WASHINGTON – The Hillary Clinton email controversy is a reminder of one inescapable fact: She comes with baggage. Not the kind that fits in the overhead bin, either. I’m talking steamer trunks.
How could anyone serve four years as secretary of state with no official email account, instead conducting business from a private address with its own domain and server? The answer is: Deliberately.
The only reason for Clinton to go through the trouble of setting up this system – rather than just call the State Department’s version of the IT help desk – would be to ensure that nobody got to rummage freely through her communications, personal or official. She must have wanted to be able to decide which emails would become part of the historical record and which wouldn’t.
With Clinton widely expected to run for president, the email flap projects the sense that she considers herself both embattled and entitled. In the end, I’m not convinced that voters will necessarily care how Clinton’s electronic communications were routed. But they may well ask themselves whether they’re ready for the dynasty and the drama.
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Clinton has known at least since August that her exclusive use of a private email account had the makings of a potential scandal, were it to come to light. She says she has turned over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department to be archived. But she is asking everyone to take her word that all the rest of her email correspondence – and we have no idea how voluminous it might be – is personal and therefore off-limits.
House Republicans on the Benghazi select committee appear set to spend months chasing their tails. The State Department has given about 300 of Clinton’s emails to the committee, and the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., said Sunday that “there are gaps of months and months and months.” He mentioned a day in 2011 when Clinton, on a trip to Libya, was photographed using her BlackBerry. Yet, Gowdy said, “We have no emails from that day. In fact, we have no emails from that trip.”
If this whole thing becomes just another flare-up in the GOP’s Benghazi obsession, Clinton should be relieved. The name Benghazi may be great for fundraising and rallying the Republican faithful, but the tragedy itself has been investigated with a magnifying glass and a fine-toothed comb. There is no there there.
Clinton should be happy having Gowdy and his committee go back over this well-plowed ground – rather than, say, conduct a broader examination of U.S. policy in Libya, where an intervention described as “leading from behind,” with inconsistent follow-up, has left chaos and a new branch of the Islamic State.
From Clinton’s point of view, Benghazi fever would certainly be preferable to a careful examination of those emails for any light they might shed on the fundraising practices of the Clinton Foundation. The huge nonprofit – now officially called the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation – announced it would not accept new donations from foreign governments while Clinton was secretary of state, but began taking them again when she stepped down.
Did any such donors receive special access or treatment while Clinton was in office? I’m betting that no evidence of any such thing will be found – at least not in the 55,000 pages that have been turned over.
As for the rest of her email correspondence, we may never know what’s in there. Much of it, I’m sure, is legitimately private and none of our business. Some may fit into a public-private gray area. Some may be about the foundation. All of it, however, is firmly in Clinton’s possession – the email server reportedly sits in one of her homes – and therefore she has the advantage in any fight over disclosure.
When Clinton became secretary of state in 2009, she was still recovering from a bruising and unexpected defeat in the Democratic primaries the year before. The prospect of another presidential run must have seemed distant and uninviting, perhaps like spending two years pounding oneself on the head with a hammer. Yet something – some impulse – compelled her to lock down her email communications so they would always remain in her control.
Long after Republicans punch themselves out over Benghazi, after questions about Clinton Foundation funding are either answered or deemed unanswerable, after Clinton either cruises to the nomination or fools everyone by not running, the mystery will remain: Why does she act as if she has something to hide, even when she doesn’t?
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.