The end of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail investigation may represent the beginning of something that has eluded the Republican Party for months: unification behind its presumptive presidential nominee.
While Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said on Tuesday “we're moving on” from the issue, Donald Trump made clear he would be doing no such thing, and he was backed up by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who said FBI Director James B. Comey would be called to hearings on the matter.
In a year when the Republican Party has consistently appeared to be on the verge of collapse, the decision from the head of the FBI—a registered Republican who served in George W. Bush’s administration—could have sparked another round of finger pointing, self-loathing, and wild accusations.
Instead, the Republican reactions from Capitol Hill in Washington to Trump Tower in New York reinforced each other. Even Trump, whose proverbial political shotgun often seems aimed at his own foot, mostly stayed out his own way.
“Running against Clinton is good on a lot of fronts,” Paul Manafort, Trump's campaign chairman, said in an interview. “She is the epitome of the establishment and with what people see as what's wrong with the country, and what they want changed. From the standpoint of our party, no one wants a third Obama term and that's what the country sees her as.”
Trump will have more opportunities to hammer Clinton between now and the Republican convention beginning on July 18. But cutting into her leads in state and national polls will depend on whether Trump can stay focused on Clinton and avoid the unforced errors that have defined his campaign in recent weeks.
Even former Senator Scott Brown, a surrogate for Trump, wondered if he could stay disciplined long enough to drive home that message. “We will see for sure,” he said.
Just a few hours after Brown spoke, Trump appeared to compliment Saddam Hussein during a rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, which was reported widely and led to the Clinton campaign calling it more evidence of “how unworthy he is of the office he seeks.”
Trump has a trip to Washington planned this week, his team is preparing for an economic speech in which the candidate will unveil new changes to his tax plan, and Trump may announce his running mate next week.
On Tuesday, he received another strong sign of party unity when Scott Walker, a resistant swing-stage governor, announced he had decided to speak at the convention, even as many other elected officials continued to avoid the spotlight. “If someone doesn't cast a vote for the Republican nominee, they are effectively casting a vote for her and that's part of what I'd be willing to talk about,” he said, according to an ABC affiliate in Wisconsin.
Trump brought notes to attack Clinton to his North Carolina rally Tuesday night—the kind of free-wheeling event he's used to attack former Republican rivals, mock the disabled, and make sweeping judgments based on ethnicity. He largely echoed the party's message of the day, but, in addition to his praise for Hussein, also veered from topic to topic, taking more than an hour to get through his short, prepared statement.
The Republican attack was two-pronged. On one hand, Trump and Ryan helped whip up conspiracy theories over the FBI process that include a recent meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton. The attack line was sure to rally the base, but may do little to convince general-election voters that Comey was a tool of the Democratic machine.
“I don’t think it will have any impact with independent voters, with the votes that she needs to win the election,” Robert Shrum said. “It’s the same old story, this is Whitewater all over again.”
Additionally, and perhaps more effectively, both Republicans as well as the Republican National Committee also sought to amplify deep misgivings among voters about Clinton's honesty by underscoring Comey's comments that her e-mail practices were “extremely careless.” Trump was judged more honest and trustworthy than Clinton, 45 percent to 37 percent, in a Quinnipiac University national poll of registered voters conducted June 21-27.
“The unifying person of the party may not be Donald Trump, but Hillary,” Brown said. “While many people may not like him, they are going to vote for him, because they don't like or trust her.”
“What is it about Hillary Clinton that allows her to get away with all this stuff?” RNC Chairman Reince Priebus said in an interview. “She's a terrific liar.”
Trump's immediate reaction on Twitter also echoed many of his usual campaign lines. He said Clinton jeopardized national security with her use of private e-mail, and painted her as a member of the political establishment who gets special treatment from a “rigged system.”
If it was business-as-usual for Trump, Team Clinton also proceeded as if nothing had changed.
“We think the matter is done,” Podesta told reporters at a campaign rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“It's like many other things—Benghazi,” he said, comparing the e-mail scandal to a House Republican panel created two years ago to investigate attacks on a U.S. diplomatic compound, but was largely beset by partisan accusations. “They go after her, go after her, go after her. But it's done.”
Clinton's first chance to turn the page was at a campaign event that featured her first joint appearance of the race with President Barack Obama.
The event was intended to transfer voters’ trust in Obama to his preferred successor, who has for decades struggled to earn many Americans’ trust. Instead, the image of Clinton boarding Air Force One seemed to play into Republicans’ portrayal of Clinton as the beneficiary of a political system tilted toward the country's elite.
Both Kellyanne Conway, a Trump adviser, and Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist, agreed that Comey’s remarks—even though they ultimately vindicated Clinton—would be turned into Republican television advertisements.
“If you listen real carefully you can hear the sound of 30-second attack ads being crafted all over town,” Manley said. “Comey gave Republicans plenty of ammunition.”
Clinton took no victory lap; neither she nor Obama mentioned Comey or his decision during their rally. Aides didn’t have immediate plans for Clinton to address the FBI’s decision in an interview or a press conference.
David Axelrod, Obama's former adviser, said Clinton had “cleared a major hurdle,” adding that it is not clear to him that Comey’s criticisms would further harm views of her trustworthiness because many voters already may have made up their minds.
“The question is, does it substantially change the dynamic, or is most of the negative already baked in the cake?” he said.
But Manley, a former top aide to Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, said “this issue is not going away anytime soon.”
“They're going to have to spend the rest of the campaign talking about it,” he said.
That is, if Trump plays ball. His eagerness to appear politically incorrect helped him during the Republican primary by soaking up all the media attention, but in the general election it's often been to Clinton's benefit.
The most recent example was last week. After news broke that Clinton spent three hours in an interview with the FBI last week, Trump stole the spotlight with a post to his Twitter account Saturday that employed an image that originated on a white supremacist's account.
“I'm confident he can do that,” Preibus said about whether Trump has the discipline to stay focused on Clinton. “There's plenty of material to focus on Hillary Clinton. And if he does that, he's going to win.”
—With assistance from Jennifer Jacobs.