Sometimes the dog really does eat your homework, but if you’ve got a reputation for skirting the edges of the truth and bending rules, good luck selling that story when you’re standing in front of the teacher’s desk.
That’s the situation in which the Hillary Clinton campaign finds itself, as more questions arise over the handling of classified material by Clinton and her aides during her time as Secretary of State. Reviews of emails sent and received by Clinton have caused federal officials to request an assessment from the FBI as to whether classified information was improperly transmitted via email and, to make the issue even more problematic, done so using a private emails server that Clinton maintained in lieu of using the secure, backed-up State Department system.
For months, Clinton has insisted that she never knowingly sent or received classified material on her private email account. But an assessment by the intelligence community’s Inspector General cast doubt on that when, in an initial review, it identified classified information in a small sample of the former secretary of state’s emails.
A more thorough examination resulted in more than 300 emails being sent to the FBI for further review.
The thing is, Clinton has a credible defense. Talk to anybody familiar with the classification of federal documents and, if they are being honest, they’ll admit that the system is largely arbitrary and capricious. A document passed into the public record by one agency might be redacted to the point of incomprehensibility by another. Material considered public today might next week suddenly be labeled classified, meaning that anybody who shared it is in theory retroactively guilty of exposing national secrets.
It’s a point Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon tried to make in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
Clinton, he said, “was at worst a passive recipient of unwitting information that subsequently became deemed as classified.”
He added, “When it comes to classified information, the standards are not at all black and white, and in the absence of markings that officially designate something classified, reasonable people, each taking their responsibilities extremely seriously, can nonetheless disagree on the character of the information they are dealing with — and both could be completely justified in that perspective.”
Tortured syntax aside, every word Fallon said was true. But the problem is that in the eyes of many Americans, Clinton long ago surrendered any claim she might once have had to the benefit of the doubt.
Poll after poll indicates that the biggest challenge she faces with the U.S. electorate is that many Americans – and not just her hard-core Republican opponents – don’t trust her.
Her decision to use a personal email server for her communications as Secretary of State, a position making her privy to some of the nation’s most sensitive data, didn’t help. Her insistence that the server, which contained materials that were federal records by any definition, was her personal property and would not be handed over to federal officials made the impression worse.
Topping things off, of course, was her blithe admission earlier this year that she had asked her personal attorneys to look at all the emails on the server and to delete those that they determined were not part of the public record. The practical effect was to tell the American people that when it comes to questions about her emails they simply needed to trust her -- something they are manifestly uncomfortable doing.
She eventually turned the server over to the FBI, and agency sources this week said that they were optimistic that they could recover much of the deleted data.
At a time when Democrats would most likely prefer to watch the Republican candidates for the 2016 nomination tear the GOP apart from the inside over illegal immigration, the issue of Clinton’s email troubles seems unlikely to go away.
Clinton fought through a difficult press conference on Tuesday night and Fallon’s appearance Wednesday drew a large amount of (largely undeserved) social media mockery.
It may or may not be a sign of desperation that the Clinton camp summoned longtime surrogate James Carville back from vacation to defend the former secretary of state on television. But the Louisianan’s defense of Clinton Wednesday was long on Cajun color and short on specifics.
“This is foolishness,” Carville said in an interview with NBC. “I’m having to come out of my vacation to deal with this kind of stupidity that these people are putting out. Hillary is going to be just fine, it’s going to be just fine.”
He added, “It's just a bunch of people talking to each other, spinning themselves up over a pile of garbage.”