It's impossible to know whether Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of a private email account to conduct business as secretary of State is a serious scandal or merely a tempest in a teapot. Impossible, because Clinton and her aides have ducked the most important questions.
Yes, secretaries of State are allowed to use personal email accounts. But why did Clinton choose never to use the government's official system? She hasn't said.
Yes, Clinton gave the government more than 55,000 pages of emails after she was asked for them and said they included every message that touched on official business. But will the government be allowed to review the rest of the messages to make sure she didn't hold anything back? No answer.
No, there's no evidence that Clinton's emails included sensitive information, or that her private email server was penetrated by foreign intelligence services. But how would we know? There's no evidence either way.
And yes, Clinton says she has asked the State Department to release the emails — someday. In her only public statement on the matter, she tweeted: “I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible.”
Good luck with that. The State Department is notorious for Dickensian delays in releasing documents. Five years ago, the Associated Press asked for records about Clinton's closest aide, Huma Abedin; it's still waiting. At that speed, Hillary Clinton could be in her second term as president before we see any smoking emails.
That's the problem. If Clinton plans to run for the White House, voters deserve to have those questions answered well before election day.
Instead, Clinton has reverted to a practice she and her husband have long preferred when they were caught in unpleasant situations: She has put her head down, ignored the critics and prayed for the media's annoying spotlight to move restlessly on.
Sometimes that strategy works — but sometimes it doesn't, disastrously.
Early in the Bill Clinton administration, there was something called the Whitewater affair, a murky soup of real estate deals and bank loans in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. White House aide David Gergen was convinced that the Clintons had done nothing wrong and urged a strategy of full disclosure, to prevent a small scandal from turning into a larger one.
But the Clintons, especially Hillary, rejected his advice. As a result, Whitewater mushroomed, leading to congressional hearings and the appointment of a special prosecutor. In the end, the Whitewater transactions turned out to be no big deal. But by then, the special prosecutor had stumbled across a different object of interest: Monica Lewinsky.
Full disclosure in 1994 might have saved President Clinton a painful impeachment drama in 1998 and 1989. But it's not clear that Hillary Clinton absorbed that lesson.
Instead, her modified limited hangout on the emails has revived a negative stereotype: She's politically clumsy at best, a chronic bender of rules at worst.
David Axelrod, President Obama's former campaign manager, warned on MSNBC that she was allowing the story to “fester.” Dick Harpootlian, former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, told Bloomberg Politics: “I think she is uniquely unqualified to run a campaign.”
And those two are Democrats (although neither has ever been an enthusiastic Hillary Clinton fan). As for Clinton's enemies — the “vast right-wing conspiracy” she denounced back in 1997 — the kerfuffle has been like Christmas in March.
It was a shot of adrenaline to House Republicans' wheezing investigation of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who is leading the House probe, said he might even call the former secretary to testify on the matter.
Other Republicans said they might investigate whether Clinton had put sensitive information at risk — a question that could qualify as legitimate congressional oversight.
This, Madam Secretary, is precisely how a small problem risks mushrooming into a big problem. Most of it could have been avoided if Clinton had complied with the rules and turned over her emails a year ago
Maybe Clinton can answer the questions, and it will turn out that there's nothing to see here. The current law against personal email accounts wasn't in effect during her tenure at the State Department. (Still, she appears to have violated State Department policy.)
If Clinton had heavyweight competition for the nomination, she might be in serious trouble with Democratic voters. But she doesn't face that kind of competition, and time is on her side.
“When we get to November 2016, I'll bet no one will be thinking about Secretary Clinton's emails,” Democratic strategist Mark Mellman predicted.
Nonetheless, she's reminded even her friends of her old propensity for unforced errors — and that if they vote for someone named Clinton, they risk getting some baggage in the bargain.