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Clinton’s strategy on e-mail use: ‘Trust me.’ But how will voters respond?

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton speaks to the media March 10 about recent allegations of an improperly used e-mail account during her tenure at the State Department. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

Hillary Rodham Clinton sought to quash the controversy over her use of a personal e-mail account as secretary of state with a strategy that can be reduced to two words: "Trust me." It is one of the biggest issues that will confront many Americans if and when she asks them to vote for her for president in 2016.

The uproar over her e-mail account underscores several continuing questions about the former secretary. Does she have something to hide? Can she project openness and trustworthiness in an authentic way? Or have the conflicts of a quarter-century of political combat left her so defensive and wary about her opponents and the media that she will keep herself too shielded from the public?

Clinton isn’t yet a candidate for president, and she brushed aside questions about whether the e-mail controversy would affect her timetable for making a decision on this issue. But with a campaign apparatus rapidly building strength, the answer to that question is hardly a secret. In that sense, the e-mail issue was not some leftover piece of business from her time in government but rather the first real test of her non-campaign campaign.

Tuesday’s news conference offered a hint of what the future could be like — and it looked a lot like the past, with a controversy building until there was no other choice but to speak publicly about it and a media crush that no other candidate would attract. Some politicians faced with a similar problem have stood at a microphone until reporters exhausted all their questions. Clinton chose to cut off the questioning after only about 20 minutes.

In many ways, Clinton managed to get through the news conference without sustaining any obvious additional damage, even if she did not fully satisfy everyone with her answers. She was not apologetic, but she did admit that it would have been smarter if she were to have found another way to segregate professional and personal e-mail communications. She would not say explicitly that what she did was a mistake.

At the same time, she insisted that it was convenience and not a penchant for secrecy that drove that decision. She said she preferred one device — the BlackBerry captured in the now-iconic photo of her wearing dark glasses aboard her official airplane — rather than two devices, one for government work and one for e-mails about her daughter’s wedding, her mother’s funeral, yoga or all things people e-mail about with friends and family.

That is a decision that many people make in their own lives, preferring some separation. But it is also one that many do not make, particularly those in sensitive government positions. So hers was both a plausible and questionable choice, and she is paying a price for it.

Beyond that, however, Clinton asserted that she has more than fulfilled her obligations. She admitted to no transgression of federal guidelines — though even President Obama seemed to have been caught by surprise at the news of how she handled her e-mail traffic.

She said she had never transmitted classified material across the private server that housed her e-mail account, a system she said had been set up for her husband, former president Bill Clinton. She said multiple times that she had more than fully complied with what had been asked of her. “I went above and beyond what I was requested to do,” she said.

What she said she did, upon being asked by the State Department last year to provide her electronic communications, was to order a thorough search of the roughly 60,000 e-mails from her tenure in office. Half of them, she and her team concluded, were work-related. She said they were turned over to the government and will eventually be made available on a public site.

The remaining e-mails were judged by her and her team to be personal. They were deleted and presumably are now out of reach to investigators on the House Select Committee on Benghazi or anyone else. It is a sign of the distrust that Clinton must have for those she believes want to do her harm, a reflection of instincts built up over years and many scandals surrounding the Clintons — real or not.

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The decision to delete those messages is one that will no doubt give her opponents further cause to question whether she is being as transparent as she claims. She insisted that she followed normal protocols. All government officials, she said, are asked to make the decision about what is personal and what is work-related in their communications.

She threw herself on the mercy of the public. “I trust the American people,” she said at one point. At another, she said, “People will have to judge for themselves.”

For the loyalists around her and those eager to see her in the Oval Office, Tuesday’s news conference was welcome, if only because she had let the fire burn for days. Her explanations will now arm them to dismiss those who ask for more or question whether she was truly forthcoming.

David Brock, the onetime Clinton antagonist who is a founder of the organization Correct the Record that was set up to defend her, said she has been as transparent as she is required to be. “Every American has a right to communicate privately with his or her own family,” he said. “There shouldn’t be a double standard for the secretary just because her last name is Clinton.”

For her opponents, the instant response was a thumbs down. Carly Fiorina, the former tech CEO and now a prospective Republican presidential candidate who has been at the forefront of attacking Clinton on the campaign trail, noted Clinton’s request for trust. “Nothing in her track record suggests we should do so,” she said in a tweet.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the Benghazi committee, issued a statement saying, “Regrettably, we are left with more questions than answers” from Clinton’s news conference. He noted that, without access to the server for her account, “there is no way to accept State’s or Secretary Clinton’s certification she has turned over all documents that rightfully belong to the American people.”

So the controversy simmers on, with each side now even more dug in than before Clinton’s press conference. In the middle are those Americans still months and months away from knowing what they will do in November 2016. Clinton asks for their trust, but she will have to earn it over the course of the long campaign ahead.