WASHINGTON, MA. >> The verdict is in. Or is it?

FBI Director James Comey recommended that the Department of Justice not file criminal charges against Hillary Clinton for her use of a private e-mail server while secretary of state, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch accepted his recommendation.

In my op-ed column of June 10, I wrote that while Clinton "still faces possible indictment by the Justice Department for mishandling of secret information, it's more likely she'll just get a slap on the wrist." Comey's slap was more of a sharp kick to the shin, characterizing the behavior of Clinton and her staff as "extremely reckless" and contradicting her claims that she did not know material was classified, when in fact a number of e-mails were marked as such.

Predictably, the Republican leadership summoned Comey to Capitol Hill for a hearing on his decision. The GOP may have an abysmal record of legislative accomplishments, but it loves to hold hearings, as amply demonstrated in the matter of Benghazi. Except, that is, when it comes to hearings in fulfillment of their Constitutional duty to advise and consent on President Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

Risky approach

If this were a "normal" presidential election — and of course it isn't — being chastized by the FBI director for violations of national security would be extremely damaging to a candidate of either party. But the prospect of a Trump presidency is deeply disturbing to many people, including not a few Republicans. Hillary's supporters say we should just forget the e-mail imbroglio and move on.


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That seems to be the strategy of the Clinton camp and the candidate herself. She has been silent about Comey's announcement, acting as though the decision not to indict her is an absolution, despite his harsh criticism.

Saying nothing and moving on may satisfy Democrats who are solidly behind her. But it risks leaving behind the independents and Republicans she needs to beat Trump. Head-to-head polls generally show her with a slight lead, although given the flaws of her opponent you might think she'd be trouncing him.

Things get more complicated looking at a four-way race that includes Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Some polls show their combined total in the double digits, with Clinton and Trump each below 40 percent. This is hardly the mandate Clinton is hoping for, especially in having the coattails for Democrats to retake control of the Senate and cut into the Republican majority in the House.

Support for Johnson and Stein is likely to increase, at least in the short term, as an expression of dismay with Clinton. It remains to be seen whether those voters will throw the lever for a third-party in November, as a protest against both major parties and a damn-the-consequences attitude toward a possible Trump victory as a result. Or maybe the thought of that possibility will throw cold water on their protest ardor and make them vote for Clinton despite their negative feelings toward her.

The size of such a third-party vote is in Clinton's hands, as I argued in my previous column. Stonewalling Comey's criticism is not a strategy for success. People need to hear contrition from Clinton, even though she feels that she's apologized for her e-mails before and doesn't want to go there again. But so far she's chosen instead to intensify her attacks on Trump, hoping to distract from the e-mail controversy.

Character matters

In following the path of silence versus openness, she's putting her candidacy and the country at risk. Nor does it bode well for the course of a Clinton presidency. She has been called, by President Obama among others, the most-qualified candidate ever to seek the presidency. Yet her resume does not speak to her character, and how she would behave as president. Richard Nixon was highly qualified too, as a former member of the House and vice president. His accomplishments included opening the door to China and landmark environmental legislation. But his character was his undoing.

Hillary has a responsibility to meet the e-mail issue head-on if she is truly to move on. The ultimate verdict will be rendered not by the Justice Department, but by the voters.

Steve Nelson is an occasional Eagle contributor.