Now that we know for sure that the FBI is conducting an investigation into any connections and “coordination” between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, pundits are asking—though not answering—the question of whether Russia’s efforts to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign had any effect on the outcome of the election. No one wants to speculate, no one wants to “re-litigate.” “The past is past,” they say. The fact is that a smart ten-year-old can see how implausible it is to imagine that the continued assault on Hillary’s credibility wouldn’t have had an impact on the election. The evidence is circumstantial—but it’s massive, and accumulating all the time.
The evidence includes not just the Russian/Wikileaks, but James Comey’s two improper announcements about Clinton’s emails—one in July (yes, July—the same month the FBI began its unannounced investigation of the Trump/Russia connection) exonerating her of criminal activity but criticizing her for “carelessness.” The other, even more protocol-defying announcement was an “October surprise” in which Comey announced, just 11 days before the election, that a new cache of Clinton emails had been discovered that were seemingly “pertinent” to “the investigation.”
Many commentators have questioned the negative effects of this announcement on Hillary’s chances. None, however, has paid any attention to what it did for Trump. The fact is that Comey’s announcement saved Trump from almost certain defeat.
After the September 26th debate, recall, Trump was already in trouble with women over Clinton’s revelation that Trump, then executive producer of the Miss Universe Pageant, had called that year’s winner Alicia Machado “Miss Piggy” and “an eating machine” after she gained what he called “massive amounts of weight” (actually 15 pounds) during her tenure as Miss Universe. Trump’s response had been to double-down: “She was the winner and she gained a massive amount of weight, and it was a real problem.” He tweeted that Machado was “disgusting” and accused her of having a sex tape. And before long, the Associated Press was reporting that “Having drawn closer to Mrs. Clinton in the polls, Mr. Trump now faces an intensified clash over his personal temperament and his attitudes toward women and minorities—areas of grave concern for many voters that were at the center of the candidates’ confrontation [at the debate] on Monday.”
It looked bad for Trump. Then, just a bit over a week later, the “Access Hollywood” tapes broke, in which a hot mic had revealed not merely that Trump had had extramarital affairs—that was a glass house few politicians could stand in—but boasted that “when you’re a star” you can do anything you want to women:
In the 2005 recording obtained by NBC News from Access Hollywood, Trump, then newly married to Melania Trump, spots a young woman through a bus window while in conversation with Billy Bush, at the time an anchor for Access Hollywood, and others.
"Whoa, whoa," he said to Bush about the woman's appearance. "I gotta use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her."
"I'm automatically attracted to beautiful women — I just start kissing them, it's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," he said in the 2005 conversation. "Grab 'em by the pussy."
Earlier in the conversation, Trump recalls talking about trying to woo a married woman.
"I moved on her actually, she was down in Palm Beach and I failed. I'll admit it. I did try to fuck her, she was married ... and I moved on her very heavily," Trump is heard saying.
"I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture and I told her 'I'll show you where you can get some nice furniture,'" Trump is heard saying. "I moved on her like a bitch, and I could not get there, and she was married. And all the sudden I see her and she's got the big phony tits, she's totally changed her look."
What was so revolting about the tapes was not that Trump had extramarital sex, but that he bragged about his “conquests” with such contempt for the women whose “pussies” he grabbed, with their “big, phony tits” and readiness to do anything for a star. It was that attitude that sent many women casting early votes for Clinton, and that motivated Michelle Obama’s gripping speech in which she described Trump’s comments as having “shaken me to my core in a way I could not have predicted.” Many women felt the same way, and some who had been on the fence turned decisively away from Trump and toward Clinton.: “I didn’t vote for her because she’s a woman,” as a sixty-year-old retired teacher in Arizona said, “I voted for her because as a person who has been in a domestic violence situation, Donald Trump scares the livin’ bejeebers out of me.”
There was GOP talk of reversing the ticket, and putting Pence at the top, and there was a general sense that Trump had finally “gone too far.” Paul Rylan said he was “sickened” by Trump’s remarks. Mitch McConnell invoked his three daughters and described Trump’s comments as showing an “utter lack of respect for women.” RNC chairman Reince Preibus said"No woman should ever be described in these terms or talked about in this manner. Ever.” Governor Gary Herbert of Utah: “beyond offensive and despicable.” Mitt Romney: “Such vile degradations demean our wives and daughters and corrupt America’s face to the world.”
