The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Hillary Clinton email mess, it’s back to the 1990s

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The Clinton email story seems awfully familiar, and not in a good way. All three primary actors in this drama — the Clintons and their staff, the Republicans who oppose them, and the news media — are back in same roles they were 20 years ago. Republicans are as energized and determined as Captain Ahab standing on the prow of the Pequod. Hillary Clinton and her team are being a bit too clever. And the media are eager to chase down every new accusation, substantiated or otherwise, on the justification that it “plays into a narrative.”

Mark the first week of March 2015 down: This was the moment when Republicans officially shifted their focus from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton.

Not that they’ll stop being angry about what the Obama administration does. But shaking their fist at the White House is now a secondary concern. The energy, the focus, and the attention will now be primarily on Clinton. When Republicans sit up at night trying to devise clever strategies to hamstring the other side, it’ll be Clinton on their minds. And the Benghazi select committee gives them a vehicle to attack her. After not being heard from for months, the committee and its chairman Trey Gowdy popped up to issue subpoenas for Clinton’s emails from her time at the State Department. It shouldn’t be long before they’re demanding that she come to Washington to testify in front of the cameras.

Which is their right, but I’d be shocked if anyone actually believes there will be something incriminating relating to Benghazi in her emails, especially given how exhaustively the incident has already been investigated. But they might find something else embarrassing, which no doubt has them licking their lips. As Niall Stanage of The Hill wrote this morning, “Republicans believe Hillary Clinton’s fundamental political weaknesses have been exposed by the controversy surrounding her use of personal email while secretary of State — and they couldn’t be more delighted.”

Clinton’s response to this is essentially to keep quiet. As Jennifer Epstein of Bloomberg reported, she and her team have decided that the best way to handle the issue is to wait for it to go away:

Their theory is that her late Wednesday tweet asking the State Department to release the 55,000 pages of emails she provided to the agency would start to calm the media and political tempest, while giving her spokesman an easy answer to many journalists’ questions: ask State.
Clinton and her team are aware that her tactics will only hold out for so long and that she’ll eventually have to answer questions about her e-mail practices, but she and her advisers are aiming to delay that moment, ideally until she formally announces she’s running for president. At that point, they hope, 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. An added benefit to the approach: the potential for Republicans to overreach and overreact while Clinton stays silent.

As a political strategy, it’s probably shrewd, particularly if there aren’t any shocking revelations in the emails. (One thing to watch out for: if the Benghazi committee doesn’t release them publicly then it probably means there’s nothing juicy there, and Gowdy is reluctant to let everyone know that and risk the story wrapping up.)

But this doesn’t exactly demonstrate a commitment to transparency and accountability on Clinton’s part. And there are still substantive questions about the email mess that Clinton must answer. While it appears that Clinton’s use of a private email for official business was allowed by government-wide regulations so long as the emails were turned over for archiving, it’s possible that she was in violation of policies specific to the State Department, as the Post reported this morning:

A 2012 report by the State Department’s inspector general said an ambassador’s use of private e-mail for public work was a violation of agency rules and created security risks. It was one of a string of criticisms that led to the forced resignation of the ambassador, Scott Gration, who had been posted in Kenya.
The report said that agency policies permitted the use of private e-mails only for “maintaining communication during emergencies.”
Department policy requires that “normal day-to-day operations be conducted on an authorized information system, which has the proper level of security controls.”

The more people look into this story, the more complex the issues around it could become, whether they reflect poorly on Clinton or not, and it will all require lots of time and energy to unravel. That’s another indication of the sea change now taking place: Republicans are focused on Clinton instead of Obama, and that affects the agenda of the news media as well.

If this controversy does fade, Republicans will no doubt come up with something else that they can use to keep pressure on Clinton and reinforce the themes the eventual GOP presidential nominee will be using against her. Faced with two alternatives — spending their time trying to take down Barack Obama, or trying to prevent Hillary Clinton from replacing him — the shift in focus is complete, and they won’t be going back.