“Trust me” works only when people already do–an increasingly vexing problem for Democratic presidential front runner Hillary Clinton. She’s asking voters to take her word that her use of a private email server to conduct official business was entirely aboveboard. Polls suggest that many people aren’t buying it.
The former Secretary of State’s frustration was uncomfortably obvious during a press conference in Nevada on Aug. 18. In the days leading up to it, she and her attorney turned over the server and a set of thumb drives to the FBI, which set to work trying to determine whether classified material had been stored on these unsecured devices. Meanwhile, investigators said that they had identified more than 300 emails that might contain material that should be classified–including at least two in which Clinton received top-secret intelligence–though some in the State Department disputed at least some of those designations.
“I can only tell you that the State Department has said over and over again, we disagree. So, that’s what they’re sorting out,” Clinton said, adding, “Whether it was a personal account or a government account, I did not send classified material and I did not receive any material that was marked or designated classified.”
When a persistent Ed Henry of Fox News asked whether Clinton had “wiped” the server clean of data before it was given to the FBI for analysis, she answered, “I don’t know. I have no idea. Like with a cloth or something? I don’t know how it works digitally at all.”
Clinton insists that the more than 30,000 emails she culled from the server and turned over to the government before deleting the rest of her files constitute “everything that was work-related. Every single thing.” But the process of making the documents public has spawned a head-spinning descent into the tangled rules for labeling and storage of classified materials.
Even the physical details of the situation are a bit fuzzy. Can the FBI recover messages “wiped” from the server? Is there a backup server somewhere, and has the FBI secured that? What about the smartphones and other devices used by Clinton and her top staff? Do they still exist? And if so, who has them?
If Clinton knowingly, or negligently, stored classified documents improperly, she could be at risk of prosecution–although in some cases, as Secretary of State, she may have been the official responsible for determining her own compliance. There’s the trust-me problem again.
In the case of two emails received by Clinton and turned over as official correspondence, the inspector general for the intelligence community contends that top-secret surveillance data found its way onto her home email and the thumb drives. Some have argued that the Secretary of State should have known immediately that this was restricted material. But other officials maintain that the information could have derived from unrestricted sources, making her possession of it a judgment call well within her authority.
In the age of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, the Obama Administration is quite touchy about security breaches, yet Clinton continues to treat the email dispute as an exasperating nuisance rather than a serious miscalculation that has severely damaged her campaign. “By the way, you may have seen that I’ve recently launched a Snapchat account,” she told an Iowa crowd on Aug. 14. “I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.” Such efforts to laugh it off have fallen flat even among her supporters and come off as especially tone-deaf given the drumbeat of past scandals and the recent controversies surrounding donations by foreign governments and individuals to the Clinton Foundation while she was leading the State Department.
The sight of their prohibitive front runner vainly cranking the ignition on her stalled bandwagon has many Democrats wondering who could take her place in case of disaster. So far, the answers suggest a party in serious need of new blood. While Clinton traveled to Iowa in search of a jump-start, friends of Vice President Joe Biden, 72, said he is mulling a dash for the nomination. Others inside the Beltway mentioned Secretary of State John Kerry, 71, who carried the party banner to defeat in 2004. A trial balloon wafted from the orbit of former Vice President Al Gore, a mere 67, only to be shot down by Gore aides. California Governor Jerry Brown’s name was floated; he’s 77 and first ran for President 40 years ago.
Clinton’s declared opponents are not much fresher. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is the Mick Jagger of this political season, a septuagenarian drawing rock-star crowds, but as he’s a self-declared socialist with a thin record of achievement, his theme song might as well be “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Former Senators Jim Webb of Virginia, 69, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, 62, are gaining no traction. The lone hopeful under 60, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, 52, is handling Clinton so gingerly in his public statements that he seems more like a sparring partner than an actual foe.
Even with the email problem looming, Clinton remains the strongest nonincumbent front runner the party has seen in at least a generation. Her lead in national polls is matched by her fundraising prowess and her nearly endless list of early endorsements. For all the whispers, Clinton’s most dangerous opponent continues to be the one she sees in the mirror each morning.
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