She brought this on herself: Clinton's mishandling of the email scandal will — and should — hurt her

Despite not being indicted, Clinton's fumbling of the scandal as it unfolded undercuts her campaign's core message

By Sean Illing
July 6, 2016 9:32PM (UTC)
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Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Chris Bergin)

So the great email scandal of 2016  reached an apparent climax on Tuesday, and the results were utterly predictable: Hillary Clinton likely won't be indicted, after the FBI's recommendation to not prosecute. Legal experts saw this coming. The relevant statutes are sufficiently expansive that almost anyone could be charged under them. A case like this had little chance of ending in prosecution. Those who expected a different outcome were likely blinkered by anti-Hillary sentiment.

There are two ways to look at this from our post-FBI perch. On the one hand, this story was propped up by media outlets and right-wingers who knew how it would end but needed a dramatic narrative to push. The facts were out there. Barring some shocking revelation, criminal charges were always a pipe dream. Republicans understood this, but pretending otherwise accomplished a couple things: It whipped their base into a frenzy and set up a new outrage narrative about how “rigged” the system is. Now that Comey said what everyone knew he would say, Republicans will spend the next several months decrying the faux injustice.


The story can also be seen as an unambiguous indictment of Clinton's judgment. None of this needed to happen. Clinton brought this on herself, and as is often the case, the cover-up surpassed the crime. The bottom line is that Clinton lied about what she did and why she did it. She said she never sent or received classified emails. She did. She then backtracked and said she never knowingly sent or received any classified information. She did. She said her private server didn't leave her and the classified information vulnerable to foreign hacks. It did.

FBI Director James Comey was quite clear about this in his remarks on Tuesday: “From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 emails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information.” While Comey carefully parsed his words, saying they “did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information," he added that "there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”

Comey had to put it this way. It's near-impossible to prove intent. But saying Clinton was “extremely careless” and that “any reasonable person...should have known” amounts to saying she knew what she was doing. It's fairly obvious: Clinton was determined to protect her privacy and skirted the rules in order to do so. There really isn't another plausible interpretation. The planning and coordination it took to execute this doesn't happen without “intent” of some kind. Clinton is a very smart and very experienced politician – does anyone believe she didn't understand the risks involved?


Although the scandal is officially dead, it will live on through November. House Speaker Paul Ryan has already announced his plans to hold hearings about the FBI's decision-making process, and that's just the beginning. Republicans will pound their talking points over and over and over again. And they should: it's smart politics. But the point is that Clinton gifted those talking points. Without this story, what would the GOP talk about? Benghazi? That line of attack died a public death when Clinton testified before Trey Gowdy's farcical committee. Apart from dredging up conspiracy theories from the 90s, there really isn't much to chew on for Republicans. Of course, they'd invent non-crimes in order to pin them on Hillary, but that wouldn't stick.

But the email story does. And here's why: Fair or not, Americans don't trust Clinton. A New York Times/CBS News poll in May found that 64 percent of voters said “no” when asked if they believed Clinton was “honest and trustworthy.” This is one of the few questions on which she consistently trails Trump, a man who lies with breathtaking alacrity. Clinton's handling of the email server isn't the epic crime Republicans need it to be, but it does speak to something fundamentally true about Clinton: She's excessively secretive and borderline paranoid.

I wrote earlier this year that Clinton's guardedness is almost pardonable. The recipient of GOP attacks for decades (many of which were deeply personal), she is obsessed with privacy. But her defensive posture has become self-defeating. And her inability to correct course when it's clear she erred is maddening. As this Washington Post report makes painfully clear, Clinton repeatedly misrepresented the facts in an effort to protect her image. She had to know – or should have known – this would eventually backfire.


If there were anyone other than Donald Trump on the other side, this would be cataclysmic for the Clinton campaign. This election will reduce to questions about basic fitness and competence. In many ways, it's still a simple case to make: Trump isn't fit for office. But Clinton's judgment in this case is so irrefutably bad that it undermines her argument just enough to make things interesting for Republicans. Every other attack ad between now and November will feature the words “extremely careless,” and it will resonate. Clinton has made her experience and judgment her defining virtues – this calls both into question.

And that's on her.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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Clinton's Emails Donald Trump Editor's Pick Elections 2016 Fbi Hillary Clinton James Comey