Until recently, it was hard to imagine how Hillary Clinton could possibly have turned herself into a bigger target to the Republican Party than she already was. But with the revelation that as Secretary of State she set up a personal email server to avoid using the State Department’s secure system – that changed.
Clinton has morphed into a hybrid of everything Republicans deplore about the Clintons, reminiscent of the conduct of IRS official Lois Lerner.
Lerner, in case anyone has forgotten, is the former director of the Internal Revenue Service’s Exempt Organizations Divisions, which delayed approval on the applications for tax-exempt status filed by many politically active organizations – primarily those that appeared conservative – in advance of the 2012 election.
Many in the conservative movement smelled an administration plot to suppress Republican activists during the 2012 presidential election, and when Lerner famously refused to testify before Congress, she only cemented that perception. But the real reason conservatives have never let go of Lerner is her emails. The IRS claimed that Lerner and six other employees’ official IRS computers suffered hard drive crashes that rendered much of the information on it unrecoverable. It was impossible, therefore, for the IRS to credibly claim that it had turned over all relevant emails involving Lerner to Congressional committees investigating the targeting of non-profit groups. In fact, Lerner emails are still being uncovered.
A similar search for Clinton’s emails was launched Wednesday, when Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC), the chairman of the House Select Committee that is investigating the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, announced that his committee would subpoena Clinton’s emails. Congressional committees have been investigating the Benghazi attack since shortly after it occurred, which raises questions about why Congress was apparently unaware of the existence of Clinton’s private email server until now.
In a statement, Gowdy’s spokesman said, “The Select Committee on Benghazi today issued subpoenas for all communications of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton related to Libya and to the State Department for other individuals who have information pertinent to the investigation.”
Clinton’s situation is arguably worse that Lerner’s because the wound is completely self-inflicted. At the time Lerner’s computer failed, the agency claimed that the back-up system they did have only kept data for 6 months before overwriting the digital tapes. IRS workers, including Lerner, were expected to identify all the emails they sent or received that could be classified as a “federal record” and to print out hard copies.
In fact, the records were backed up, and investigators were able to recover more than 30,000 emails as well as tapes from servers within two weeks dating back to 2001. As a result, the possibility of criminal activity is being probed by the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
Nevertheless, the procedure in place at the IRS left open the possibility that an employee guilty of wrongdoing might simply decline to save incriminating emails in hard copy. Taking things a step further – as many conspiracy-minded commentators did – one can imagine a staged hard drive “crash” that permanently eliminates evidence.
There is no evidence to suggest that Lerner was derelict in observing the rules on record retention, and certainly none to suggest that she engineered a fake hard drive crash. But you can’t prove a negative, and the system in place at IRS, making Lerner the arbiter of what was and was not a federal record, left ample room for doubt that there had been a cover up.
While the conditions that created doubt about Lerner’s emails were largely the fault of the IRS’s internal systems, Hillary Clinton has no such defense. She could have used the official email system, which archives messages. Her successor, John Kerry, does just that. But she didn’t.
Putting aside the apparent risk of placing all of her official communications outside the protection of the secure State Department email system (a major issue according to this Bloomberg report), the decision effectively put Clinton in the same position that IRS rules created for Lerner. It made her the arbiter of what emails were and were not considered public records.
To be sure, any email that Clinton exchanged with State Department staff would presumably have been saved on agency servers. But emails between Clinton and non-U.S. government accounts would not. And that makes all the difference.
Clinton’s advisers have been all over the press claiming that they have complied with the letter and the spirit of the law by archiving all emails that could be considered federal records. And perhaps they did exactly that. But because the system has been under Clinton’s exclusive control since 2009, that claim boils down to Hillary Clinton saying to the country: Trust me.
For a large portion of the electorate in the U.S., trusting a Clinton is, rightly or wrongly, utterly out of the question. And that means that the issue of Clinton’s email will be front and center for her opponents from now until she either withdraws from the race for president, or leaves the White House in 2020 or 2024.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: