Michael Schmidt, the New York Times reporter who broke the news that Hillary Clinton had exclusively used a private e-mail address during her time as secretary of state, wrote this Wednesday:

Hillary Rodham Clinton was directly asked by congressional investigators in a December 2012 letter whether she had used a private e-mail account while serving as secretary of state, according to letters obtained by The New York Times.
But Mrs. Clinton did not reply to the letter. And when the State Department answered in March 2013, nearly two months after she left office, it ignored the question and provided no response.

Nothing to see here, the Clinton camp insisted.


Here's the thing: I am certain the letter was sent to all Cabinet secretaries. But not all cabinet secretaries are a former first lady and U.S. senator who, oh by the way, made official her long-expected 2016 presidential candidacy this week.

As I have written since the start of the story of Clinton's handling of e-mail as secretary of state, the problem that exists here for her is that it reinforces many of the negative things that people either believe or are ready to believe about her. One of the biggest (and most negative) of those is that the Clintons don't think the rules apply to them.  And could there be any better example of the rules not applying than what Schmidt's story alleges — that Clinton and her team refused to answer a direct question about her use of a private e-mail at state until she left the job?

Again, I am not saying that Clinton's camp isn't telling the truth in their statement above about the timing and logistics of the response. But I am saying that it looks really bad — particularly given the perception of secrecy and above-the-law-ness that already swirls around the Clintons.

Close your eyes for a second and imagine it's next October: An ad appears on your TV screen (or smartphone or tablet or laptop) that notes — in a dark and ominous voice-over — that Hillary Clinton kept her own e-mail server when she was secretary of state and that she deleted tens of thousands of e-mails from that server.  Then the narrator says: "The worst part? Clinton refused to answer questions from Congress about her e-mail address when she was in office. What's Hillary Clinton hiding?"

Not so good for Clinton, right?

Remember that this is never going to be THE story that brings down Clinton's candidacy. To be frank, it's hard to imagine a story out there that could or would do that. She's just too big a figure with too much investment in her from the Democratic powers that be.

But the most damaging stories for any politician are the ones that confirm existing storylines or perceptions about them. This e-mail story does that big-time for Clinton.  The drips and drabs of news about her use of an e-mail server are going to continue — and that's bad news for Clinton.