By ZACH NOBLE
When everybody thinks of Hillary Rodham Clinton nowadays, the first word that pops into their heads is “liar.”
(OK, not everybody.)
But the once-“inevitable” Democratic nominee for president has taken a beating in the polls and the public’s perception, and it all has to do with her undeniably sketchy email situation.
But is this whole thing just a smear campaign from Republicans? Or did Clinton actually break some laws?
Short answer: No …
… to both. From what we know right now, it seems as if she probably (maybe?) didn’t break the letter of the law. (There’s still plenty of ambiguity there, but even if she did, the odds she gets carted off to jail seem low for political reasons.)
But it's still unsurprising that voters trust her less and less as the weeks tick by.
When she served as Secretary of State between 2009 and 2013, Clinton used a personal email account, hosted on a private server in her home, to conduct official government business, the New York Times reported in March.
“It is very difficult to conceive of a scenario — short of nuclear winter — where an agency would be justified in allowing its cabinet-level head officer to solely use a private email communications channel for the conduct of government business,” former National Archives and Records Administration litigation director Jason Baron told the Times.
While Clinton was dodging the rules about keeping records and protecting sensitive information, her State Department was giving itself perfect scores for record management. Clinton's basic defense later was that while her private email server may not have saved records for the government, since everybody else followed the rules the emails they sent to and received from her got saved on their ends.
The first public revelation of the email weirdness came when a Clinton aide’s email got hacked and Clinton’s email address was revealed: HDR22@clintonemail.com.
The clintonemail.com domain was created on Jan. 13, 2009, the first day of Clinton’s Senate confirmation hearings.
Spurred by Benghazi fervor, Congress started pushing for Clinton’s emails. By September 2015, thousands of Clinton’s emails have been turned over to authorities for inspection.
The State Department and Intelligence Community inspectors general looked at 40 of Clinton’s emails and reported in July that four of them contained classified information. “This classified information should never have been transmitted via an unclassified personal system,” the inspectors general noted.
As of September, at least 55 emails of Clinton’s emails made public by the State Department contained classified information, Politico reported – and that’s with only a quarter of the emails released.
Clinton’s defense: The information wasn’t classified when it was going through her personal server.
1. Does she think we’re all stupid?
Clinton has used the word “confusing” to describe this email debacle. That’s fair, because it is a little confusing, but it’s also disingenuous. She’s the one who should have understood the rules in the first place, not the American people.
And she indicated that she did seem to know the rules; she just didn’t think they applied to her. In June 2011, while her personal server was ferrying official emails, Clinton sent out a memo to her State Department employees telling them to “avoid conducting official Department business from your personal e-mail accounts.”
And yet, despite the really concerning nature of what was going on here, Clinton’s dismissing the whole thing as “boring.”
“Nothing that was sent at the time, or received, was secret,” she told Jimmy Fallon on Sept. 16. “This was all retroactive. It’s a little hard to explain but sometimes different government agencies argue about what should or shouldn't be what’s called classified.”
2. Does she have any idea computers work?
Clinton has played dumb on occasion, claiming that she used her personal email because it was too hard to carry multiple devices (even though she did, in fact, carry multiple devices). When she was asked whether she had attempted to wipe her server before handing it over to authorities, she played super dumb.
"What, like with a cloth or something?" she asked.
"I don’t know how it works at all."
Clinton and her advisers have stated that "personal" emails from her time as Secretary of State were deleted. The around 31,000 emails, which were selected for deletion at the discretion of Clinton's staff, could be recoverable, according to the latest reports.
3. Does she care about classified information?
Over time, Clinton has downgraded her defense from, “I did not send nor receive classified material” to “I did not send nor receive information that was marked classified at the time that it was sent or received."
That semantic shift is due to the fact that the government can retroactively declare information to be classified.
So maybe Clinton never sent or received anything clearly marked classified. But why did she take the risk in the first place?
An explanation, from the left-of-left Vox: “[Clinton] plays aggressively when rules and risks get in the way of her larger goals; she'd prefer to ask for forgiveness than permission; she looks at the world more like a lawyer than a politician; and, after years of fending off investigations, she's pretty damn secretive.”
4. Should she go to jail?
Maybe. But she probably won’t.
Conservative Charles C.W. Cooke acknowledged as much, writing, “Why, given that the government can choose whom it wishes to prosecute, is it ridiculous to imagine that it would choose to do so if the case involved Hillary Clinton? Meditating upon that inquiry, I cannot help but think that the answer is, ‘because Clinton is running for president, because she is extremely famous, and because Loretta Lynch is the attorney general.’”
Cooke’s question: “Is that just?”
Former U.S. attorney general Michael Mukasey said the issue isn’t necessarily whether Clinton broke any laws (though she might have).
It’s a question of common sense and respect.
“Once you assume a public office, your communications about anything having to do with your job are not your personal business or property,” Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “They are the public’s business and the public’s property, and are to be treated as no different from communications of like sensitivity.”
The conservative Washington Free Beacon offered a still disturbing “best-case scenario”: “Hillary Clinton put the national security of the United States at risk in order to conceal information from the public, but did not break any laws.”
5. Would she still beat Donald Trump in a presidential matchup?
If Clinton ran today against current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, she’d win.
If you read this far, you must really care about the ins and outs of this issue.
And that, my friend, puts you in a distinct minority, at least according to Clinton.
After Clinton played super dumb back in August on the email issue, she tried telling journalists that normal people don’t care about the scandal.
“Nobody talks to me about it,” she yelled, “other than you guys.”
Maybe she’s right.
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog's retirement party. He's been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.