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Hillary Clinton: Private e-mail was 'for convenience'

Clinton says she had a thorough review done of e-mails and erred 'on the side of providing anything that could be viewed as work-related' to the State Department. But that statement – essentially telling Americans to trust her – may be hard for critics to swallow.

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    Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during a press conference at the United Nations in New York March 10.
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"I opted for convenience."

That was the basic message that came out of Hillary Rodham Clinton's press conference Tuesday afternoon at the United Nations, the first time – other than one brief tweet – that the former secretary of State has directly addressed concerns that she used a private e-mail account and server for her official work while she was in office.

"Looking back, it would have been better if I had simply used a second e-mail account and carried a second phone" for private correspondence, Mrs. Clinton said at the conference. But at the time, she said, "I thought it would be easier to carry one device."

The press conference came a week after news about Clinton's private e-mail use broke, during which Clinton has been under increased pressure to answer questions about it. Even supporters, like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D) of California, were publicly encouraging her to speak, lest her silence prove too damaging.

Clinton seemed to be trying to wait it out, as she has successfully done with other scandals, but the questions – and conspiracy theories from her opposition – continued to grow.

On Tuesday, she emphasized repeatedly that she broke no rules. When she was in office, there was no prohibition on government officials using private e-mail accounts for official business (a policy that since has been updated). Other secretaries of State, including Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, also used personal e-mails for State Department business, though not as exclusively as Clinton did.

She also discounted suggestions that the 55,000 pages of e-mails she provided to the State Department – which the Department has said it will be making public on a website once it has reviewed them – didn't include all her official e-mails.

Clinton says that she had a thorough review done of her e-mails, and about half were work-related, while the other half "were not in any way related to my work," and included things like correspondence about her daughter's wedding and condolence notes to friends. She said most of her work-related e-mails went to officials at their government email address, and so were automatically recorded. Her direction was to "err on the side of providing anything that could possibly be viewed as work-related" to the State Department, she said.

But that statement – essentially telling the American public to trust her – may be hard for some of her critics to swallow.

"If there’s one thing skeptics aren’t going to do it’s taking Hillary Clinton’s word for something," says Jack Pitney, a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in California.

Reporters pressed Clinton on whether she would release her server to an independent arbiter, which she categorically refused. "No one wants their personal e-mails made public and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy," she said.

She also emphasized that the judgment on what is personal and what is public is ultimately a responsibility that rests with each government employee, not just her.

"That is the responsibility of the individual, and I have fulfilled that responsibility, and I have no doubt we’ve done exactly what we should have done," Clinton said, repeatedly emphasizing that by asking the State Department to make her e-mails public, she has gone "above and beyond" what is required.

Clinton is hardly the first government official to use private e-mail for official correspondence, but her doing so has gained particular attention because of how it was done – using a private server owned by the Clintons and not using her State Department e-mail address at all – and because it plays into a familiar criticism of the Clintons, that they resist transparency and play by their own rules.

And then there's the primary reason for the furor: the fact that Clinton is the Democratic frontrunner for the 2016 presidential election. Both her supporters and her critics are watching closely to see how much harm "E-mailgate" will inflict on her, and also how well she handles the scrutiny, which is only likely to increase – for multiple issues – closer to the election. Her relationship with the press is notoriously hostile.

"The real question for her now is not whether she can get this particular issue behind her, because I’m sure she can. It’s whether she can fundamentally change a toxic relationship with the political press that threatens her entire campaign," wrote Paul Waldman at The Washington Post's Plum Line blog.

Clinton herself discounted the effect the e-mail revelation is likely to have on her presidential campaign. "I trust the American people to make their decisions about political and public matters and I feel like I've taken unprecedented steps for these emails to be in the public domain," she said.

But some observers say that regardless of whether Clinton did anything wrong, the scandal hurts primarily because it plays into doubts Clinton's critics already have.

"Ever since the 1990s, the Clintons' critics have been saying they’re too clever by half, they’re hiding things, and this press conference doesn’t go very far to allay those concerns," says Professor Pitney.

How much it actually hurts her in the election depends in part on whether any further revelations come out, he adds. "As it stands, it’s not fatal," Pitney says. "If you’re talking to a guy that’s working two part-time jobs to put food on the table, Hillary Clinton's e-mails aren’t at the top of his concerns."

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