FBI exoneration of Hillary Clinton over e-mail scandal lifts cloud over her, but damage already done

US Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pauses as she speaks during a campaign rally in Cleveland, Ohio, US on Nov 6, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Nine days after sending the US presidential election into turmoil by announcing that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was renewing scrutiny into Mrs Hillary Clinton's e-mail scandal, FBI director James Comey dropped another surprise by clearing the Democratic nominee, with only two days to go before the election.

"Based on our review, we have not changed our conclusions that we expressed in July with respect to Secretary Clinton," Mr Comey wrote in a letter to US lawmakers on Sunday (Nov 6).

And while the announcement and unexpectedly speedy review lifts a cloud hanging over the Clinton campaign less than two days before voters head to the ballot box, doubts remain if it undoes the damage inflicted by last week's revelation.

The upside is clear. With the FBI now exonerating Mrs Clinton, the Democratic nominee no longer faces the prospect of having to worry about a potential criminal charge long after the results are tallied. But that will be little solace if the announcement of the inquiry ends up costing her the election.

The reasons Sunday's FBI letter might be bittersweet for the Clinton campaign are two-fold. First, a lot of the damage that has been done cannot be undone. And second, the last thing the campaign wants to do now - during closing arguments - is to bring further attention to the e-mail scandal.

The precise impact of the Oct 28 letter is difficult to gauge, but it has contributed to the tightening in the polls. Pundits say the boost in the polls Mr Donald Trump received over the past week is a combination of the effect of the FBI inquiry and a natural tendency for undecided Republican voters unifying under the party banner at the last minute.

The damage done by the FBI's announcement didn't lie in the fact that Mrs Clinton had the potential to be charged with a crime. The bigger problem was that it shifted the focus of the election campaign from Mr Trump's failures to Mrs Clinton's. At a time when Mr Trump was roundly criticised for his treatment of women, the FBI bombshell hijacked the conversation and made Mrs Clinton's e-mails the main headline.

And in the days since, millions of voters have gone to polling booths in early voting with that story at the top of their consciousness.

Others who have not voted but dislike Mrs Clinton were reminded why. The new announcement, while it removes the sting from one of her scandals, is unlikely to make those voters forget about the rest of it.

As Dr Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia's Miller Centre, told The Straits Times: "It's like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. At best she (Mrs Clinton) can hope that, if she still continues to lose votes over the issue, this exoneration would stop the bleeding."

"It may be that if Mrs Clinton squeaks by on Tuesday that it was because the letter stopped her numbers from going off a cliff, but otherwise I don't see this as having that much of an impact."

Indeed, Clinton backers like Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a statement blasting the FBI again for unfairly prejudicing one candidate.

"Today's letter makes Director Comey's actions nine days ago even more troubling. There's no doubt that it created a false impression about the nature of the agency's inquiry," she said.

The Clinton campaign will be struggling to decide how to deal with the announcement with such a short amount of time left. If indeed, as polls suggest, the primary fallout from the e-mail revelations is now over, does bringing it up again - even in the context of an exoneration - run the risk of making a negative issue the centre of the focus of the election in the closing moments.

The campaign is thus caught in a bind between letting everyone who remains concerned about the FBI inquiry know that it is no longer an issue and reminding those who might have already moved on about the issue.

In all likelihood, the Clinton campaign will welcome the remarks but say very little about them in the final day of rallies.

Given the circumstances and timing surrounding Sunday's announcement, the late twist in the campaign sounds like good news for Mrs Clinton but may not move the needle all that much.

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