MSNBC’s Chuck Todd even speculated that Trump might not show up for the next debate. But he did, flanked by a row of past-accusers of Bill Clinton, and insisting that, in contrast to Clinton’s actions, the tapes were just “locker room talk.” But Anderson Cooper pressed on, and after repeatedly questioning Trump as to whether he had done any of the things he bragged about on the tape, got an explicit denial from Trump. The “no I didn’t” was sandwiched in hurriedly between two other points, and it was obvious that he knew he was lying and would probably get himself in trouble with it. Which he did. Within days several women had come forward (eventually, they numbered 12), accusing him of unwanted sexual groping—some of sexual assault.
Machado had been an insult, and the Access Hollywood tapes were disgusting. But this was much worse. One in six American women has had a personal experience of sexual trauma. One in three has been sexually harassed at work. These numbers, presumably, are indifferent with respect to political affiliation—and millions of women could relate to Trump’s accusers. By mid-October, the allegations were well on their way to creating what might have become a bipartisan coalition of female voters against Trump, and Nate Silver’s “Election Update” reported that with three weeks to go, Hillary Clinton had a “significant lead” of 6-7 points and an 86% chance of winning the election.
Then—on October 28, just a couple of weeks after Trump’s vile behavior had finally seemed to “go too far” and just 11 days before the election--James Comey, ignoring the Justice Department’s guidelines barring the release of information about individuals running for office in close proximity (within 60 days) to an election, sent a letter to Congress saying that “in connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation.” These emails, discovered on the laptop of Anthony Weiner, former congressman and husband of Clinton’s aide and confident Huma Abedin, needed to be reviewed to “determine whether they contained classified information, as well as to assess their importance to the investigation.”
Comey’s motives for this stunning breech of protocol remain unclear. Whatever they were, his decision to “update” congress (and from there, of course, the public) on the discovery was a great gift to Trump—a gift known to be coming by Trump cronies beforehand. “I think [Trump’s] got a surprise or two that you’re going to hear about in the next few days…a couple of things that should turn this around,” Giuliani told Fox the day before Comey’s letter to Congress surfaced; he also couldn’t resist bragging that he had insider knowledge of “a kind of revolution going on inside the FBI” springing from tensions between those who supported Comey’s legal exoneration of Clinton and those who were out for more blood from her.
Whether Comey himself intended it or not, they did get that blood. “FBI says emails found in Anthony Weiner's sexting scandal may have links to Clinton inquiry” was the headline in the LA Times. “May have links” is broad and vacuous; in fact, at the time all that the FBI could report is the “appearance” of “pertinence.” They hadn’t even gotten a warrant as yet to determine the content of the emails. “Sexting scandal” was irrelevant (“Weiner’s emails” would have been sufficient) but did the job of reminding readers of the sleaze factor among the Clinton men. And now, too, the damned emails are front and center again, and both the GOP and the media treat the news as explosive. MSNBC's Kristen Welker declares that the "full enormity" of this new information could "up-end the entire election." And Donald Trump, at the opening of a campaign rally in New Hampshire, makes the most of Comey’s announcement: “Hillary Clinton’s corruption is on a scale we have never seen before. We must not let her take her criminal scheme into the Oval Office.” Referring to Comey’s original exoneration, he applauded the FBI for revisiting the case: “This was a grave miscarriage of justice that the American people fully understood. Perhaps finally justice will be done.”
The real miscarriage of justice—or scandal, or whatever words you wish to put to it—was the revival of “CLINTON EMAILS!!” in the consciousness of voters, pushing Alicia Machado, Access Hollywood and accusations against Trump of assault so far out of the collective mind that even now, as we ponder that last month and the events leading to Hillary’s defeat, they are virtually forgotten.
The timing—circumstantial. And yet, impossible to ignore in assessing the factors that brought Hillary Clinton down:
September 26: Alicia Machado
October 7: Release of “Access Hollywood” Tapes. Shortly after, Trump’s numbers begin to descend.
October 19: Trump insists tapes are just “locker room talk.” Then, over the next two weeks, 12 women come forward with charges that Trump had groped them without consent. (As of this writing, the charges have not been investigated.)
October 28: James Comey’s “October Surprise.”
By November 3, Clinton’s lead in the polls was beginning to evaporate, and Trump had “several plausible electoral map routes to victory.”
The emails, 3 days later on November 6, are revealed to be duplicates of those already scrutinized and found entirely innocent by the FBI.
The election is two days away.
Susan Bordo is the author of The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. She assures readers that the title refers to the media and political forces that cost Hillary the election. Hillary Clinton herself: far from destroyed.