importantly, the FBI’s decision allows Clinton to focus on key issues ― immigration, wages, the income gap, health care, Europe, Brexit and so on. At some point, Trump will be forced to do the same, and he indeed seems eager to engage on topics like immigration and national security.
So we may have a real campaign and a real debate. And that is a good thing.
This article has been edited to more accurately reflect Comey’s remarks at Tuesday’s hearing.