On CNN New Day Saturday, Morgan State professor Jason Johnson and Matt Lewis of the Daily Caller discuss Joe Biden’s interview with Michael Smerconish and the role of Anthony Weiner in the Hillary Clinton email scandal.
America had such nice plans for the weekend. Most people were getting ready for some World Series baseball, looking through Party City for that last slutty Ninja Turtle costume, maybe even spending a few hours in line for early voting. The last thing most Americans expected this Friday afternoon was a shameless unprofessional and utterly contrived “October surprise” courtesy of FBI Director James Comey. Yet here we are, with the 24-hour cable news stations in a feeding frenzy over the new investigation that is a lot more sound than legitimate fury.
What are the facts and why is this news coming out now? Here’s a quick primer:
On July 5 this past summer, FBI Director Comey, a Republican who had been appointed by President Barack Obama as an appeasement measure, held a press conference about the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. The investigation had concluded that Hillary Clinton had engaged in no wrongdoing in the treatment, sending of or deletion of her emails. Comey noted that Clinton was careless and should have been more responsible, but said nothing she did rose to the level of a criminal investigation. This bit of editorializing, not to mention holding a press conference to end an FBI investigation, was extremely inappropriate, and according to Matthew Miller, former director of the Justice Department’s Public Affairs Office, a “gross abuse of his power.”
Why were we even hearing about Clinton’s emails? Republicans in Congress, desperate to find some smoking gun for the Benghazi, Libya, conspiracy, expanded their investigation into Clinton’s emails. They found nothing. No smoking gun. Not even a half-lit cigarette. Democrats cheered, and Republicans, led by Donald Trump, screamed that the FBI director was in President Obama’s pocket.
On Friday, Oct. 28, FBI director James Comey sent a letter to eight Republican chairs of congressional committees informing them that in the last 24 hours, the FBI had found new emails that “may” be pertinent to the previous Clinton investigation, and that, therefore, he would be looking into them. No timeline for the investigation was given, no explanation of where the emails were from, no context regarding why they were just found and, most importantly, the FBI director told eight members of Congress but did not send a letter, smoke signal, Snapchat or any sort of heads-up to the White House or President Obama’s staff.
What does all of this mean in practical terms? FBI Director James Comey is behaving like a power-mad, unprofessional, political hack instead of an independent arbiter of American justice. He is clearly not in President Obama’s pocket. In fact, James Comey couldn’t be more out-of-pocket if he were wearing Daisy Dukes. Releasing the specter of a renewed investigation, without any new evidence, and no background context, less than 11 days before a presidential election is clearly a political act and one designed to harm the Democratic nominee. The political as opposed to justice-driven nature of this announcement became all the more clear as real journalists investigated this story throughout the day.
One clear example is that the emails in question are not from any device in the possession of Hillary Clinton. They are emails from a separate investigation into Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman from New York and the former husband of Clinton adviser Huma Abedin.
Is it possible that Huma Abedin and her husband exchanged some emails that may in some way have relevance to Hillary Clinton’s behavior during Benghazi or her use of private emails? Yes, that is a possibility. It is also likely that the name Hillary Clinton just came up in a document search. The FBI director making noise about re-opening an investigation when there is no new evidence to drive such a provocative headline is both irresponsible and lacking in basic integrity for a public servant. What Director James Comey has done is the equivalent of making a public announcement like, “The name Barack Obama may have come up in the Ashley Madison hack, we aren’t sure, we’ll get back to you at some point in the future.”
Surely in the next 36 hours, there will be those arguing that James Comey had no choice. That upon new emails being discovered, even from a separate investigation, he was legally obligated to inform Congress that there would be additional work on the Clinton email case.
That is simply not true. The FBI was well within its power to examine the new emails, determine if they were pertinent to the case and then inform all of the relevant actors, which should definitely have included the White House. Comey knew his “letter” to Republicans in Congress would get leaked, and he knew full well that it was a Dhalsim-level stretch to connect the name Anthony Weiner to the Clinton campaign. Such clearly partisan maneuvering is unbecoming of an FBI director, but utterly expected when the Democrats insist on appeasement appointments instead of defenders of the law.
The sloppy question to ask now is whether or not this manufactured October surprise will impact the presidential race. In the short term, the answer is yes. The polls coming out Monday will show the race tightening as enthusiastic Trump supporters are more inclined to answer the pollster calls than annoyed or dismayed Democratic voters. However, in the end it won’t matter. Nobody in America who is really tuned into this election is going to flip from “I’m With Her” to “Make America Great Again” because the FBI is playing politics. Those who aren’t really tuned in? They’re already halfway downtown wearing their Luke Cage and Misty Knight costumes hoping that Cleveland can take a lead in the series. Try as James Comey might, this manufactured October surprise won’t supercede what most Americans already had planned.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.
With a name like Anthony Weiner, a sex scandal was bound to happen. At least that was the reaction of most Americans to the Weiner sex debacle in 2011 when New York Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner came to national attention as the center of America’s first social media sex scandal.
