Is Hillary Clinton's silence on e-mails a misstep?

Hillary Clinton is reinforcing an image of being less than transparent. That could hurt her, say some allies. But Mrs. Clinton's team thinks she can wait out the storm. 

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the 'Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality' in New York Monday. Mrs. Clinton declined to mention the use of a private e-mail server for communications during her tenure in the State Department.

Likely presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton is under growing pressure – including from fellow Democrats – to answer questions about the private e-mail server she used as secretary of State.  

As expected, Mrs. Clinton said nothing about the email flap in remarks Monday at an event on the status of women and girls around the world.

But the e-mail issue isn’t going away and has put the White House in an awkward spot. At the daily briefing Monday, spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged that President Obama exchanged e-mails with Clinton during her tenure as his top diplomat.

“The president did e-mail with Secretary Clinton,” Mr. Earnest said. But Mr. Obama wasn’t aware of how her e-mail system was set up or how her team was “planning to comply with the Federal Records Act," he added. 

Indeed, the law is on Clinton’s side. Since leaving the State Department, the federal law requiring officials to use government accounts for official communications has been updated. Now, officials cannot send e-mails from a private account unless they copy or forward the e-mails to their government e-mail address.

On Sunday, a senior Democrat and Clinton friend called on her to address the e-mail matter publicly.

“She needs to step up and come out and state exactly what the situation is,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “The silence is going to hurt her.”

Other Democrats, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, defend her, saying she complied with the law and that other secretaries of State also used private e-mails. 

But Clinton is hardly home free. Her image, boosted by her four years above the political fray as secretary of State, has been dinged. She’s now polling below 50 percent in hypothetical matchups with top Republicans for the presidency. The e-mail controversy, along with reports that the Clinton family foundation had accepted donations from foreign governments during her time as secretary, has brought back a long-running narrative by critics of Clinton: that she plays by her own rules and is less than transparent.

Republicans investigating Clinton complain of gaps in the e-mails the State Department has turned over.

"There are gaps of months, and months, and months," Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." He chairs the select House committee investigating the terrorist attack on the United States mission in Benghazi in 2012, which took place under Clinton’s watch.

On Saturday, when former President Bill Clinton was asked about another matter – foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation – his response struck some as ironic: "My theory about all of this is disclose everything, and then let people make their judgments," Clinton told moderator Larry Wilmore of Comedy Central in an interview Saturday at the Clinton Global Initiative University in Coral Gables, Fla.

A skit on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live also didn’t do much for Mrs. Clinton’s image.

"Those e-mails are clean as a whistle. This is not how Hillary Clinton goes down," said a wild-eyed Kate McKinnon as Clinton.

Clinton made her only public comment to date on her e-mails last week, issuing a tweet calling for their release. 

It’s not clear when the release of the 55,000 pages of e-mail will happen. Clinton is expected to announce her presidential bid in April. That’s several weeks away and has left some Democrats worried that the issue will fester needlessly. But Team Clinton’s theory, according to news reports, is that “waiting out the storm” (following last Wednesday’s tweet) is the better approach.

Her advisers hope that by the time she announces her campaign, “the controversy will have subsided to the point where her campaign launch will be a much bigger headline than her response to a month-old scandal,” Bloomberg News reported March 6. “An added benefit to the approach: the potential for Republicans to overreach and overreact while Clinton stays silent.”

It is an approach that has served the Clintons well in the past. But in the current situation, it presupposes that nothing new will come out between now and her campaign launch that demands a reaction from her.

Clinton benefits from being the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination. And most Democrats aren’t paying attention to the e-mail flap – just 16 percent, the Pew Research Center reported Monday. Among Republicans, the figure is 34 percent.

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