WASHINGTON — In July, after the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, declined to bring charges against Hillary Clinton for her handling of classified emails, leading Democrats hailed his leadership.
“This is a great man,” said Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader. “We are very privileged in our country to have him be the director of the F.B.I.” No one, added Harry Reid, the Senate minority leader, “can question the integrity” of Mr. Comey.
But on Friday, after Mr. Comey revealed that the F.B.I. would review newly discovered emails potentially related to the case, Democrats changed their tune.
Mr. Reid all but accused him of criminality, writing to Mr. Comey, “You may have broken the law.”
Mr. Comey, who was once so broadly admired that his appointment to the post in 2013 was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 93 to 1, has emerged as the most vivid example of how difficult it is for institutions to remain insulated from partisan combat in this hyperpolarized era.
Mrs. Clinton and her opponent, Donald J. Trump, who has used incendiary rhetoric toward Mr. Comey, are practicing the politics of total war, where there can be no noncombatants or neutral actors. Supporters have to be rallied, and adversaries must be distinguished from allies.
“Everything now gets weaponized,” said David Axelrod, a former adviser to President Obama. In their response to Mr. Comey, he said, “the Clinton people saw a strong rebuttal against him as a way of galvanizing their own forces.”
That Mrs. Clinton would make the F.B.I. director a target of her campaign’s wrath is deeply troubling to some Republicans, including those who are no admirers of Mr. Trump and believe that she is compounding what they see as the Republican candidate’s irresponsible behavior.
Even more worrisome, they say, is that the attacks are eroding what little faith the public still has in government.
“What we’re seeing in this election, with Trump saying the election and everything else is rigged and now this attack by Hillary and her people on the F.B.I., is basically an attack on our form of a constitutional government,” said former Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican. “They’re undermining the core elements of what gives our government credibility.”
William S. Cohen, who was a secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, said the hostile rhetoric suggested that the country is “slouching towards the mutual assured destruction of our political system.”
“A healthy skepticism of public officials and institutions is descending into a corrosive cynicism that’s unlikely to be reversed in the short term,” Mr. Cohen said. “A coarsening of language is a precursor to the coarsening of values.”
Mr. Axelrod said Mrs. Clinton had a “legitimate” criticism with Mr. Comey, and her advisers felt they had no choice but to exert pressure on the F.B.I. director in order to reframe a potentially damaging narrative just over a week before the election. In the minds of Mrs. Clinton’s aides, Mr. Comey effectively made himself fair game when he issued a vague three-paragraph letter and inserted himself and his agency into the final days of a high-stakes contest.
“By taking this highly unusual, unprecedented action this close to the election, he put himself in the middle of the campaign,” Jennifer Palmieri, Mrs. Clinton’s communications director, said of Mr. Comey. The campaign’s advisers also felt they had to act, she added, because they believed that Mr. Trump would distort the letter.
Yet the evolution of Democrats’ handling of Mr. Comey’s letter illustrates just how tempting, and rewarding, total-war politics can be.
When Mrs. Clinton first addressed the inquiry on Friday evening, hours after news of Mr. Comey’s letter emerged, she was firm but also careful to avoid anything that could be seen as a personal criticism of the director. “It’s imperative that the bureau
Matthew LangenkampAccurate Security Engineering