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Even if James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, smashed every crime syndicate in the land, he will forever be remembered for having upended the 2016 election. Eleven days ago, polls showed Hillary Clinton cruising to an easy victory over Donald Trump — some even gave her a double-digit lead. Then Mr Comey declared he was expanding the FBI’s inquiry into Mrs Clinton’s emails. By reminding voters of everything they distrusted about the Clintons, Mr Comey’s bombshell changed the nature of the election. His vaguely worded statement converted a possible Clinton landslide into a nail-biter. If Mrs Clinton wins on Tuesday it will be by a far tighter margin than before. She can thank Mr Comey for that.

Should she thus now be grateful to him for having said the FBI has turned up nothing new? Mr Comey’s about-turn was certainly better for Mrs Clinton than the alternatives — deafening silence from the FBI, or more leaks from disgruntled investigators. But coming fewer than 48 hours before election day, Mr Comey’s findings probably came too late to undo most of the damage. Polls still show her winning on Tuesday. But Mr Comey has given new life to Mr Trump’s claims of a cooked election. “Right now she is being protected by a rigged system. It’s a totally rigged system,” Mr Trump said on Sunday after Mr Comey’s latest statement. “You can’t review 650,000 emails in eight days. You can’t do it folks.” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker, and key Trump ally, said: “We have drifted into an environment where if Hillary is elected, the criminal investigations will be endless.”

The impact on the election’s aftermath will be hard to quantify. But two effects of Mr Comey’s intervention are indisputable. First, it forced Mrs Clinton to change her election strategy. She had planned to spend her last few days campaigning in Republican strongholds, such as Arizona and Georgia, with a positive message for what she would do in office. This could have given her some kind of a mandate at the end of a campaign that has been drowned in mud. Mr Comey’s announcement put paid to that. Instead, the sudden tightening in the polls forced Mrs Clinton to rush back to so-called “blue wall states”, such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Democrats have not lost in a generation. Her pitch became more defensive. The battle for control of the US Senate also tightened. Republicans could now retain control. Moreover they are predicted to lose just 10 of their 59-seat majority in the House of Representatives, according to the non-partisan Cook Report. Two weeks ago, estimates of Republican losses were far higher.

Second, Mr Comey’s actions have elevated the distrust that is poisoning US politics. The sniping between the FBI and the Department of Justice — and between different factions within the FBI — has been more redolent of a Latin American republic than the oldest constitutional republic. Supposedly apolitical institutions are being drafted into a partisan war that permits no middle ground. At different points, both the Clinton and Trump campaigns have accused Mr Comey of working for the other side. Mr Comey’s original statement in July that he would not recommend prosecution of Mrs Clinton for her “extremely careless” email habits, was not supposed to happen either. That is the decision of the attorney-general — but Loretta Lynch had to rule herself out after she had been spotted talking to Bill Clinton at an airport a few days earlier.

Should the polls prove right, Mr Trump is unlikely to call Mrs Clinton to congratulate her on her victory. Quite the reverse. For the first time in its history, the US is on the brink of an election in which up to half the country will see the winner as illegitimate. This will be a journey without maps. Mr Comey has unwittingly helped set the stage for a crisis without precedent.

edward.luce@ft.com

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