Hillary in Free Fall: What Happens Next?
Last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hoped the email mess would die quietly, a one-day story. Bad calculation. The story has staying power, is metastasizing, and is engaging the legacy media. Worst of all for the denizens of Hillaryland, all its responses have failed to quash it.
Let’s look at the losing strategies so far.
Strategy #1: Stay quiet and hope it blows over. Result: Fail. We are nearing the two-week mark and counting. Each day, new troubles dribble out, and the media is actually reporting them. Clinton and her team are losing the war of attrition.
Strategy #2: See the shiny object. Send out the usual attack dogs, keep Hillary and her key aides hidden, and say it is a tempest in a teapot. Insist that everything was legal, it is all a right-wing plot, and that Jeb Bush, Colin Powell and others did the same thing. Result: Fail. James Carville and Lanny Davis are simply not in a position to answer the hard questions. Worse, they remind people of the sleaziest problem of Bill Clinton’s presidency, not its triumphs. People get tired just looking at them.
Strategy #3: Send out the Boss herself in carefully controlled settings and give circumscribed, legalistic answers. That’s what they did on Tuesday. Say this is only about “convenience,” not about secrecy, control, and deception. Meanwhile, say you have turned over the relevant materials but make that determination yourself and keep everything on your server secret. Hope the media and the public will accept that. They won’t. Result: Failure very likely.
Offering legalistic defenses in tightly controlled settings sometimes works for criminal defense lawyers. It won’t work for someone trying to position herself as a competent, trustworthy candidate for president of the United States.
As the mess lingers, major Democrats are avoiding the cameras, not stepping up to Mrs. Clinton’s defense. The ones who do appear, like California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, are saying that Hillary needs to open up and answer all the questions. The big names are hiding because they don’t know the extent of the cover up. If they were sure HRC would stand unscathed atop the Democratic Party in a few months, they would rally to her now. Instead, they are more afraid of being sucked into the abyss.
Clinton must fear that she is now being cornered into an unthinkable response: honesty. So, ask yourself: why doesn’t she just do that? Why doesn’t she come clean? The reason, I suspect, is the same one Nixon had when he resisted all calls for openness. He alone knew what would be revealed. Those who were asking for disclosure did not. That’s Hillary’s problem in a nutshell. When politicians hide things—their tax records, their college records, whatever—they do it for very good reasons. The stronger the pressures for disclosure, they better the reasons must be for hiding the documents. That’s what we are finding out now.
If the former secretary of state actually wanted to come clean without disclosing truly private, personal documents, she has a simple solution – just hand over everything to the chief of the US National Archives. Their specialists are trained to deal with these records. They have independent IT specialists who can examine the drives, restore deleted documents, and then return to Hillary all of her personal emails—and only those. That’s all she is entitled to. The rest belong by law to the U.S. public. Is there any reason to resist this simple, obvious solution? There must be a very good one since she’s clearly not taking it.
In any event, Hillary’s resistance will fail—politically and probably legally. Federal judges will become involved since FOIA requests have been made. Second, the House committee investigating the Benghazi debacle that occurred under Clinton’s tenure at State has issued subpoenas for all these documents, and they will not accept Mrs. Clinton’s personal assurance that she has complied.
Her acolytes will respond that this is a right-wing political witch-hunt. Carville’s shining skull and Davis’ unctuous smile will briefly fill the airways and then sink into well-deserved oblivion. Meanwhile, the Congress and groups such as Judicial Watch will seek emails not only from Secretary Clinton but also from her key aides, such as Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills and anyone else with an email account on the Secret Server. Every senior aide in the White House, State Department, Pentagon, and CIA will have to explain whether they emailed Hillary at her private address. If they did, the White House will have to explain how its officials, including President Obama, sent those email but only learned about them in the New York Times.
The House committee, headed by Rep. Trey Gowdy, will focus on the weeks immediately surround the Benghazi attacks, when emails were surely about national security and directly relevant to the committee’s inquiry. Team Hillary won’t have any plausible explanation for why those should not be part of the public record. If there is a gap in the electronic records, expect to hear references to Richard Nixon’s tapes and his secretary, Rosemary Woods. And expect to hear what a great guy Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is and how Joe Biden is actually not as goofy and clueless as he seems.
Now that this story has staying power, it is sinking Hillaryland’s main political strategy, which is that she can restore the golden nirvana of the 1990s. She wants us to remember the triumphs, the peace, and the prosperity. What we are seeing is other, less happy memories: familiar attack dogs, the shadow of a blue dress, and a president with a Yale Law degree testifying under oath that he’s not really sure was “is” means. For Hillary, it might mean “was.”
Charles Lipson is a professor at the University of Chicago and a columnist for RCP.