However, in the new Sundance documentary Weiner, by Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, there is no rehashing of the past or even a condemnation of the present. The documentary, screening now in art house theaters across the nation, gives a surprisingly in-depth and sad look at how sex scandals may be entertaining to the press and the public but have a devastating impact on the real people who go through them. You may go into Weiner looking for a laugh and some political schadenfreude, but you will finish wondering why anybody ever bothers to run for political office anymore.
Weiner has an easygoing camera style that brings you right into the story from the beginning, whether you know much about politics or not. This is the biggest project by Kriegman and Steinberg to date (although Kriegman once worked on MTV’s excellent Made series), and it shows. They don’t wow you with bells and whistles but do get you right into the story, splicing clips of Weiner’s rise to fame and political power with present-day interviews of him reflecting on the documentary.
The film begins with a montage of just how powerful Anthony Weiner had become from his election to Congress in 1999 to his resignation in 2011. He blew up in the heyday of liberal-media pushback against the George W. Bush administration. Weiner, at his best, was a hot take machine, brash, funny and always pushing the Democratic (and his own) agenda. Air America radio needed someone to attack the Bush tax cuts? Anthony Weiner was there. Keith Olbermann needed a progressive voice on the Affordable Care Act? Weiner was right there on MSNBC. Weiner was also a savvy user of social media when most members of Congress were still on flip phones and Myspace.
“[Weiner] was unique in that he was very talented as a politician in the sense of his ability to use the tools of modern media. That really did set him apart,” said Kriegman, one of the film’s directors. “He became a prominent voice in the Democratic Party because he knew how to speak in a way that went viral on YouTube.”
All of this makes the sex scandal that took him down initially in 2011 all the more ironic. Weiner was busted for sending pictures of his penis to women over Twitter, a scandal that eventually led to his resignation. The Weiner documentary begins in 2013 when the former congressman is planning a political comeback by running for mayor of New York City.
Like all good documentaries, you are taken for a ride on the subject’s roller coaster of a life in unexpected and interesting ways. When Weiner starts running for mayor, he takes the jokes about his past indiscretions in stride, and you see that many voters actually want to hear what he has to say, remembering that he was a pretty effective member of Congress. In the film, his wife, Huma Abedin (the longtime personal assistant to Hillary Clinton), regularly comes up from Washington, D.C., to campaign with her husband and help him move past his former scandal. All of it is working well (he was doing well in the polls) until the other shoe drops.
Apparently, Weiner never stopped slipping into DMs despite his claims that he had cleaned up his act. Just as his campaign started, pictures and texts surfaced showing that a year after his apology and resignation, he was posing under the pseudonym “Carlos Danger” and sexting a 22-year-old woman in Indiana. The whole documentary changes at that point, and it’s apparent. As a viewer you can tell the directors thought they were going to film the story of a political comeback, and instead ended up filming the story of a brand-new scandal, happening in real time, and the impact it had on everyone.
Watching a sex scandal begin and tear apart a political campaign (and a family) from the inside is like watching an explosion in slow motion. From the way the staff has to learn how to respond to the media to the strain these new revelations put on Weiner’s marriage, you are taken aback at how a sideshow for American voters can become a harrowing experience for the people who have to live their day-to-day lives with a costly mistake. Especially Weiner’s wife, Abedin.
Abedin’s close relationship with Clinton, and the parallels between Bill Clinton’s behavior in the ’90s and what Weiner was doing, are not lost on anyone in the documentary. Hillary Clinton refers to Abedin as her “other daughter.” Bill Clinton presided at the wedding between Abedin and Weiner, and when Weiner cheated the first time, it was to Bill Clinton that he supposedly made a tearful apology. Abedin was in an untenable position, but that did not stop how she was treated by the press, something captured wonderfully in the movie.
According to the film’s producer, Steinberg: “In terms of Huma, just like Anthony, [she] was reduced to a character; so was he. In some ways, even more.”
I will admit, after seeing Abedin’s trials in Weiner, I regretted suggesting on MSNBC and CNN at the time that she was staying with her husband as some sort of Machiavellian attempt to seek political power. She is neither a scheming Cersei nor a Stepford wife. She’s a woman desperately trying to maintain her family with a man who seems incapable of being accountable.
By the time Weiner ends, you want it to be over for everyone involved. The cameras follow the former congressman as he uses his toddler son, Barry Bonds style, to protect himself from the press while he goes to the voting booth. You get the impression that Weiner gave the documentary crew such intimate access (there was only one scene where he closed the door to cameras so he and Abedin could argue) not because he wanted to be honest, but because he still thought he could win and the documentary would be his “I told you so” moment.
In the pantheon of political-campaign documentaries The War Room, Street Fight,Journeys With George and the like, Weinermay not be so much a look into campaign dynamics as it is a look at the dynamics of our modern media and the humanizing impact of sex scandals on regular people. Nevertheless, you will be glad you saw it, and ultimately sad that you remember it.
This article originally appeared online at The Root.
On MSNBC Weekends with Alex Witt, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discusses the Anthony Weiner scandal and Huma Abedin, and a Popular Science article on the psychology of sex scandals. Dr. Johnson discussed these issues with Robert Traynham and Nancy Cook.
Dr. Jason Johnson discusses the how sexual harassment in a political environment is different from the business world and private sector.