Hillary Clinton's strategy of silence on e-mails: Why she stayed quiet for so long

Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategy of silence on her use of a private e-mail server has worked in the past. Today, Clinton is expected to break the silence. 

REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks during the unveiling of "No Ceilings" and the "Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality study" in New York March 9, 2015.

As questions and controversy mount over her use of a personal "homebrewed" e-mail server during her time as Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton's strategy can be summed up in one word: silence.

It's been one week since news emerged that Mrs. Clinton used a private account for all of her e-mail messages while serving in the State Department. In response to questions from lawmakers, the media, supporters, and critics, Clinton – who is expected to announce her candidacy soon for the Democratic nomination – has issued just one statement, a 26-word tweet.

And while the presumed Democratic frontrunner is expected to take questions about her e-mail practices Tuesday afternoon at a press conference – her first public address on the subject since email-gate erupted – Clinton's "strategy of silence" itself has become a topic of controversy, even within her own party.

In part, that's because Democrats have put all their eggs in one basket – Hillary Clinton's – and if she decides not to run or becomes "damaged" as a result of "e-mail-gate," there isn't really a Plan B. As such, Clinton's silence poses a risk to the party.

But it's a risk she's taken, nonetheless, writes Bloomberg Politics' Jennifer Epstein.

"The former secretary of state and her advisers have decided to adopt a time-tested Clintonian approach: take a concrete step to ease the pressure, then wait out the storm," she said in a recent piece.

That concrete step, of course, came last Wednesday, when Clinton issued this tweet:

In their "strategy of silence" approach so far, Team Clinton has counted on three things: That feeding the beast (i.e., the media) will worsen the matter; that the media will eventually forget and move on to the next story; and that the general American public (i.e. voters) aren't paying attention, anyway.

"One thing that Hillary Clinton and her husband understand well is that the news media love a good scandal feeding frenzy, but that soon enough reporters move on," writes Princeton University's Julian Zelizer, for CNN.

But Clinton is taking plenty of heat for her silence and email-gate doesn't appear to be going away.

During an appearance on "Meet the Press" Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D) of California, criticized Clinton's handling of the situation. 

"Step up and come out and state exactly what the situation is," Senator Feinstein said. "She is the leading candidate, whether it be Republican or Democrat, for the next president . . . from this point on, the silence is going to hurt her."

In a sharp editorial Monday, the Washington Post accused Clinton of "stonewalling," and urged her to hold a press conference soon.

Clinton “has given the department 55,000 pages of messages in response to a request, but those were selected by her and her staff, not by government archivists or officials. All of this reveals a cavalier attitude to the public’s legitimate claim on government records," the Post wrote.

It also criticized her tweet, which failed to address a number of questions about Clinton's e-mail usage, as well as her practice of "dispatching friendly politicians and former aides to television news to dismiss the issue as just politics."

"If she is elected president, can Americans expect a similar response when she faces difficult questions — one 26-word tweet and a cloud of obfuscation from her friends?"

As aggravating as Hillary's silence may be to both supporters and critics, the fact is that she has proven to be remarkably resilient over the years, surviving a number of scandals – from Monica-gate and Whitewater, to file-gate, travel-gate, and Benghazi.

So far, e-mail-gate appears to be relatively minor compared to some of the scandals Clinton has weathered, but of course, this time she's running for president.

Will her strategy work this time?

It likely depends on what else is revealed in Clinton's e-mails - and how her opponents decide to leverage that material.

But as Brendan Nyhan wrote in The New York Times: "If there's one thing we've learned from past presidential campaigns, it's that most supposed game-changers like this quickly fade from the memory of the political class, having never been noticed by most Americans in the first place."

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