Republicans who are lambasting Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email address on a private server have found themselves on a minefield, each facing questions about their own transparency.
The closest parallel among Clinton’s likely 2016 challengers: Jeb Bush.
The former Florida governor was quick to criticize Clinton this week amid reports that she’d never used a government email during her four years as secretary of state.
Like Clinton, though, Bush had set up his own home server with a private address during his time in office. He still uses it, giving it out at events and asking supporters to email him comments and concerns. And, like Clinton, several of his top aides had email addresses connected Bush’s server, too.
There are some key differences between how Clinton and Bush used their emails.
Clinton was the secretary of state, privy to classified information and involved in high-stakes diplomatic efforts; Bush was the chief executive of a state and not involved in foreign policy – unless he discussed it over email with his brother, then-President George W. Bush. Clinton exclusively used her personal email; Bush also sometimes used a state address.
Bush has released hundreds of thousands of emails from the personal account he used during his eight years as governor in the name of transparency – and after public records requests for those emails. A Bush aide told NBC News that a number of his staffers and his general counsel’s office decided which emails to release.
But a CNN review of those emails turned up evidence a number of his official aides and family members also had email addresses housed at Jeb.org — and used them to conduct both official and political business — raising questions about how transparent that email dump ultimately was.
Bush staffers used ‘jeb.org’ email addresses
A July 16, 2003 email from Bush’s deputy chief of staff, Alan Levine, suggests the jeb.org email addresses were meant to be used for personal business.
In response to an email from Florida state Sen. Mike Fasano, Levine wrote, “use my personal email for non policy stuff. email@example.com.”
Another email, dated August 3, 2000, from then-Gov. Bush to “firstname.lastname@example.org” — presumably the address used by Sally Bradshaw, then Sally Harrell and Bush’s chief of staff, backs that up. Bush forwarded Bradshaw a complimentary email from a supporter excited over his brother’s election as president and offering their “69 GTO JUDGE Convertible” for a ride to events, adding his own comment: “Political,” to the forward.
But an email sent just weeks prior to Levine’s indicates Bush staffers didn’t follow that protocol all the time. On June 20, 2003, Donna Arduin, then director of the Florida Office of Policy and Budget, sent an email with an attachment labeled “veto message — 2.doc” to Bush’s official email and “email@example.com,” presumably the Jeb.org email used by Bush’s chief of staff, Kathleen Shanahan.
A LexisNexis search uncovered at least two other Jeb.org emails, affiliated with Jeb’s son, Jeb Jr., and an assistant who joined his staff after he left office.
A Bush spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions concerning which Bush aides received jeb.org email addresses, how the addresses were used or whether there were any restrictions placed on them.
But a New York Times’ report out this week outlining the use of Clinton’s personal email domain by her staffers characterized a clintonemail.com address as “a symbol of status within the family’s inner circle, conferring prestige and closeness to the secretary.”
In an effort to stem a rising tide of negative headlines and growing questions surrounding the use of her own server and domain for official business, on Wednesday night Clinton called on the State Department to release 55,000 pages of emails related to official business from her personal server that she turned over to the department for review.
Republicans are still demanding answers, however. The congressional panel investigating the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi has issued subpoenas for Clinton’s emails, and Select Committee on Benghazi Communications Director Jamal D. Ware said Clinton’s call for State to release her emails left many open questions.
“The former Secretary’s tweet does not answer questions about why this was not done when she left office, the integrity of the emails while she controlled them, the scheme to conceal them, or the failure to provide them in logical course,” he said.
More broadly, Republicans have charged Clinton’s use of a private server, which she set up on her own with clear premeditated intent, suggests she wanted a level of unusual control over her correspondence — raising questions about what she would want to keep out of the public eye.
Private servers give public figures control
But many of those same questions could be asked of Jeb Bush.
The move to set up their own private servers gave Clinton and Bush extraordinary control over their email accounts.
It also means they’ve been able to decide for themselves which emails are job-related public records and which are personal and therefore private – without any apparent independent verification of those decisions.
You won’t find any notes about the planning for Chelsea Clinton’s upcoming nuptials, the Clinton Foundation’s work or Clinton’s preparations for her book in the 55,000 pages of emails she handed over to the State Department and asked this week to have released.
Nor will you spot the talk of political trips and fundraising inside and outside the state that eats through the schedules of most governors in the set of 250,000 emails that Bush has made public.
Both are required by federal and state laws to release any emails related to official business for public review. A Bush spokeswoman didn’t respond to a request for clarification on the process behind choosing which emails to release.
According to NBC News, which first reported that Bush owns his email server, it was housed in a state-owned office building while Bush was governor, and there were “digital security” measures in place to protect sensitive information.
Outside groups on both sides say they don’t trust the decisions Clinton, Bush and their staffs have made on what’s private and what’s public.
The Clinton-aligned Democratic group American Bridge this week filed an open records request for the unreleased portion of Bush’s emails as Florida governor – and asked for a list of what’s left out and specific explanations of why.
The conservative Judicial Watch, meanwhile, filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the State Department for its failure to respond to an August request for Clinton’s emails – and seeking communications from her “newly discovered hidden email account” – with the wife of former Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi. It’s also asking for emails from a top Clinton aide, Huma Abedin.
Not just Jeb and Hillary…
Other potential 2016 candidates have faced criticism for their use of personal emails and private cellphones that aren’t subject to open records laws.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who has shot to the top of the latest GOP 2016 polls, and his staff set up a private email system while he served as Milwaukee County executive, and commingled government and state business on it. A Walker spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie saw private texts and emails among his top staffers unearthed during investigations into the “Bridgegate” scandal. The 2012 Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, used a private email address while he was governor of Massachusetts.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry faced accusations published by the Texas Tribune on Thursday that he conducted state business with lawmakers over a personal email account.
“The Governor’s Office complied with state law regarding email correspondence. While serving as governor of Texas, Gov. Perry’s emails were requested and released through public information requests,” Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said. She didn’t answer a question about whether the emails requested and released included any from his personal account.
Several other Republican hopefuls, including Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, won’t face legal questions over their use of email but won’t have to turn anything over, either, because Congress exempts itself from open records laws.
On the Democratic side, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has instituted a policy of deleting state workers’ old emails after three months – making it impossible to retrieve the types of emails Clinton and Bush are now being asked to hand over.