I remember where I was on Oct. 28, 2016, the day James Comey released his letter. I was at a health food restaurant with a Republican friend of mine. “This is going to lose her the election,” I told my friend. I felt like I was going to throw up. I knew what a Donald Trump presidency would mean for women, for all of us.
“Don’t be silly,” said my friend, who I suspect later voted for Trump. The New York Times had the story on the front page: “Emails in Anthony Weiner Inquiry Jolt Hillary Clinton’s Campaign.” On Nov. 8, 2016, Clinton lost the election to Trump 304 to 227. The Comey letter had created just enough muddiness to make it seem like both candidates were ethically challenged. It was the false equivalence that Trump was able to ride to the White House. Data guru Nate Silver wrote that the Comey letter “was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College.” Not only did Comey make Trump president but then he wrote numerous very tedious books. He became a resistance hero, riding his regret all the way to the bank.
Fast-forward to Feb. 8, 2024, when Republican special counsel Robert Hur released his 345-page report. The report is being seen by some as an exoneration, saying that no criminal charges are warranted in the classified documents case against President Joe Biden. But Hur, who used to work for the Trump administration, couldn’t let Biden off the hook entirely, especially 269 days before an election. Hur, a member of a Republican Party that now largely works as a campaign arm for the former president, delivered the goods for his party. Sure, he found no legal basis to charge Biden, but but but… Hur proceeded to editorialize ad nauseam about Biden’s mental acuity, delivering right-wing talking points up on a platter. He wrote, “[At] trial, Mr. Biden would likely present himself to a jury, as he did during our interview of him, as a sympathetic, well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory.”
Saying you don’t remember stuff in a deposition is pretty much standard. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci said “I don’t recall” 174 times during a deposition about alleged collusion between the Biden administration and social media platforms — but because there isn’t a narrative about Fauci’s age?crafted by Trump World, no one thought this had anything to do with his mental acuity.
Ivanka Trump said “I don’t recall” 30 times during the Trump civil fraud trial. During the Trump University deposition, Trump said he didn’t remember 35 times. Trump found that he didn’t remember anything when he submitted his written responses to Bob Mueller’s team. For more than a year, Trump refused his special counsel interview, eventually agreeing to respond in writing. The New York Times noted: “More than 30 times, he told the prosecutors that he had no memory of what they were asking about, employing several formulations to make the same point.” The Washington Post clocked it at least 37 instances.
Hur’s report was a partisan hit job, but it didn’t matter, as former Obama chief of staff Jim Messina tweeted: “Let’s be clear -- the special counsel isn’t a dummy and we should be very careful not to take the bait after Comey pulled this in 2016. Hur, a lifelong Republican and creature of DC, didn’t have a case against Biden, but he knew exactly how his swipes could hurt Biden politically.”
Joe Scarborough put it even more succinctly: “He couldn’t indict Biden legally, so he tried to indict Biden politically.” Yet again, a Republican special counsel had put his finger on the scale, just like Comey did in 2016. Hur isn’t a neurologist; he has no idea what Biden’s mental acuity is. Former attorney general Eric Holder condemned the report: “Special Counsel Hur report on Biden classified documents issues contains way too many gratuitous remarks and is flatly inconsistent with long standing DOJ traditions,” he posted on X, adding: “Had this report been subject to a normal DOJ review these remarks would undoubtedly have been excised.” Shame on Attorney General Merrick Garland for letting this partisan hit job be released.
As outraged as many Democrats are right now, they’d do well to exercise some self-reflection here. Garland didn’t need to appoint a Republican special counsel. Garland didn’t need to let Hur release this report filled with talking points for the right-wing media echo chamber. Hur may be a partisan, but Garland let this happen.
The Comey letter led to almost nonstop speculation about what was in those emails. The mainstream media spent the following week and a half obsessing about the story when not freaking out about Clinton almost fainting and Clinton having pneumonia. Meanwhile, Trump continued to be covered as an amusing oddity, without any real exploration about the stakes of what a Trump presidency would mean to the country.
And here we are. Roe is dead. Republicans are weaponizing our federal government; this week they tried to impeach a Cabinet secretary for not doing enough for the border while refusing to even vote on a border security bill. Meanwhile Democrats are living in 2012, trying to pretend that we don’t live in a world of hyperpartisanship.
People who worked for Trump want him back in office, and many have embraced this neo-authoritarianism that Trumpism stands for. Democrats need to stop pretending that Republicans are acting in good faith. If Democrats truly want to prevail, we need to think back to the Comey years and let them serve as a lesson, lest they?become a curse.