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Politics & Government

FBI Recommends No Charges Against Hillary Clinton In Email Probe

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We will have to wait and see if this is a defining moment in the presidential election or if other moments overtake it. But here are two things we learned yesterday - the FBI does not plan to seek charges against Hillary Clinton over her use of a private server. But according to the FBI, Clinton may have mishandled more than a hundred classified emails. Let's talk about this with Republican strategist John Feehery. He is here in the studio sitting next to Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who's executive director of Georgetown's Institute of Politics and Public Service. Good morning to you both. Thanks for coming in early.

JOHN FEEHERY: Good morning.

MO ELLEITHEE: Good morning.

GREENE: Let me start with just a simple question. You know, in a sentence or two, John, good or bad day for Hillary Clinton?

FEEHERY: Not a great day for Hillary, but very, very disappointing for Republicans, who were hoping for a bomb play.

GREENE: Wow, OK. You know what? I'm going to - let's come back to that because that's interesting. Mo, what about you - good or bad day for Hillary Clinton?

ELLEITHEE: Goodish (ph), but I'm a relativist, and she had a better day than Donald Trump did.

GREENE: All right, well, let's explore that a lot more. But let's sort of learn more about yesterday a bit because it was a day that seemed a little bit like a microcosm for this whole campaign for Hillary Clinton. Here's my colleague, Tamara Keith.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Talk about timing. Hillary Clinton and President Obama were about to head out on Air Force One for their first joint campaign appearance of 2016 when FBI director James Comey delivered a surprise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES COMEY: In looking back at our investigations into the mishandling or removal of classified information, we cannot find a case that would support bringing criminal charges on these facts.

KEITH: In short, Comey said Clinton's private email server was careless. It did contain classified information and could have been accessed by foreign agents, but he concluded there wasn't enough to indict. Comey was scathing and revealed what appeared to be inconsistencies in how Clinton has publicly described her email arrangement. A few hours later, when Clinton took the stage in Charlotte, N.C., with the president by her side, there was no mention of the news - no celebration, no defense. It was all love and nostalgia between two former rivals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: So I don't know about you, but we are fired up and ready to go - ready to win this election.

KEITH: That was a rallying cry for Obama in 2008. Now, he's working to ensure Clinton is his successor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I have run my last campaign. And I couldn't be prouder of the things we've done together, but I'm ready to pass the baton.

KEITH: For the Clinton campaign, Obama is the best kind of surrogate. Not only is he popular with Democrats, he's a convert. He speaks as someone who ran against Clinton and was won over by her hard work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: She had to do everything I had to do, but she was like Ginger Rogers. She had to do it backwards in heels.

KEITH: And here was the meat of his pitch - Obama said, sometimes Clinton doesn't get the credit she deserves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Sometimes we take somebody who's been in the trenches and fought the good fight and been steady for granted. Sometimes we act as if never having done something and not knowing what you're doing is a virtue.

KEITH: Obama is trying to get voters who propelled him into office twice excited enough about Clinton to put her in office and preserve his legacy. Lest Clinton and Obama steal all the headlines in North Carolina, Donald Trump scheduled a rally in Raleigh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: It's an incredible thing. The system is rigged, but we're still happy to be together, right? It's totally rigged.

KEITH: The FBI gave him a lot to talk about.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We now know that she lied to the country when she said she did not send classified information on her server. She lied.

KEITH: This was on message - a message delivered by Republican Party leaders all day long. But as is Trump's habit, at his rally, he took it a few steps further, speculating about a deal between Hillary Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I mean, the attorney general sitting there saying, you know, if I get Hillary off the hook, I'm going to have four more years or eight more years. But if she loses, I'm out of a job. It's a bribe.

KEITH: There's no evidence such a deal exists, but it fits into a narrative Trump is trying to establish that Clinton is crooked and the system is rigged. While recent polls show Trump with higher marks for honesty, Clinton is still ahead when voters are asked who they'll support in November.

GREENE: All right, that was my colleague, NPR's Tamara Keith. I'm in the studio with two campaign veterans, Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee and Republican strategist John Feehery. And, John, let me get back to you. You said that Republicans were hoping for even more news when it comes to this - this server. What were they hoping for?

FEEHERY: Well, listen, I think that most Republicans think that Hillary is guilty of something. They don't know what, but they think she's guilty. And they've always hoped that, somehow, this would knock her out - this big indictment from the FBI. And it didn't - wasn't forthcoming. I think Republicans have been too kind of hopeful that she'd be indicted and not hopeful enough about putting together an agenda that'll appeal to more voters. And I think that's always been the problem with the Clintons. We've tried to knock them out in the '90s with the various scandals. There are scandals always around the Clintons. But, you know, you can't rely on scandals to beat them. I try - we tried that in the 1990s with Bill Clinton, and it didn't work. We've got to come up with an agenda that appeals to more voters.

