Let’s begin by dismissing the notion that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made some sort of error when exclusively using her private email account while heading the State Department between 2009 and 2013.
Any low-level government employee knows about the rules governing recordkeeping, so it’s safe to assume that the former first lady, senator and cabinet member did too. And if she somehow forgot, then her staff would surely have made her aware that using her personal firstname.lastname@example.org account for official business might cause her some grief down the line.
So why would Clinton, one of the most scrutinized people in the world, choose to do something that her many enemies would be sure to pounce on the moment it was revealed?
The most likely answer to that question is that she did so precisely because she is one of the most scrutinized people in the world.
By using a private account (and even her own “homebrew” server), Clinton retained control over her emails instead of trusting other members of the Obama administration to not reveal something she would prefer to keep private. And if there is one thing the Clintons like, it’s maintaining control of… well, everything.
What If She’d Used a Government Account?
Clinton was well aware that if she ran for the White House again (as the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination), Republicans in Congress would marshal every legislative weapon at their command to bring her down.
Knowing this, wouldn’t she find it the lesser evil to retain control over her communications as Secretary of State, even at the risk of taking heat for doing so – when the alternative would be to watch truckloads of documents get shipped to House and Senate investigators with subpoena power and an instinct for the jugular?
After all, a few thousand emails, including some that would be redacted too much or too little, could be turned into just about anything. “I must respectfully decline the invitation at your embassy tonight as I must prepare my testimony on Benghazi” could easily become “I ███████ decline████████ embassy █████████████████ Benghazi.”
However, while Clinton might have a good political reason for doing what she did, that doesn’t mean it was right. One of the things that bother people about the Clintons is their seeming stretching of the rules in ways that benefit them—such as Bill’s Monica Lewinsky scandal and, most recently, the Clinton Foundation’s acceptance of foreign government money while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.
Yet the timing of the email revelation, before Clinton officially announces her candidacy, may mitigate its long-term effects.
The damage control has already begun. Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill declared in a statement: “Like Secretaries of State before her, she used her own email account when engaging with any Department officials. For government business, she emailed them on their Department accounts, with every expectation they would be retained.”
Translation from bureaucratese: Clinton’s entire correspondence with departmental colleagues can be pieced together from other people’s accounts, so what’s the big deal?
What Merrill didn’t say was how much time and effort this would take, plus that this process would not guarantee access to all relevant correspondence. What about all the emails Secretary of State Clinton sent to people outside the government, which would not be subject to the same record-keeping provisions?
Another intriguing question raised by Clinton’s use of her personal email account for public business is: Can any of her actions be construed as illegal under the Hatch Act? This federal law, on the books since 1939 and most recently amended in 2012, prohibits certain executive branch employees from engaging in select “political activities” or using government resources (such as an email account) for such activities.
If Clinton’s personal account also functioned as her work account, does it fall under the Hatch Act provisions? Or can Clinton persuasively claim that any political activity she undertook during her time as Secretary of State was carried out solely on her own time and dime?
If the fallout from this episode gives Clinton’s opponents some fresh ammunition to attack her probity, the revelation is also bad news for another group of Beltway insiders: the Washington press corps.
How is it possible that nobody from the Fourth Estate reported on Clinton’s email sleight-of-hand? Don’t Washington reporters file Freedom of Information Act requests (or examine the documents they receive in response) anymore?
In the end, Clinton will take a bit of a hit for channeling the public’s business through her private email account, but this is unlikely to inflict a mortal wound on her presidential hopes.
That would make her end-run around protocol ultimately successful if somewhat suspect, which certainly sounds Clintonesque.