It’s impossible to know whether Hillary Rodham Clinton’s use of a private email account to conduct business as Secretary of State is a serious scandal or merely a tempest in a teapot. Impossible, because Clinton and her aides have ducked the most important questions.
Yes, secretaries of State are allowed to use personal email accounts. But why did Clinton choose never to use the government’s official system? She hasn’t said.
Yes, Clinton gave the government more than 55,000 pages of emails after she was asked for them and said they included every message that touched on official business. But will the government be allowed to review the rest of the messages to make sure she didn’t hold anything back? No answer.
No, there’s no evidence that Clinton’s emails included sensitive information, or that her private email server was penetrated by foreign intelligence services. But how would we know? There’s no evidence either way.
And yes, Clinton says she has asked the State Department to release the emails – someday. In her only public statement, she tweeted: “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.”
Good luck with that. The State Department is notorious for Dickensian delays in releasing documents. Five years ago, the Associated Press asked for records about Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin; it’s still waiting. At that speed, Hillary Clinton could be in her second term as president before we see any smoking emails.
That’s the problem. If Clinton plans to run for the White House, voters deserve to have those questions answered well before election day.
Instead, Clinton has put her head down, ignored the critics and prayed for the media’s annoying spotlight to move on.
Sometimes that strategy works – but sometimes it doesn’t, disastrously.
Early in the Bill Clinton administration, there was something called the Whitewater affair, a murky soup of real estate deals and bank loans in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. White House aide David Gergen was convinced that the Clintons had done nothing wrong and urged a strategy of full disclosure.
But the Clintons, especially Hillary, rejected his advice.
Full disclosure in 1994 might have saved President Clinton a painful impeachment drama. But it’s not clear that Hillary Clinton absorbed that lesson.
Instead, her limited hangout on the emails has revived a negative stereotype: She’s politically clumsy at best, a chronic bender of rules at worst.
It was a shot of adrenaline to House Republicans’ wheezing investigation of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Republicans said they might investigate whether Clinton had put sensitive information at risk.
This, Madam Secretary, is precisely how a small problem risks mushrooming into a big problem.
Maybe Clinton can answer the questions, and it will turn out that there’s nothing to see here.
Nonetheless, she’s reminded even her friends of her old propensity for unforced errors – and that if they vote for someone named Clinton, they risk getting some baggage in the bargain.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Email him at email@example.com