Hillary Clinton e-mails: Her tactics take a political toll

This week, Hillary Clinton unexpectedly turned her server and a thumb drive over to the FBI, amid growing concerns among Democrats about 'optics.'

Brian Snyder/Reuters
US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens to a question from the audience during a community forum about substance abuse in Keene, N.H, on Tuesday.

It’s easy to get lost in the weeds of the Hillary Clinton e-mail story.

Was former Secretary of State Clinton sending or receiving classified information via unsecured e-mails? (So far, the only classified information found in a handful of Clinton e-mails may have been labeled as such after the fact. And it was information received, not sent.)

Why did she hand her private e-mail server and a thumb drive over to the FBI this week after months of resisting? (Likely because the pressure to do so was never going to end.)

Is Clinton herself under investigation? (No.)

So as investigations of her e-mails continue, the Clinton e-mail saga is fundamentally a political story. And it hangs over her presidential campaign like a fog that comes and goes but won't go away, at times obscuring her campaign message and policy proposals. 

“The issue, I think, is not so much the inspector-general inquiries that are taking place or even FBI inquiries, as it is the instilling of doubt about her and her team’s instincts in this matter,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

First, says Mr. Jillson, is “her instinct to think first about how to control materials generated by her work as secretary of State, and then only later – or not at all – about standard government archiving processes.”

This doesn’t mean necessarily that Clinton has done anything wrong or illegal, just that she’s allowed bad optics – the appearance that she may have something to hide -- to drag on for months. It’s a fact pattern that repeated over and over again in her husband’s administration, at times involving her.

“For various reasons, the Clintons don’t seem to be able to learn some of the most basic lessons” about the appearance of impropriety, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville.

One lesson: Get a problem off your plate as quickly as possible.

Clinton is paying the price. Voter assessments of her honesty and trustworthiness are slipping. Vice President Joe Biden is widely reported to be mulling a run, and allies of Vice President Al Gore are “figuring out if there’s a path” for him, according to Buzzfeed. Clinton’s closest opponent for the nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, scored ahead of Clinton by 7 percentage points in the latest poll in New Hampshire, home of the first primary.

Headlines are starting to use the p-word – “panic” – about the reaction of some Democrats to Clinton’s handling of the e-mail issue. On Wednesday, the day Clinton’s lawyer handed her server and thumb drive to the FBI, her communications director sent an e-mail to supporters seeking to reassure them.

“To be clear, there is absolutely no criminal inquiry into Hillary’s email or email server,” Jennifer Palmieri wrote.

Perhaps the most damaging information to emerge so far is that at least four Clinton e-mails contained classified information, two of them “top secret,” according to a partial search by the inspector general of the Intelligence Community. Those four e-mails were found in a sample of 40 out of the 30,000 she had turned over to the State Department earlier this year.

In March, Clinton said she had used a private e-mail account as secretary of State out of convenience. She didn’t want to have to carry two devices.

On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California – the top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – came to Clinton’s defense, criticizing press coverage of the e-mail issue.

“First, none of the emails alleged to contain classified information were written by Secretary Clinton,” Senator Feinstein says.

“The questions are whether she received emails with classified information in them, and if so, whether information in those emails should have been classified in the first place. Those questions have yet to be answered.”

 “Second, none of the emails alleged to contain classified information include any markings that indicate classified content,” Feinstein adds, noting that she regularly reviews classified material.

Feinstein doesn’t address the question of whether Clinton’s use of private e-mail and a private server may have inadvertently endangered national security.

The bottom line is that investigations are ongoing, and until there’s a firm conclusion, it’s mostly a political issue.

A slight majority of registered voters, 52 percent, believe Clinton’s e-mails “should be subject to a criminal investigation for potential release of classified material, according to a poll by Monmouth University, released Wednesday. But most Democrats oppose a criminal investigation. Generally, Republican voters are paying more attention to the issue than Democrats.

The e-mail issue may pose a larger threat to Clinton in the general election, assuming she wins the Democratic nomination. But even then, most voters support the nominee of the party that most reflects their beliefs. As of now, the race is essentially a tossup. And if each party is equally skilled at mobilizing its supporters – that’s a big if – then the outcome could be determined by that small, middle slice of the electorate that can truly go either way.

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