Hillary Clinton’s recent controversy over using a personal email address while at the State Department has many Republicans and political watchers suffering flashbacks to the 90s and the days of Whitewater, cattle futures, Travelgate and parsed words about President Bill Clinton’s personal life.
Democrats spent Tuesday trying to defend their expected presidential frontrunner against the attacks while Republicans tried to keep the pressure on.
Cutting through the political back-and-forth, here are four reasons this controversy matters:
1.) Hillary Clinton violated the spirit of the law
By exclusively using her personal email, Clinton ran afoul of federal record-keeping norms.
“I was in the government for 34 years and, in my experience as director of litigation, I cannot recall an instance where a high level official – or anyone – solely used a private email account for the transaction of government business,” said Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath and the former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration.
Baron said he doubts there are penalties that could apply to Clinton now, because it wasn’t until late last year – long after Clinton left the State Department – that President Barack Obama signed an update to the Federal Records Law that clarified how private email was allowed to be used.
Baron said Clinton didn’t “violate” federal law because rules around the “the Federal Records Act is amorphous enough,” but added her exclusive use of personal email is not “in concert with my understanding of what the federal recs say.”
Government guidelines from 2009 – when Clinton led the State Department – required correspondence via private email be “preserved in the appropriate agency record-keeping system.”
It gives no timeline for complying with the regulation and Clinton only did so in 2014, at the request of the Obama administration, more than two years after leaving the State Department.
In 2013 – after Clinton left State – the National Archives and Records Administration, clarified that personal email can only be used in “emergency situations,” and when used, the emails “are captured and managed in accordance with agency record-keeping practices.”
After news of the emails was first published in The New York Times on Monday night, a State Department official told CNN that “policies are continuing to evolve, including how those policies pertain to leadership officials” and that the department was working to implement the “onerous” process.
2.) It fits with criticism that the Clintons are sneaky and skirt the rules
Ever since the Clintons stepped into the governor’s mansion in Arkansas, Republicans have accused the family of pushing and even crossing the lines of propriety – from a lack of transparency on financial investments to the parade of donors overnighting in the Lincoln Bedroom to Bill Clinton’s dishonesty before a grand jury that eventually led to his impeachment.
Now that Clinton is the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, the email plays into the “back to the 90s” narrative Republicans are trying to gin up, especially after polls show many Americans believe Hillary Clinton is representative of the future. Republican lawmakers and outside groups spent Tuesday seizing on the controversy with statements questioning Clinton’s motives, web ads about the emails and Freedom of Information Act requests for her correspondence.
It also comes on the heels of a series of stories about the Clinton family charity, The Clinton Foundation, accepting foreign donations, including several while she was secretary of state, a violation of her agreement with the Obama White House. Republicans are making it a one-two punch.
“It makes you wonder,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said. “Did she use the private emails so she could conduct diplomacy and fundraising at the same time?”
Likely GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush tweeted that “unclassified Hillary Clinton emails should be released.”
Business executive Carly Fiorina said, “This once again raises serious questions as to Hillary Clinton’s definition of leadership.”
But Clinton supporters question whether voters will even care about the controversy.
Chris Lehane, a former Clinton White House aide who helped combat a number of 1990s controversies, told CNN the Clintons have “become so conditioned to such partisan inquiries that there is a huge discount factor.”
“At this point she is already considered by voters as a candidate in full and, as a result, a story like this is one is viewed through such a prism by voters,” Lehane said. “For those outside of D.C., this is just the latest in a long string of partisan he saids, she saids that is hard to follow and does not appear especially relevant to their lives.”
3.) Security Risk
Cyber experts are scratching their heads about why Hillary Clinton would forego the protections of a government account, despite data breaches, including one of the State Department’s unclassified email.
A recent CNN review of cyber attacks against federal agencies shows the number of breaches into government systems is skyrocketing. And some Democrats have said the security risk to Clinton housing her emails in a non-government domain was minimal, given the fact the government emails have been so easily hacked. Cyber security experts with experience using private and government security measures disagree.
“The government may be behind the times on a lot of tech, but they detect breaches and strengthen security if they happen,” David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSec and a former member of the Marines cyber warfare unit, told CNN Tuesday.
Kennedy said that despite cyber attacks on State Department unclassified email, Clinton personal email would be far more vulnerable to attack outside of the government servers and would serve as a huge target for hacker that could easily compromise her personal account.
On Tuesday, Marie Harf, a deputy State Department spokeswoman, said the department has “no indication that Secretary Clinton used her personal email account for anything but unclassified purposes.”
4.) Transparency questions
Federal emails are archived for a lot of transparency concerns: so congressional committees can access them for academic research and so journalists can report on them.
Nick Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman, said on Tuesday that for official business, Clinton emailed other government staffers “with every expectation they would be retained” because they would be kept as received mail on those government accounts, not as sent mail from Clinton’s personal email.
Cyber security experts say it makes tracking down emails much more difficult.
If Clinton expected her emails to be saved that way, Kennedy said, it would mean archivists would have to look through a wide swath of email addresses in the State Department for archived emails from Clinton, instead of just pulling from Clinton’s account, a far easier task.
Another plus for keeping emails on a government account: they are backed up.
“When you move that over to a public email address or a personal account, you lose all of that backup capability, so there’s no way to actually go back and retrieve it,” Kennedy said.
Once email on a private email account is deleted, there is “no way of going back and actually recovering that data, whereas if it was in a State Department owned email address in their servers, in their infrastructure, it would have been trivial to go back and restore those,” he said.