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Fact checking the Hillary Clinton email controversy

Hillary Clinton. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Updated with new entries as of Oct. 29, 2016

It’s been one year since it was learned that Hillary Clinton had set up a private email system when she was secretary of state — a revelation that has dogged her campaign for the presidency.

The Fact Checker has run 16 fact checks on the issue, mostly regarding dubious statements that Clinton had made to defend her actions. (We also had fact checks on the Democratic spin and the Republican spin on the issue.) Reviewing our conclusions again, it appears Clinton often used highly technical language to obscure the salient fact that her private email setup was highly unusual and flouted existing regulations.

As always, The Fact Checker welcomes suggestions from readers for additional claims on the email controversy to fact check.

(This list has been updated.)

The State Department released 52,000 pages of Hillary Clinton’s emails as part of a court-ordered process. Here's what we've learned from them. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Kevin Lamarque/The Washington Post)

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Hillary Clinton’s emails: a timeline of actions and regulations

March 10, 2015: The Fact Checker compiled an extensive timeline concerning government rules and regulations on the use of private email accounts and Clinton’s actions. The timeline shows that before she became secretary, the State Department made clear that certain email records should be retained and that official communication systems were preferred. During Clinton’s term as secretary, regulations were tightened concerning the preservation of email records, and concerns were raised about the use of personal email accounts for official business. But the legal requirement to immediately preserve emails from nongovernment email accounts was not made mandatory until nearly two years after she stepped down.

The misleading Democratic spin on Hillary Clinton’s emails

March 10, 2015: Senior Democratic lawmakers argued that Clinton was the only secretary of state to turn over so many records and that her production of emails was a transparent act that is unprecedented compared with her predecessors. These were technically correct but fundamentally misleading statements, intended to deflect from the central issue: Clinton exclusively used a personal account, and did not provide records until she was requested to — after she left office. The Democrats earned Three Pinocchios.

Fact checking Hillary Clinton’s news conference

March 16, 2015: We examined a series of statements made by Clinton at her major news conference designed to address the growing controversy — and determined that many of her claims were wanting. The pattern continued over the next year.

Hillary Clinton’s claim that ‘everything I did [on emails] was permitted’

July 9, 2015: We examined Clinton’s claim that “everything I did was permitted” because “there was no law … there was no regulation.” We concluded that with her very careful language, Clinton skirts some of the important issues concerning her private email account. She appears to be arguing her case on narrow, technical grounds, but that’s not the same as actually complying with existing rules as virtually everyone else understood them. She earned Three Pinocchios.

Clinton’s claims about receiving or sending ‘classified material’ on her private email system

Aug. 27, 2015: The issue of classified material in Clinton’s emails grew in importance after the inspector general for the intelligence community wrote Congress to say that some of the emails “contained classified State Department information when originated.” Again, we found that Clinton’s very careful and legalistic phrasing raised suspicions. The classification rules are complex, but, legal technicalities aside, the question is whether classified information was exchanged over her private email system. The answer is yes, and so Clinton earned Two Pinocchios for excessively technical wordsmithing.

July 5, 2016: We updated the rating to Four Pinocchios, in light of FBI Director James Comey’s announcement that revealed Clinton did, in fact, send classified materials.

Hillary Clinton’s claim that ‘everyone’ knew ‘I was using a personal email’

Sept. 10, 2015: Clinton’s careful language that her email operation was “fully above board” once again obscures some basic truths about her decision to only use a private email system for government business: It was unusual, and it skirted the edge of the rules. Clinton obviously received emails from hundreds of people who realized she was using a private email address. But whether they understood it was her only means of electronic government communication is another question. Clinton again earned Two Pinocchios.

Hillary Clinton’s incomplete timeline on her personal email account

Sept. 28, 2015: A number of readers asked the Fact Checker to explore Clinton’s stated timeline about her dealings with the State Department concerning her private email system, after new questions arose in light of The Washington Post’s report that the State Department confirmed that the triggering event to seek her emails was the congressional investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead. We concluded Clinton appears to be sticking to her timeline because it obscures the fact that she exclusively used a private email for company business. She earned Three Pinocchios.

Hillary Clinton’s claim that 90 percent of her emails were ‘in the system’

Nov. 9, 2015: During congressional hearings, Clinton claimed that 90 to 95 percent of her emails were in the State Department system. She even wrongly suggested this calculation had been made by the State Department, when actually it was calculated by her staff. While not all of the emails she submitted to the State Department had been released at that point, what had been made available so far suggests that a substantial majority are to and from at least one “” email address. It is not an unreasonable assumption that these emails are contained somewhere within the bowels of the State Department. But we gave Clinton Three Pinocchios because she cannot make a definitive statement and certainly cannot attribute that to the State Department.

