Hillary Clinton and her allies think that the political and legal cloud that hovered over her presidential prospects for more than a year blew away last week with news that the Justice Department would not pursue criminal charges in her handling of sensitive emails.
Her Republican opponents say the cloud is as thick as ever – and every bit as useful as a political weapon against her.
“I am certainly relieved and glad that the investigation has concluded. But I also know how important it is to make sure everybody understands that I would certainly not do that again,” Clinton told CNN, referring to her decision to set up an outside email system that she used for her government work as secretary of state.
The privately owned setup “seemed like a convenience, but it was the wrong choice,” Clinton said in the interview.
The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign cheered the Justice Department’s decision, viewing it as confirmation that she never intended to do anything wrong. Her allies are banking – against some compelling evidence – that voters are ready to move on.
“Now that that review is complete and the career officials announced their view that there is no case there, we feel that truly does resolve this matter and the ability for Republicans to continue to try to use this issue to mount political attacks is significantly weakened,” Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said. “We have no doubt that they will continue to try to do so, and you’ve already seen various efforts launched to try to pull on new threads.”
But the decision not to pursue a case came with a harsh assessment from FBI Director James Comey that Clinton had been “extremely careless” and negligent in her handling of government secrets. Her handling of the issue has hurt her among voters who view her as untrustworthy, and Republicans say they intend to keep the issue front and center through November.
“Clinton’s email scandal isn’t going away anytime soon,” said Republican National Committee spokesman Michael Short. He accused Clinton of lying “to cover up her reckless conduct and poor judgment,” while serving as President Obama’s first-term secretary of state.
The lack of further legal jeopardy for Clinton frustrated Republicans, including presumptive Republican presidential opponent Donald Trump. It also did nothing to slow GOP efforts to paint Clinton as shifty and the decision not to prosecute her as a whitewash.
Instead, it set terms for the election four months away that echo the drumbeat of investigations and whiff of scandal from Bill Clinton’s presidency. Republicans suggest the Clintons play by different rules; Clinton allies blame what they call partisan witch hunts.
“It seems that there are two standards, and there’s no consequence,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, told Comey at a hastily called hearing Thursday. “It seems to a lot of us that the average Joe, the average American, that if they had done what you laid out in your statement, that they’d be in handcuffs.”
Comey strongly disagreed, arguing there was no evidence of criminality. Clinton’s campaign said the Comey hearing “debunked GOP talking points and further substantiated Clinton’s case.”
But Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., raised the prospect Friday that lawmakers would seek a federal investigation into whether Clinton lied to the investigative committee he chairs, and other Republicans have suggested separate follow-up probes.
Many Republicans also said that escaping criminal prosecution is a low bar and that voters will hold Clinton responsible. The RNC has compiled a list of instances in which Comey contradicted assertions by Clinton or her aides in the 16 months since the existence of her email system became public. Short also noted Comey’s refusal to say whether there may be a separate ongoing probe of the charitable Clinton Foundation.
Republicans plan to hammer the assertion that Clinton was irresponsible and reckless in office, using terminology that Clinton uses to assail Trump as unqualified to be commander in chief.
“The Clinton folks may think they have this behind them, but I’m pretty sure Republicans don’t,” Democratic strategist Jim Manley said. “They’re busy crafting 30-second attack ads that are going to take them up until the election.”
Manley said that he doubts that the Republican ads will be very effective and that the GOP is likely to overplay its hand.
“I think most voters have already made up their minds on this issue,” he said. “You either trust her or you don’t.”
Fallon said voters with doubts should be reassured by Comey’s distillation of the classification debate, which supported Clinton’s basic argument that she had no intention of undermining security measures.
Clinton’s private email system emerged as a political liability shortly before she officially became a candidate last year. Initially dismissed as a minor bureaucratic issue overblown by her Republican enemies, the emails became an anvil that some of her close allies say she tied to her own neck. Democratic critics said her slow, defensive and shifting explanations exacerbated her trust problem among voters.
A majority of Americans say they disapprove of her handling of questions surrounding the email system, and the issue has badly damaged her once-positive reviews as secretary of state.
“There is no doubt that the damage was compounded by her initial unwillingness to come to grips with the story and acknowledge not just that it was a mistake, but why,” said Democratic strategist David Axelrod, a Clinton supporter who advised President Obama in his successful primary contest against her. “What remains to be seen is whether the negative impact is now baked in the cake, or if the latest developments will do additional harm.”
The email debacle became a self-fulfilling prophecy born of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s long and bitter tenure on the partisan field, several Clinton allies said. Instead of heading off Republican investigations or protecting Clinton’s privacy, the email system and her decisions surrounding it only invited more scrutiny.
It’s still not clear if the campaign has a clear handle on how to address the issue. Top donors Wednesday quizzed Dennis Cheng, the campaign’s finance director, about what they should tell potential supporters with qualms about the email issue and what it may say about Clinton’s ethics and trustworthiness. They were told that the campaign was still forming a response to the FBI findings announced the day before.
Clinton has said several things about the system and its use that have been disproved or contradicted through investigations by the FBI and the State Department inspector general – and through the court-ordered release of many of her emails.
The candidate has repeatedly said she regrets the decision to use the parallel system, which she says was set up for convenience. She has never fully reckoned with the perception that she was seeking to shield her communications from legitimate inquiry.
Clinton’s campaign was blindsided more than once as the email story unspooled. Senior aides recruited before the campaign formally began in April 2015 were unaware that she had used such a system when she served as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, or that the State Department had asked her to return work-related emails she still possessed.
Later, aides said things on Clinton’s behalf that turned out not to be true, including that each of more than 30,000 emails her lawyers turned over in 2014 had been read individually.
David Gergen, who was a senior aide to former president Bill Clinton, sees a link between Hillary Clinton’s response to the email issue and investigations from two decades ago. Her impulses are informed by being the subject of repeated investigations, Gergen said.
“She does not see the world in the same way that others do, when it comes to transparency and accountability,” he said, despite what he called her other strengths.
“She has built a protective shield around herself,” Gergen said. “Her first response is, ‘When people come after me, I’m going to have my guard up and be suspicious of what their motives are.’ ”
Gergen said he thinks her expressions of sorrow are “heartfelt.” But if elected, he said, “she will continue to be very protective – of the White House itself, of her and her husband, and her child . . . It occurs with a person who has many other strengths and virtues. It is a blind spot.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Anne Gearan