Tested by a yet another scandal just over a week from Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is mustering its allies to go on the offensive against FBI Director James Comey while trying to stoke supporters to action in defiance of what officials hope will be final hurdle of the campaign.
Still, the latest flare-up in the self-inflicted email scandal launched fresh groans of frustration and some pangs of dread from other Democrats, who are nonetheless presenting a united front with Clinton.
But going all in against the director of the FBI is precarious — especially after Democrats praised his integrity after he initially cleared Clinton in July.
With so few voters remaining undecided, and reaction falling along predictable partisan lines, the Clinton team expects few minds will be changed after Friday’s bombshell that Comey is tasking agents to read newly discovered emails as part of their investigation to whether Clinton mishandled classified information by using a private email server as secretary of state.
In fact, Clinton’s top brass claims Comey’s move, which they feel was unfair, has spurred supporters to action.
"We actually felt a surge of support and momentum,” campaign manager Robby Mook said Sunday on NBC News’ “Meet the Press," adding that Saturday had been the campaign’s biggest volunteer day yet and best Saturday of fundraising in its history. “So we’re feeling fine.”
Still, Comey has puts Clinton in the hot seat just in time for the final week of an election that has been unkind to whichever candidate is the center of attention. So Democrats are hoping Donald Trump will again bail her out — by doing something outlandish that pushes the Comey news further down the front page.
Republicans have begun pressuring down-ballot Democrats to distance themselves from Clinton in the light of the news, and some might in coming days, which would signal a dramatic shift in a race that has otherwise been defined by a unified Democratic Party facing off against a fractured GOP.
Clinton’s team has moved aggressively to get Democrats on the same page, enlisting allies to press Comey on his latest move, according to a memo sent Saturday and obtained by NBC News.
"In a letter to FBI employees, Comey sought to explain his controversial action and admitted he didn’t intend to create a misleading impression — yet he did exactly that by sending his letter to Congress," the memo reads.
So far at least, there have been no major defections from Democrats, several of whom have come to her defense.
"I think to inject this kind of uncertainty this late in the day was a terrible lapse in judgment," Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on ABC’s This Week Sunday. "If the director can't clean up this mess, and I hope he will try, I think he ought to acknowledge that he made a serious mistake."
The Congressional Black Caucus threw together a press conference in Ohio Saturday to defend Clinton, where Rep. Gregory Meek echoed others in calling Comey’s letter "unbelievable" and "puzzling."
In the 36 hours since the news broke, the campaign’s spin machine has been in overdrive. Clinton herself has addressed the issue twice — first in a press conference in Iowa Friday, then at a rally Saturday in Florida -- while Mook and Podesta have held a conference and appeared on Sunday shows, as other aides blast out press releases and bat down emerging storylines they don’t like while elevating ones they do.
Comey, meanwhile, has been silent, but will return to work Monday morning in a dramatically different political climate than the one that existed when left Friday afternoon.
Unlikely sources have come to Clinton’s defense, like former Judge Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News host and fervent Donald Trump supporter, who said Comey’s action “disgraces and politicizes the FBI and is symptomatic of all that is wrong in Washington.”
Richard Painter, the former top ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush White House, who now supports Clinton, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times saying he filed a complaint against the F.B.I. with the Office of Special Counsel and the Office of Government Ethics for an alleged violations of the Hatch Act, which bars government employees from using their authority for political ends.
"The F.B.I.’s job is to investigate, not to influence the outcome of an election,” Painter wrote.
And the Clinton campaign made sure reporters saw reports that top Justice Department officials strongly warned Comey against making any kind of move that could influence the election, and another report that the FBI doesn’t even yet possess the emails that launched his letter Friday.
Meanwhile, more than 21 million Americans have already voted, including 11 million in battleground states, according to an NBC News analysis, limiting the impact of any late-breaking October surprise.
Just two percent of registered voters in Florida and three percent in North Carolina said they were still undecided, according to a new NBC News poll (taken before the FBI news). And of those voters who stated a preference, just two percent in each state said they might change their mind.
A new CBS News survey of 13 battleground states taken after Friday found the Comey news was being heavily filtered through a partisan lens, with 71 percent of respondents saying it won’t change their minds at all.
"We don't see it as changing the landscape," Mook told NBC News of Comey. The email issue, he said, “has been vetted for some time now and so I think voters are clear. They understand the issue and they've already factored it into their decision making."
On social media, many Democrats, from grassroots activists to professionals, to said they were offended by Comey’s last-minute incursion in the race and decided to chip in a few extra dollars or volunteer for Clinton.
"Options for today 1. Stay home and bedwet about emails 2. Do something to make sure Hillary wins,” former Obama advisor Dan Dan Pfeiffer told his followers on Twitter, before going to knock doors in Las Vegas.
Still, there are many unknown unknowns lurking ahead for Clinton, and being on the radar of the FBI is never a good thing.
While her defenders are almost certain Comey has nothing damaging, he of course could, and it will be almost impossible for Clinton’s campaign to anticipate what’s coming their way since they don’t have access to the new emails in question.
"Only Comey possesses the laptop and knows its contents. Not possible for campaign to ‘get out ahead’ of story and release emails ourselves,” Clinton's Press Secretary Brian Fallon said on Twitter.
And Clinton has an uncomfortable decision to make about Huma Abedin, one of her closest aides for decades who has found herself yet again at the center of a controversy that reflects poorly on her boss.
Anthony Weiner, her estranged husband’s, sexting scandal as one thing when it was a tawdry distraction, but it’s entirely another when it appears to have drawn FBI scrutiny on Clinton days before the most important election of her life, as reports indicate.
And Abedin was already under fire again this week after Wikileaks emails drew fresh attention to her controversial work moonlighting for a consulting firm while still working for Clinton at the State Department.
For most political aides, who are supposed to get their bosses out of political jams, not into them, Abedin would be several bridges too far. But Abedin is not most political aides, and her long personal connection with the insular Clinton, and their shared experience of spousal public humiliation, has made their bond seemingly unbreakable.
She has not been contacted by the FBI, according to the campaign, but Mook and Podesta seemed to dodged questions Sunday about whether Abedin had been entirely forthcoming with them.
Meanwhile, it’s another log on the investigatory fires House Republicans are already stoking for if Clinton wins the White House.
"This is Secretary Clinton's fault,” Rep. David Nunes, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Fox News Sunday. "We will clearly investigate all of the information that we have as it relates to classified information being put on unclassified networks."