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FBI's Comey on Hillary Clinton email story: Never mind

James Comey's first letter touched off nine days of political uproar. Yesterday, the FBI director effectively said, "Never mind."
FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. (Photo by Ben Margot/AP)
FBI Director James B. Comey listens to a question from a reporter during a media conference in San Francisco, Calif., Feb. 27, 2014. 
The day after FBI Director James Comey wrote to Congress, effectively intervening in the presidential election in an unprecedented way, Donald Trump told his supporters the review of Hillary Clinton's emails was itself evidence of wrongdoing. "The FBI would never have re-opened this case at this time if it were not a most egregious criminal offense," the Republican said.He couldn't have been more wrong. Yesterday, Comey cleared Clinton -- again.

FBI Director James Comey said Sunday that the bureau won't change the conclusion it made in July after it examined newly revealed emails related to the Hillary Clinton probe."Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton," Comey wrote in a letter to 16 members of Congress.

Comey's original letter touched off nine days of political uproar that created a media feeding frenzy, cut Clinton's lead in half, rattled international financial markets, divided the FBI, and undermined Democrats' chances of reclaiming a congressional majority -- at a key moment for early voting in much of the country.Yesterday, however, the FBI director effectively told Congress and the nation, "Never mind. Nothing to see here."In case it's not painfully obvious, the smarter move would've been for the bureau to review the evidence first, then announce how meaningless all of this was.There are quite a few angles to a story like this, but for now, let's focus on two of them.First, Trump and his allies were handed an unjust gift 10 days ago, and yesterday, it was unexpectedly taken away from them. Naturally, the Republican ticket responded by pulling its attack ads about Clinton facing a "criminal investigation."No, I'm just kidding. Team Trump actually responded by accusing the FBI of a new round of corruption, insisting that the bureau couldn't possibly have read 650,000 emails so quickly -- which in Trump's mind, necessarily means Clinton was cleared without a thorough review of the materials.This talking point doesn't make sense. For one thing, it's not as if Comey sat alone in his office, reading individual emails one at a time: the FBI had teams of officials with access to a newfangled tool known as a "computer." For another, the FBI didn't have to review all 650,000 emails on Anthony Weiner's laptop; it only had to review the emails related to Clinton.As NBC News' report noted, the FBI used "a program that targeted only the emails to and from Clinton's closest aide, Huma Abedin, within the time when Clinton was secretary of state."Finally, I've seen some suggestions that Democrats who criticized Comey 10 days ago may have to walk back their rebukes now that the director has once again cleared Clinton. That may be true in some cases, but in general, allegations of hypocrisy don't necessarily apply.I, for example, believe Comey was right in July to clear Clinton, though I also believe he was wrong to deliver a superfluous public statement criticizing her judgment. Similarly, I think Comey's letter 10 days ago was a dreadful and avoidable mistake that did meaningful harm to the bureau, though I also think yesterday's resolution of the matter was just.There's no contradiction here. The FBI director may have eventually made the right decision by clearing Clinton (twice), but that doesn't mean he handled the matter appropriately, professionally, or in ways that are consistent with Justice Department guidelines and practices.For Clinton, the story that never should've been treated as a proper scandal appears to have run its course, but looking ahead, it's Comey and the FBI that have some explaining to do.