Hillary's email mess: Why this Clinton "scandal" will persist

Hillary's press conference on her emails practices laid bare the frustrations with another Clinton White House run

Published March 11, 2015 2:26PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jin Lee)
(AP/Jin Lee)

Hillary Clinton gave a press conference yesterday. Maybe you heard. She was at the United Nations to give a speech on women’s rights, and she had some very harsh words for the 47 Republican senators who are trying to undermine negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. But haha nobody cares about that stuff. No, instead political journalists crammed themselves into a U.N. press… hallway? to pepper the presidential candidate-in-waiting with questions about her email policies while she served as secretary of state.

Last week I wrote about Clinton’s email troubles and the coverage surrounding them. Her decision to conduct official business on a personal account put her in a weird transparency gray area that, intentionally or not, created conditions for opacity and abuse. It’s the perfect sort of story for Clinton haters on the right and scandal-obsessed members of the press – as yet there’s no clear-cut example of wrongdoing on Hillary’s part, but it “raises questions” and “feeds into the Clinton narrative.”

With that in mind, Clinton did herself no favors at yesterday’s press conference. She confirmed that her policy for ensuring that records of her official communications were preserved had giant holes. “It was my practice to communicate with State Department and other government officials on their .gov accounts,” she said, “so those e-mails would be automatically saved in the State Department system to meet recordkeeping requirements, and that, indeed, is what happened.” In essence, she was relying on others to do her records retention for her. And there is an obvious and glaring flaw in this system: emails sent to or received from non-State Department, non-.gov accounts would not be captured.

When it came time to hand those records over to the State Department, the decision as to which emails were “official” and which were “personal” came down to Hillary’s attorneys. “What I did was to direct, you know, my counsel to conduct a thorough investigation and to err on the side of providing anything that could be connected to work,” she said. “They did that, and that was my obligation. I fully fulfilled it.” They apparently culled out 30,000 or so emails that qualified as “personal,” and the rest were sent off to State.

What happened to the 30,000 that her lawyers chose to leave out? Apparently she deleted them. “At the end, I chose not to keep my private personal emails… No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy.”

The overall message from Clinton was “trust me.” And the near-unanimous response from Republicans and the media was “no.” Republicans and conservatives were never going to trust Clinton or give her the benefit of the doubt, but yesterday she stood before a group of reporters and explained that she’d gone through her work/personal email account and deleted tens of thousands of messages that her lawyers felt weren’t relevant to her time in public service. You can forgive them for being incredulous.

So here’s what going to happen now. Clinton will start up her campaign at some point in the next few weeks or months and coverage of this email business will die down, but never completely go away. It’ll stay at a slow simmer, encouraged along by talk radio and Fox News, which will embellish it to whatever degree necessary to keep it going. Occasionally the coverage will boil over, as will happen when Trey Gowdy makes good on his threat to subpoena Clinton to testify before his Benghazi committee.

And that’s what makes the prospect of another Clinton candidacy so frustrating. Right now there’s no reason to think that Clinton did actually try to cover something up with this email arrangement, but then again, there’s also no way to confirm it because the records are under Hillary’s control or no longer exist. The ways in which conservatives and Beltway media Clinton antagonists exploit these stories is gross and exasperating, but there’s no overlooking the fact that the Clintons help create the environment in which this sort of nonsense thrives. The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman captured this frustration perfectly:

It was that at the heart of every scandal, no matter how disproportionate or ridiculous the Republican response, there was a kernel of truth. Again and again, we suffered through a pseudo-scandal in which Republicans made grandiose charges for which there was little or no evidence. But every one started the same way: with some questionable decision on your part, your husband's, or both. You may not have broken the law, but you screwed up, in ways that gave your opponents enough material to crank up the calliope of scandal-mongering. Then you inevitably fought the release of information, which may have seemed like smart strategizing at the time but had the effect of dragging everything out interminably.

Perhaps what’s more frustrating than anything is the near certainty that Clinton “scandal” coverage will at various points overwhelm coverage of issues that actually matter in a presidential race. Yesterday, the former secretary of state came down hard on Republicans in Congress for acting in a way that is “helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander- in-chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy.” She called them discredited and “out of step with the best traditions of American leadership.”

But no one really cared or noticed because of those damn emails.

By Simon Maloy

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