Lawyers for the State Department want to limit the types of questions that a watchdog group can ask former aides to Hillary Clinton, and potentially the former secretary of state herself, about her creation and use of a private email system while she was in office.
The department asked a federal judge Tuesday night to grant “limited discovery” to Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that wants to depose some of Clinton’s closest associates and staffers.
State’s lawyers proposed that the group only be allowed to ask questions about “the reasons for the creation of the clintonemail.com system,” and not about how classified information was handled on the system or any issues related to protecting it from hackers.
The State Department lawyers also indicated that they may object to any attempt to depose Clinton. Judicial Watch hasn’t proposed to depose the Democratic presidential frontrunner, but has said it wants to interview Huma Abedin, one of Clinton’s closest aides and a personal friend; Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s former chief of staff; Patrick Kennedy, a senior State Department official; and others who were involved in discussions among State Department officials about Clinton’s email usage.
Based on the schedule that both State Department and Judicial Watch lawyers have proposed, interviews with ex-Clinton aides could begin in the weeks heading into the Democratic presidential nominating convention in July.
The questions that State wants to put off limits have been at the center of multiple inquiries by inspectors general and the FBI about how Clinton handled classified information and whether she or her staff violated any laws or rules about maintaining government records. Investigators have found that some of the emails in Clinton’s server contained classified information when they were sent, though she has maintained they were never marked as such.
The lawsuit brought by Judicial Watch is one of dozens by activists and journalists seeking information about Clinton’s private email system, which was run out of a “homebrew” server in her house in New York. It’s unusual, however, in that it’s only one of two cases in which a federal judge has agreed to allow discovery, including potential examination of government documents and interviews with current or former officials.
Judicial Watch brought the suit in an effort to obtain information about the government’s employment agreement with Abedin, a key member of Clinton’s inner circle who simultaneously held four jobs for a six-month period in 2012: at the State Department, at the Clinton family’s foundation, in Hillary Clinton’s personal office, and at a private consulting firm with connections to the Clintons.
The group also wants to depose Bryan Pagliano, who reportedly maintained Clinton’s email server. Pagliano has been granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation with FBI investigators, and State’s lawyers asked the judge to prevent Judicial Watch from asking questions about the bureau’s investigation.
Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey told reporters in Buffalo on Monday that he was in no rush to complete the investigation, which he said could extend past the Democratic and Republican conventions.
“The urgency is to do it well and promptly,” Comey said. “And ‘well’ comes first.”
Clinton said Sunday on NBC News’ Meet the Press that FBI agents had yet to contact her for an interview but that she is willing to sit down with them.
The State Department had fought to keep Judicial Watch from conducting discovery at all, arguing that the group sought to expand the question about Abedin’s employment situation “into a far-ranging inquiry” about whether records laws had been broken.
But U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan expressed his frustration in a hearing last February over the fragmentary way that new revelations and disclosures about Clinton’s email system have come to light. He concluded that discovery, which is rare for cases like this one brought under the Freedom of Information Act, was warranted.
“This is a constant drip, a declaration drip. That’s what we're having here, you know, and it needs to stop,” Sullivan said, before ordering that limited discovery could proceed.
The lack of a complete explanation for why Clinton had set up a private email system gave rise to “a reasonable suspicion of bad faith” on the part of State Department officials, who may have been trying to thwart transparency laws, Sullivan said. There was no question that senior officials working for Clinton knew she was using a private email server, he noted.
“It appears that no one took any steps to ensure that agency records on Clintonemail.com were secured within the State Department’s record systems” in order to respond to records requests in the future, Sullivan said. “How in the world could this happen?”
At one point, Sullivan asked rhetorically, “Was the system created to accommodate the former secretary? Was the system created to thwart [Freedom of Information Act] compliance?” Until those questions are answered, he said, the court can’t determine whether the government had fully and adequately searched for records in the underlying case.
“We’re talking about a cabinet-level official who was accommodated by the government for reasons unknown to the public,” Sullivan said.
In the other case in which a judge has granted discovery, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled last week that “where there is evidence of government wrong-doing and bad faith…”
That case, which was also brought by Judicial Watch, is about government talking points that officials crafted following the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.