Hillary Clinton c ould become the first Democrat to be nominated for president under the cloud of an FBI investigation. Not since Damocles sat under a gleaming sword suspended by the thinnest of threads has there been a situation more fraught with anxiety.
The only way to stop a political crisis from occurring is for Attorney General Loretta Lynch to act now either to exonerate Clinton or to bring charges for mishandling classified information.
Otherwise, as Democrats in state after state cast their votes, there will fester an unavoidable question: If Clinton is nominated, will she be standing on the convention stage in Philadelphia when July rolls around, or in the dock of a federal courtroom? Or worse, will this whole ugly spectacle unfold after her election as president?
It was surprising that the Justice Department let the case linger into 2016. With the presidential campaign now in full swing, an indictment of the Democratic front-runner — if that's where the investigation is headed — would be hugely disruptive. That is not an excuse to do nothing, however. The American legal system depends on "equal justice under the law," a phrase engraved on the front of the US Supreme Court building.
But this is not merely about whether Lady Justice wears a blindfold. It's also about the integrity of the electoral process and the right of the voters to know that candidates standing for high office are above criminal suspicion.
Thus far, what we know is cause for concern. There have been discovered more than 1,200 messages transmitted on Clinton's private e-mail system that were found to contain classified information. This, despite Clinton's reassurance that she neither sent nor received any secret intelligence on her unsecure network.
The most recent revelations do not help Clinton’s cause.
In a newly-released e-mail exchange from 2011, the former secretary of state instructed her aide Jake Sullivan to take sensitive information that he was having trouble sending by secure fax and "turn into nonpaper w no identifying heading and send nonsecure." That sure makes Clinton sound like a person who is not uncomfortable with bypassing normal security protocols — which gets to the heart of the case against her.
It's possible Clinton's use of a private e-mail server was a "mistake" that did not compromise national security, as President Obama told "60 Minutes'' last fall. In that event, it's not unusual for the government in cases that attract media attention to make an announcement that an investigation has not resulted in charges. Such a statement would be a welcome relief for Democrats.
Maybe it's an offense that requires community service and a fine, as happened after former CIA director David Petraeus was indicted for unauthorized sharing and retention of classified material. It's hard to say what happens to Clinton in that scenario, although her campaign would be seriously wounded.
Clinton may be able to continue with her race despite a formal charge. In a poll released this week, Rasmussen said voters are split on whether a candidate charged with a felony should stop campaigning. Forty six percent said yes, but just as many (47 percent) feel that a candidate should continue running until a court determines guilt or innocence. Because of filing deadlines already past, it's too late for any last-minute candidates to jump into the Democratic contest.
Before she became attorney general, Lynch was a US attorney in New York with a bipartisan record of prosecuting wrongdoing against both Democratic and Republican politicians. But that's all distant memory now. Her entire career will be judged on how she resolves the accusations against Clinton. By letting matters linger until now, she's off to a bad start.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst and media strategist, and was a senior adviser to Governor Mitt Romney.