Seven Reasons Hillary's Email Problems Won't Go Away

Seven Reasons Hillary's Email Problems Won't Go Away
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It was hot on Saturday as Hillary Clinton petted a cow, strolled past Iowa State Fair booths and posed for selfies with voters. One prediction seemed as certain as the ritual summer corn dog that was never too far away:

Clinton’s email controversy is not going away. After blaming Republicans for her email troubles during an Iowa speech Friday, she told reporters Saturday during a short Q&A under a tree that "partisanization" is the real culprit stoking the controversy. She said her emails are never raised during her town-hall discussions with voters or meetings with Democrats, and she said the inquiries are having no impact on her efforts to secure her party's nomination.

Former Sen. Tom Harkin, standing beside her, said he endorsed Clinton for president because of her "depth of experience," and he saluted as an improvement over 2008 the organizational effort she'd already made in his state.

"The facts are the same as they've been from the very beginning," Clinton told a reporter, after giving Harkin a hug. She repeated her assurances that no classified material was sent or received by her on her private system when she was secretary of state. "I'm going to let whatever this inquiry is go forward, and we'll await the outcome of it."

The list of questions has grown longer with every leaked detail about Clinton's blank email server, the FBI’s hunt for “top secret” communications that may (or may not) have migrated across the country (or onto the State Department website for public airing), plus Capitol Hill testimony expected from the Democratic frontrunner in October.

Two memos from the candidate’s top campaign advisers sought this week to reassure alarmed and perplexed Clinton backers: a message sent to rank-and-file Democrats called the imbroglio “nonsense,” and a six-page memo to elite donors and supporters from her campaign manager said that “in the face of these unprecedented headwinds, we’ve made a strategic decision to fight back and set the record straight.”

On Friday, a few eyebrows went up at an Iowa political event when she endorsed Snapchat, a social media innovation that didn’t exist when she last ran for president. "I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves!" she enthused.

The email storyline has an uncertain outcome, and here’s why:

1) Clinton can blame herself. She may point to Republicans as culprits behind a barrage of partisan attacks, but she was advised to pull back the email curtain, seek an independent review, turn over her server and respond exhaustively to questions. She declined. Her communications patterns were years in the making: As a New York senator, she conducted official Senate work using a private email, transferred that address to the State Department, set up a personal server with a new address and steered clear of federal records rules that applied to the employees she supervised. When this was uncovered as part of GOP-led probes of the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, Clinton, her aides and her legal advisers attempted to control the communications in her possession, declined to relinquish one server (and there may be more than one involved), while assuring the State Department, congressional investigators, and the public that no classified information was sent or received through her system, the complete details of which she has not described. Thus far, Clinton has been pushed to release 30,000 work-related emails, having acted with aides’ assistance to destroy 31,000 self-described personal communications. And this week she capitulated to the FBI and turned over at least one server, which she said in March contained “personal communications from my husband and me.” The server is blank, according to a lawyer representing the company that turned it over to the FBI. The intelligence community’s inspector general informed lawmakers that highly classified references and communications not marked as classified improperly slipped through Clinton’s server system and still pose a security risk.

2) Clinton stoked a pre-existing narrative. Controversies that reinforce impressions the public already holds root swiftly, and don’t budge. Americans believe Clinton, for reasons well known for more than two decades, guards her privacy ferociously, and is not given to over-sharing. Foot-dragging, equivocating, and parsing words in modern politics are perceived as being untruthful. Clinton’s guardedness and caution are obvious to supporters and detractors alike. She tells voters she’s a fighter. They are increasingly wondering if the skirmishes ahead of her are not their own.

3) The sphere of inquiry and investigation has widened since spring, an ominous sign for any presidential candidate. Involved are three branches of government and the private sector. Ensnared are the White House (defending Clinton and surveying executive agencies as they enlarge the scope of scrutiny); State Department; Justice Department; the intelligence community; congressional investigative committees; courts responding to Freedom of Information Act lawsuits tied to the emails; a private IT company in Denver (Platte River Networks) and a secondary IT outfit in New Jersey; the Clinton Foundation; Clinton’s attorneys and a prominent D.C. law firm; her past and current personal aides; and the candidate and her campaign team. Sorting out answers is taking time.

4) The words “top secret” and “classified” guarantee prolonged scrutiny. When the intelligence community complained to the State Department that Clinton’s emails potentially held hundreds of clandestine bits of information, perhaps innocently, the expansion of the email controversy was guaranteed. “There is no classified material,” Clinton said in March. This month her certainty was challenged, but answers remain tangled in the skirmish between State and the intelligence agencies, and a government investigation to chase down any unsecured copies of thousands of emails.

5) A House select committee expects Clinton to answer questions Oct. 22 in public testimony, and senators, including those on the Republican-controlled Judiciary Committee, are continuing to issue official inquiries and disclose responses. The presidential candidate’s public responses this fall are unlikely to put to rest GOP-led examinations of the State Department’s handling of the Benghazi attacks and Clinton’s unusual communications decisions as secretary of state. Her decision-making, more than anything else known to date, is in the dock. Tough questions (and speeches) will cover a private communications system, deleted emails, copies on thumb drives, communications gaps, a blank server, security clearances, and potentially sensitive information that escaped the government’s control.

6) Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have taken turns criticizing (or, in more muted tones, calling attention to) Clinton’s email habits, lack of transparency, trust issues (as measured in polls) and the unexpectedly lively contest in New Hampshire against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Multiple investigations and media reporting will continue to distract from Clinton’s policy-centered appeal to voters. The first televised Democratic primary debate is slated the week before Clinton is set to testify on Capitol Hill.

7) Truth and consequences will add up if the email drama blooms into anything beyond puzzling and embarrassing. Clinton’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Palmieri, told Democrats this week the whole episode is not alarming as it involves no wrongdoing by the former secretary. But it took Palmieri many paragraphs and complex explanations to argue Clinton’s innocence. If explanations change, voters could reject the lawyerly approach that spawned such a mess, along with the politician who likes to do things her way. “I fully complied with every rule that I was governed by,” Clinton argued in March. Iowa may be knee-deep into winter next year before talk of emails runs cold.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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