Polling has shown for months that Hillary Clinton would be the least liked presidential nominee in modern history if it weren’t for one thing: Donald Trump, who is regarded even more unfavorably. The who’s-worse choice facing American voters took another step downward on Tuesday. As even the Clinton-friendly New York Times observed, “the FBI director, James B. Comey, all but indicted her judgment and competence on Tuesday — two vital pillars of her presidential candidacy — and in the kind of terms that would be politically devastating in a normal election year.”
Clinton’s salvation so far in this utterly abnormal year has been that when she looks bad, Trump looks worse. What’s significant about Comey’s statement on Tuesday is that, for the first time, she may actually look worse than Trump on at least some significant dimensions of leadership. Though it’s a close call.
Clinton has presented herself as boring but steady, competent, and seasoned. Now the FBI director, working for a president who supports her, has portrayed her as just the opposite. She and her colleagues “were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information,” he said. He did not clear her of exposing U.S. secrets to enemies. On the contrary, he said that while the FBI “did not find direct evidence” that her email was hacked, “it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.”
Depending on your perspective, she either misspoke or lied repeatedly about her email; see a compilation of contradictions here. For example, she famously said at a press conference in March, “I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email.” Wrong – Comey said she did so in 110 emails. She said she had turned over all of her work-related emails. No again – Comey said the FBI found 2,000 that she didn’t turn over.
Comey marveled at her behavior in using her home email system for emails involving Top Secret/Special Access Program matters: “Any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position … should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.” In his lawyerly way, he’s saying that Clinton is not a reasonable person. That would seem to leave only two choices for her motivation, both of which are troubling. Either she was willing to sacrifice U.S. security for personal reasons (what were they?), or she’s dangerously clueless.
For purposes of the presidential election, these potentially ruinous revelations may not be fatal. The relevant question, as usual, is whether Trump is even worse. The constant turmoil in his pathetically meager campaign organization and its amateurish performance suggest he’s barely competent to manage a popcorn stand. On the other hand, he has built a business organization that has transformed him from a rich kid to a much richer adult, even if not as rich as he claims, and even if its operations have sometimes been slimy (Trump University, the Trump Institute) and his methods sometimes unsavory. His ill-informed, vacillating policy positions still give voters strong reasons to deny him access to the nuclear launch codes. But now voters must also question Clinton’s competence, judgment, and motivations at the highest levels of government.
So now who’s worse? What a terrible question to be forced to ask.