The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hillary Clinton is going to be exonerated on the email controversy. It won’t matter.


The latest news on the Hillary Clinton email controversy reinforces everything we’ve heard so far on this subject:

Prosecutors and FBI agents investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email server have so far found scant evidence that the leading Democratic presidential candidate intended to break classification rules, though they are still probing the case aggressively with an eye on interviewing Clinton herself, according to U.S. officials familiar with the matter.
FBI agents on the case have been joined by federal prosecutors from the same office that successfully prosecuted 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui — and who would handle any Edward Snowden case, should he ever return to the country, according to the U.S. officials familiar with the matter. And in recent weeks, prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Virginia and their FBI counterparts have been interviewing top Clinton aides as they seek to bring the case to a close.

That point about her intending to break classification rules is important, because in order to have broken the law, it isn’t enough for Clinton to have had classified information in a place where it was possible for it to be hacked. She would have had to intentionally given classified information to someone without authorization to have it, like David Petraeus did when he showed classified documents to his mistress (and then lied to the FBI about it, by the way). Despite the enormous manpower and time the Justice Department has devoted to this case, there has never been even a suggestion, let alone any evidence, that Clinton did any such thing.

But when it comes to the presidential campaign, that isn’t going to matter. Republicans already know what they think: Hillary Clinton is a criminal whose every thought and action is vile and despicable, so of course she broke the law. If the investigation doesn’t show that, it could only be because the investigation was a sham. So they’ll just keep saying that this is a scandal, over and over and over.

Hillary Clinton is walking into a trap

As Bill and Hillary Clinton’s entire careers have proven, when you’re trying to take someone down, the next best thing to a real scandal is a phony one. Let’s not forget that when Bill was president, no alleged wrongdoing was too trivial to investigate, complete with dark insinuations about nefarious conspiracies and potential criminal behavior. You think the endless investigation of Benghazi is ridiculous? In the 1990s, congressional Republicans took 140 hours of sworn testimony on the urgent question of whether the Clintons had misused the White House Christmas card list. Seriously. That’s something that actually happened.

And the media, always operating on the rule that when it comes to the Clintons any smoke should be treated as fire — even if there’s a bunch of Republicans operating a smoke machine in full view — will offer endless breathless stories about the “scandal” and how it just shows that people don’t trust Clinton.

During an interview with ABC News, Hillary Clinton apologized for using a private e-mail server during her time as secretary or state. Here are past statements where the presidential hopeful neglected to take personal responsibility for the controversy. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post)

That also means that they will allow Donald Trump to say whatever he wants about this subject and never hold him accountable for whatever outlandish statements he issues from the fact-free universe he inhabits. How do I know that? Because that is what has happened so far. Every time he brings this topic up he says something absurd — that Clinton committed horrible crimes, that people who did far less than her are rotting in jail, that she’ll soon be indicted, that she should be barred from running for president, so great were her crimes — and I have yet to hear a single interviewer challenge him on the facts or press him for details.

That’s part of Trump’s mad genius, and the failing of the political press: he lies so often and so obviously that the reporters covering him have all but given up trying to correct him.

This brutal new ad shows the shredding machine that awaits Trump

Just to be clear: I’m not defending Clinton’s decision to use her own email for work, and house it on a private server. That was a mistake. It violated State Department policy. She shouldn’t have done it. But acknowledging that is very different from saying she broke the law or jeopardized national security. As of now there is zero evidence that she did either.

So here’s what’s going to happen from this point forward. Trump will continue to say that she committed terrible crimes. Other Republicans will chime in to agree. Those statements will be passed on to the public with little or no context or correction. Fox News and conservative talk radio will tell their audiences over and over that this is the most horrific scandal since Watergate, or maybe Teapot Dome.

Then, some time in the summer, the investigation will conclude, and Clinton will be exonerated of any criminal wrongdoing. Republicans will say that just proves the fix was in. Trump will promise, as he has before, to appoint officials who will pursue a criminal indictment against her. And significant portions of the public will continue to believe that she must have done something wrong, even if they couldn’t quite say what it is, because they’ve heard all this stuff about an email scandal, and everybody wouldn’t be talking about it so much if there wasn’t something to it.