So over the weekend, the Times, which had already walked back some of the wilder implications of its Hillary Clinton-email reporting, did so just a little bit more. It did it under a provocative (though basically defensible) headline that tried to make it sound like the plot was thickening, but in fact this plot is thinning faster than Tony Blair’s hair (seriously, have a look). What began life two weeks ago as another “Clintons play by their own rules” mega-scandal is now pretty clearly devolving into a “what do you expect, it’s the government” saga that is about as dog-bites-man as it gets.
The Times headline, on A1 Saturday, proclaimed: “Emails Clinton Said Were Kept Could Be Lost.” The article, co-bylined by the reporter who broke the original story and another, reported that the State Department did not start automatically archiving the state.gov email traffic of deputies until February of this year. This bit of information came from department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who discussed this at her daily briefing the day before (i.e. last Friday).
Now. Remember what Clinton had said at her UN press conference last week—that even though she used a personal address, everything she wrote to her deputies’ state.gov addresses was archived: “The vast majority of my work emails went to government employees at their government addresses, which meant they were captured and preserved immediately on the system at the State Department.”
She’s right that they were captured, but that doesn’t mean they were archived, according to what Psaki said Friday. So the Times put those two factoids together and produced its Saturday piece, the most dramatic possible reading of events, which opened by informing readers that contrary to what Clinton had said, not everyone at State was required to archive their email correspondence, so maybe some of those emails she told us had been preserved had quite possibly not.
It’s a defensible news story. But here’s the thing. If you read farther down into the article—and certainly, if you read the transcript of Psaki’s Friday briefing—the picture that is very clearly beginning to emerge here is one of a lumbering department (is there any other kind when it comes to matters like this?) taking a long time (shocking!) to get itself into compliance with regulations and laws. Toward the end of the Times article, it quotes experts saying the kinds of throw-up-your-hands things that people say when they think a situation is unfortunate but not genuinely a scandal (“it really is chaos across the government in terms of what agencies do, what individuals do, and people understand that they can decide what they save and what they don’t”).
As for the State briefing, here’s what happened. Psaki fielded a question that went: “You had said that you would check—yesterday, you said a couple of times that you’re now automatically archiving...the emails of certain principals.” Psaki said yes, that process started in February of this year (there’s your news). Somebody else asked, naturally enough, why not until February of this year:
Psaki: “Out of an effort to continue to update our process. Our goal, actually, is to apply an archiving system that meets these same requirements to all employee mailboxes by the end of 2016. So it’s only natural that you’d start with the Secretary, which we did in 2013; that you would progress with other senior Department officials, and we’ll continue to make—take steps forward.”
Then somebody asked, again naturally enough, why not sooner. “I’m sure,” she said, “if we had the technical capability to, we would have, and it’s just a process that takes some time.” And then later: “This has been a process that’s been ongoing, and obviously, it’s not only time-consuming and requires a lot of effort on the part of employees to do it in other ways, but they have long been planning to do this. It’s just something that it took some time to put in place.”
You get the idea. Anybody shocked to hear those words? A government agency got a directive, and it’s taking a long time to implement it!
Now, you can blame Hillary Clinton for all this if you want to. She was the boss, and in some sense the buck stops at the boss’s desk. But don’t you think the secretary kinda has bigger things on her mind than this? “Hey, Steinberg, forget Middle East peace and Russia and just go find out where we are on compliance with that 2009 National Archives and Records Administration directive!”
In other words—a lot of what has happened here would probably have happened no matter who was secretary of state. If the secretary had been John Kerry then or Dick Holbrooke or whomever—why, even if it had been Clinton scold Maureen Dowd!—the department would almost surely have operated exactly as it did in terms of regulatory compliance. So, if some of these records weren’t preserved, it wasn’t a Clinton thing. It was a State Department thing.
Now obviously, the issue of whether we can trust that Clinton and her staff made an honest effort of determining which of her emails were public and which were private remains. That’s a fair question, although it’s one we’ll probably never know the answer to (just as we’ll never know it with Jeb Bush). As I wrote previously, Clinton needs to learn some lessons from this episode, and one is that suspicions will linger about her.
She ought to be cognizant of this. Not long after she becomes a candidate, for example, she ought to say that this episode has taught her about the importance of transparency and propose that if she is president, her administration will set up a system by which some kind of independent third parties will go through high-level officials’ emails to determine what is and isn’t public. This would constitute direct acknowledgement that she gets why that looks funny to people, and it would not only put the whole thing to bed, she’d get actual points.
But in the meantime, here’s what we’ve learned. On March 2, when the story broke, this was dynamite—a scandal that might prevent Clinton from even getting in the race. Then it emerged that the original Times report overstated things a little. Then it emerged that all kinds of other former secretaries of state and cabinet officials do more or less what Clinton did (some quite a bit less). Then it emerged that Jeb Bush took seven years to release all his emails and chose which ones to put out just like Clinton did. Then it emerged that other Republican candidates also have transparency issues at least the equal of Clinton’s. And finally, it emerged last Friday that the State Department performs certain administration functions rather slowly.
And remember, the only reason we’re going through all this anyway is that the Republicans, who’ve investigated Benghazi six ways to Sunday and come up with nothing on her, are now taking rocks they’ve already turned over and turning them back over. The whole Gowdy committee is nothing but a capital-P Political sting operation. It’s clearer than ever now that this is a committee to investigate Clinton that has one job and one job only: find something, anything, that might keep her out of the White House.