How did ‘top secret’ emails end up on Hillary Clinton’s server?

Feb. 4, 2016: We dug deep into the question of how “top secret” emails could have been located on Clinton’s unsecure email arrangement. The emails in question were sent on an unclassified system — as they would have been if she had followed standard protocol and used a account. Under State Department practice, a request for public release of her emails would have been subject to the same classification discussion currently underway. Any “top secret” communications would have been withheld.

However, if she did not have a private server, intelligence officials now would not be scrutinizing every single Clinton email for possible public release. The Clinton campaign has argued that some intelligence officials are now engaged in a game of overclassification. But this debate would not even be taking place without the decision to set up the private server in the first place. She earned Two Pinocchios.

Why the Clinton email scandal and the Petraeus leak are not really alike

Feb. 24, 2016: Many Republicans have argued that the Hillary Clinton case is worse than that of Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director who pleaded guilty last year to mishandling classified information he gave to Paula Broadwell, his mistress and biographer. But there clearly are fundamental differences between the two cases that make it an illogical comparison, based on what we know of the Clinton case so far. At the most basic level, there is dispute over whether Clinton’s emails contained “classified” information. An array of experts we consulted all told us that as long as the dispute exists, it will be difficult to bring the same charge of mishandling classified information to which Petraeus pleaded guilty. The broad-brushed comparison lacks context and thus earned Three Pinocchios.

Revisiting Clinton’s claim she used personal email out of ‘convenience’

July 5, 2016: When Clinton addressed reporters on March 10, 2015, she had a prepared statement with four points she wanted to make. The first point she made was that she “opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two.” We didn’t rate this claim at the time, as the situation was fluid.

But new information now casts doubt on her excuse that she simply wanted to carry one device instead of two. At least twice in her tenure, she was open to carrying two devices or having two separate email accounts — especially when her use of personal email led to communications breakdowns with her staff. Moreover, the State Department’s inspector general said Clinton never cleared her use of her private email on a private server even though she had an obligation to do so — and that the department would not have approved it had she asked. She earned Three Pinocchios.

Democrats’ still-misleading claim comparing Clinton emails to her predecessors’

July 8, 2016: It was misleading more than a year ago, and still misleading now. Democrats continue to argue that Clinton “released more emails and more pages of emails” than “any of her predecessors.” But this talking point assumes a direct comparison between Clinton and her predecessors, but that is not applicable.

The only person who regularly used emails is a singular predecessor, Colin Powell. Powell did use his personal account on the job, and by his own admission no longer has access to the account he used then. So while Clinton did turn over more email records than he, she was the only one uniquely in position to do so upon the State Department’s request. Further, Clinton was the only secretary of state to conduct her official business solely with a personal private server.

Clinton’s claim that the FBI director said her email answers were ‘truthful’

July 31, 2016: During an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Clinton suggested that FBI director James Comey said her comments to the American public about her email set-up were truthful. Clinton was cherry-picking statements by Comey to preserve her narrative about the unusual setup of a private email server. This allowed her to skate past the more disturbing findings of the FBI investigation. While Comey did say there was no evidence she lied to the FBI, that is not the same as saying she told the truth to the American public — which was the point of the interviewer’s question. Comey has repeatedly not taken a stand on her public statements.

Bill Clinton’s misleading claim about ‘marked classified’ information in Hillary Clinton’s emails

Trump’s claim of ‘collusion’ by the FBI and State to make Hillary Clinton ‘look less guilty’

Oct. 19, 2016: Trump rushed out a video statement to supporters claiming that there was “collusion” between the State Department, FBI and the Justice Department “to make Hillary Clinton look less guilty” after news reports that an FBI official spoke of a “quid pro quo” between the FBI and State regarding the classification status of one of Clinton’s emails. But it turned out that “quid pro quo” was a secondhand description of a conversation — and both people who engaged in the conversation insisted there was no collusion. Moreover, there is no evidence that anything happened as a result of the conversation. The FBI did not back down from its contention that the email in question should be labeled as classified. Trump earned Three Pinocchios.

The Clinton email probe: questions and answers

Oct. 29, 2016: The announcement by FBI director James Comey that additional emails relevant to the investigation may have been found shook up the presidential race. Here’s a guide to what is known and not known in the latest wrinkle of the Clinton email case

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