Dear Secretary Clinton:
Your e-mail problem has mushroomed from a self-inflicted nuisance to a self-inflicted wound. The reason is simple: At every decision point, you and your staff have made the wrong choice about how to proceed, erring on the side of secrecy and self-righteousness.
The damage can’t be entirely undone. But some of it can be mitigated by doing what doesn’t come naturally to you: admitting some error and accepting that not all the criticism has been fueled by partisan attackers in league with media enablers.
So, Madame Secretary, cut out the Snapchat jokes about your spiffy new account in which “[t]hose messages disappear all by themselves.” Yes, political opponents are out to get you. Yes, we in the media thirst for controversy.
Still, those “everyday Americans” you talk about have understandable qualms about your conduct. It’s not at the top of their agenda. It may not stop them from voting for you. But their concerns are real, and legitimate. This probably won’t interfere with your winning the nomination. It could be a general-election problem.
This is sounding like “That ’90s Show.” You want to wave off the whole thing as the “same old partisan games we’ve seen so many times before.” That may be therapeutic. It’s not politically smart.
The original mistake — deciding to conduct official government business through a private e-mail account for the sake, you say, of convenience — can’t be undone. But you ought to stop — now! — with the unconvincing claim that you did nothing different from your predecessors as secretary of state.
The relevant universe of predecessors during the era of e-mail is precisely two. Condoleezza Rice rarely used e-mail but employed a government account when she did. Colin Powell did employ a private account for what he described as “the then-newfangled” technology.
The more reasonable question is: What did other Cabinet secretaries in this administration do? No others, to my knowledge, relied solely or even primarily on a private address.
So, please, stop being the dogged litigator bent on proving that what you did was technically permissible at the time. As the judge overseeing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking access to your records said Thursday, “We wouldn’t be here today if this employee” — he meant you — “had followed government policy.”
By the way, even if relying solely on private e-mail was not against explicit rules at the time, you still were supposed to make your correspondence available promptly for archiving and FOIA requests — not when you turned them over, in response to an inquiry from the State Department, two years after departing.
Two subsequent mistakes — first, deciding to delete the e-mails you deemed personal; second, declining, until the Justice Department asked, to make your personal server available for review — are similarly unfixable at this point. And, “That ’90s Show” again, how predictable was it that this would backfire?
Yes, you would have been permitted to erase the personal messages on a government account, but you didn’t use a government account. And wiping the server — you did work on Watergate for the House Judiciary Committee, didn’t you? Why not hot-potato the server over to State and let them figure out how to handle it — before the Justice Department got involved and you looked like you had something to hide?
As to Justice and the mess over whether classified information was at risk — I’m with you here: This would be a problem whether the material were on an unclassified government system or on your own server. But, again, that’s a lawyer’s argument, not one that’s going to sit well with voters seeking assurance from a would-be commander in chief that you take this stuff seriously.
And, as you know better than anyone, having Justice involved can lead down treacherous paths, and certainly lengthy ones. This cloud is going to be hanging over your campaign for months.
So, my advice: Stop making light. Stop litigating. Stop the high-handed dismissing. Stop the prickliness with the media; we’re not going away. Stop the non-apology apologies (you didn’t do anything wrong, but you wouldn’t do it over again).
You don’t need to grovel or confess to grievous errors. Just dial down the combativeness — as hard as this is for you — and ramp up the reasonableness: You understand people have questions. If classified information was not adequately protected, you’d like to know that and figure out what lessons can be learned.
This problem isn’t going away. The trick, right now, is simply not making it worse.