GREENE: And what is the key to doing that? I mean, what agenda would you recommend if you're...

FEEHERY: Well, you know, actually, I do think that this idea that the system is rigged, it worked actually pretty well with Bernie Sanders. And it's working pretty well for Donald Trump, the idea that the American people are getting a fair shake from Washington and how to reform Washington. You know, it's hard to get any kind of agenda that's coherent with Donald Trump. But Trump has kind of stumbled on something here, which is the anger of the American people. If he can come up - figure out some sort of legislative agenda to go along with it, he could be pretty powerful, and if he stay on message, which is awfully difficult.

ELLEITHEE: Mo Elleithee, you suggested that this might have been a worse day for Donald Trump. How could that possibly be?

ELLEITHEE: Look, if you - looking at Hillary Clinton, if you were a Republican, as John said, who wanted - was hoping that this would be the beginning of a - of a disgusting, gross legal saga for her, you were disappointed. If you're a Democrat who hoped that this would be the end of a political drama for her, you were disappointed. But at the end of the day, this is the best - probably the best scenario for her. There's no legal action going to be taken. They said she made a mistake. She needs to go out there and say, you know what? They're right. I did make a mistake, which she has said. Here's how we'll make sure it's not going to happen again. There's an opportunity. There's a path here for her.

GREENE: But doesn't this play into the larger narrative that many voters think that she can't be trusted. I mean, her honesty numbers are worse than Donald Trump's. I mean, isn't that a big risk here?

ELLEITHEE: Well, her honesty numbers are not where they want it to be. But the - his unfavorable numbers are far, far worse. And it's in part because of what he did last night, right? Here, Republicans were gearing up. They were ready to - to fight this out. There were - people who are on both sides of this - of this topic were getting ready. And Donald Trump went and completely changed the narrative by, one, suggesting that the attorney general was bribed, which, as you know, your reporter said probably took it too far, and number two, praising Saddam Hussein's record in that same rally last night, ensuring that that would be the focus of coverage heading into the morning.

GREENE: Is that - John, is that - is that the lack of discipline that you were sort of alluding to? I mean, should Donald Trump have stayed on message and not brought up other stuff?

FEEHERY: You know, Donald Trump has a minimalist campaign, except for his rhetoric, which is completely over-the-top.

(LAUGHTER)

FEEHERY: And I wish that he would kind of understand that, sometimes, you just let the narrative take form. The narrative is that the Democratic presidential candidate got scolded harshly by the FBI and should have been indicted. And if you let it - left it at that instead of talking about bribes and Saddam Hussein, you'd be winning the day. And each day he's got to think, how do I win the day? And sometimes it's by being quiet or being more minimalist in his rhetoric.

ELLEITHEE: I mean, if you were a voter and you're making a decision based entirely on what was said yesterday, your decision is between a candidate who got scolded by the FBI for sending e-mails inappropriately or a candidate who praised Saddam Hussein's record when it came to terrorism, a guy who himself was deemed head of a - of a state sponsor of terrorism. I'm a relativist. Elections are about choices. If that's your choice, Democrats should feel pretty good.

GREENE: Is that fair, John? I mean, is that - is that what was framed yesterday when Donald Trump sort of decided to bring up the Iraq stuff?

FEEHERY: Well, I still think that, ultimately, it's going to be the story about Comey and Clinton, and not Saddam Hussein. But, you know, it is stepping on your message. And, you know, Trump has a history of stepping on his message time and time again. This is why he needs a decent campaign. And he needs to be more disciplined. If he's more disciplined, he could win this thing. But if he keeps going off half-cocked, you know, he's going to get killed.

GREENE: But isn't the lack of discipline something voters sort of like - the idea that he's sort off-the-cuff and does his own thing?

FEEHERY: Yeah, you know, and he - they like the authenticity, but sometimes he's too authentic, and he drifts into conspiracy theories, and he takes away his own credibility as a possible presidential candidate. Credibility is essential in a presidential campaign. If you don't have it, you don't win.

ELLEITHEE: And the polling reflects that, no, voters don't like it. Republican primary voters liked it in a crowded field. But when you - once you expand the electorate in a general election, independent voters don't like it. Democrats don't like it. He's not doing too well with the broader - with the broader electorate.

GREENE: Well let me finish with a question to you then, John, about whether you're sensing a change in Donald Trump - I mean, whether he's getting more disciplined and you see someone who might avoid the kinds of pitfalls that Mo Elleithee's talking about there.

FEEHERY: Well, it's hard to make the case that he's getting more disciplined. I do say - think that he's got some good things on his side, but he's got to become even better disciplined.

GREENE: OK. Hey, thank you guys very much for coming in, as always. We appreciate you coming in early for us.

ELLEITHEE: Thank you.

GREENE: That was Republican strategist John Feehery and also Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who's executive director of Georgetown's Institute of Politics and Public Service. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.