For her foes, the timing couldn’t be better. On Friday afternoon, just three days before the Iowa Caucuses determine the tone for the Democratic Primary, State Department spokesman John Kirby spoke with reporters, saying in part:
“I can confirm that as part of this monthly FOIA production of former Secretary Clinton’s emails, the State Department will be denying in full seven email chains found in 22 documents, representing 37 pages. The documents are being upgraded at the request of the Intelligence Community because they contain a category of top secret information. These documents were not marked classified at the time that they were sent.”
The statement falls in line with what Clinton has been asserting about the classification status of her emails all along, and it appears that the legality of her arguments fall on solid ground.
Nevertheless, presidential elections are about optics, and the longer this story trickles through the media, the more it tortures the Clinton campaign with the perception that their candidate did something wrong. The drip, drip, drip of information just never ends, and every second she spends talking about emails is another second lost on policy.
It’s a drag on a candidacy that’s already struggling with personality issues. Recent polling suggests that her favorable ratings are sliding, while voters view her challenger as more honest. As of this weekend, the story doesn’t seem to be taking hold online and in social media, but it’s not over yet, and that’s a problem for Clinton.
Whether or not emails will matter in the primary, depends on how fatigued the issue is in the mind of Democrats. Partisan voters likely made up their minds a long time ago. Moderate voters may be waiting to see what happens. An FBI inquiry that’s been falsely described as a criminal investigation could go a long way in settling the matter for everyone, but the FBI has been dragging its heels since August.
While we wait, there are a couple of points about the Clinton email issue that seem to be getting lost in the chatter.
It’s all about timing — and Benghazi
The initial discovery of Clinton’s private email didn’t seem like a discovery at all. The New York Times broke the story in March of 2015, a full two years after she stepped down as Secretary of State. The newspaper traced the finding to a staffer on the House committee investigating the embassy attacks on Benghazi. That revelation broke just as Clinton was openly hinting at a White House run, and a month later she announced her candidacy in a two-minute video.
Friday’s announcement has its complications as well. Not because the State Department is implicated in any effort to damage Clinton, but because they were forced to make a statement. One week earlier, Sen. Charles Grassley and Intelligence Community Inspector General I. Charles McCullough III were openly discussing the ongoing investigation with the media, suggesting criminal wrongdoing on the part of Clinton. Tom Delay, a known Clinton adversary, told Newsmax TV that, “I have friends that are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict.”
Again, these statements and innuendos belie the facts. It’s worth noting that the FBI doesn’t have the power of indictment. That task would fall to grand jury should a recommendation be made. The FBI inquiry isn’t a criminal investigation, and the State Department reiterated Clinton’s statement that none of her emails were marked classified when they were sent. Instead, it does look as though the information being leaked on the investigation has been carefully timed to coincide with milestones in Clinton’s candidacy.
The possibility that the email scandal and concurrent Benghazi investigation are part of planned, sustained attacks seem to fall closer to reality. In September, Congressman Kevin McCarthy inadvertently admitted that the Benghazi Committee had political considerations by citing a drop in Clinton’s poll numbers. In October, an investigator on the House Select Committee claimed he was fired for not focusing his investigation solely on Clinton. The subsequent eleven hour hearing that followed, revealed nothing of interest, other than the fact that Clinton had a friend named Sidney Blumenthal who repeatedly offered unsolicited advice on Middle East policy.
Support among Democrats remains strong
It’s hard to imagine the establishment basically shooting itself in the foot by supporting a candidate doomed to failure. There are currently 148 representatives, 43 senators, and 10 governors committed to a Clinton candidacy. Endorsements from unions and activist groups continue to come in, with Lily Ledbetter, the namesake behind the Fair Pay Act, coming out for Clinton just before the State Department’s statement on Friday afternoon.
In an interview with 60 Minutes in October, President Obama acknowledged the email issue as a mistake, but pointed to the election cycle as a reason for its dominance in the political narrative. Last Sunday, the president hinted at a preference toward Clinton while contrasting her strengths as a candidate against Sanders in a Politico podcast. Where the administration stands becomes clear when these statements are taken in conjunction with Joe Biden’s decision not to run for the presidency.
Even Clinton’s opponent isn’t taking the bait. Sanders solidified his position during the first debate when he made the now famous “damn emails” proclamation. On Friday night, the Associated Press reported that Sanders said there is a, “legal process in place which should proceed and not be politicized.” Obviously it would be foolish of Sanders to exonerate Clinton when he isn’t privy to the investigation, but his unwillingness to use it as a line of attack says something about how the issue will play out in the primary.
Clinton doesn’t get a pass
Anyone who was over the age of ten in the 1990s is familiar with a Clinton scandal. I’m not going to bother wasting my word count by citing them all, but I will say that they usually involved Clinton’s husband, and wasted a lot of time going nowhere significant.
Which is why it defies common sense that Clinton would allow herself to become embroiled in this controversy in the first place. Having a personal email account on your own home server should have raised a red flag so high that the president could see it from the Oval Office. Especially when your last name is Clinton. The Republicans in Congress certainly saw it, and now she’s paying a hefty price.
Secondly, there is the issue of potentially confidential material being passed over an unsecured server. We can’t be serious about being objective without acknowledging Clinton’s lapse in judgment on that point. Earlier in 2015, a hack on the Office of Personnel Management that originated in China, exposed the personal information of 21.5 million people. A recent report by the Center for Strategic International Studies is warning of increased cyberattacks from North Korea. The fact that the highest official at the Department of State apparently ignored critical cybersecurity measures as a matter of convenience is cause for concern, and taking Clinton to task for that is appropriate.
How much this matters will be for voters to decide over the next few months. I don’t anticipate the email scandal going away during the primary, and assume that it will be a central line of attack for the Republican nominee during the general election if Clinton grabs the nomination from an insurgent Sanders.
So settle in, because this dead horse will be beat until it’s either buried in a Clinton presidency, or the stench of it smells so bad it fouls her campaign.