The drumbeat about Hillary Clinton’s emails continues to gain volume. Given her position as the front-runner in next year’s Democratic primary, and the revelation that the FBI is investigating whether classified information was mishandled due to her exclusive use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state, much of the recent intrigue centers on whether Clinton broke the law. That’s a wholly appropriate question, and one that should be answered without regard to her stature as a former secretary of state, senator and first lady and current presidential candidate. But the question of criminality has, in some ways, overshadowed more basic questions about why Clinton refused a public email account in the first place, and how Americans should judge her trustworthiness.
Those questions were raised anew by a somewhat unlikely source: liberal columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post. Arguing that Clinton has been her own worst enemy in the email scandal, Robinson points out that she is paying the price for having insisted on absolute control over her communications while serving in a public office:
“Clinton was no stranger to the rules of the federal government. She had to know that if she used a State Department account, her 60,000-plus e-mails would become part of the official record. She certainly knew, without any doubt, that her political opponents would delight in rummaging through her communications. Let’s be honest: Hillary and Bill Clinton do have enemies, lots of them, who show no compunction about launching unfair and vicious attacks. She must have wanted to make sure they never got the chance.
“But all of that is beside the point. If you accept the job of secretary of state, you inevitably surrender some of your privacy. Any public official’s work-related e-mails are the modern equivalent of the letters, memos and diaries that fill the National Archives. They tell our nation’s history and belong to all of us. Even if your name is Clinton, you have no right to unilaterally decide what is included and what is not.
“So I wish Hillary Clinton would be respectful enough to say, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong.’ I wish she wouldn’t insult our intelligence by claiming she only did what other secretaries of state had done. None of her predecessors, after all, went to the trouble and expense of a private e-mail server.
“I wish she would explain why, after turning over to the State Department the e-mails she deemed work-related, she had the server professionally wiped clean. The explanation that she didn’t want people prying into private matters such as ‘planning for [daughter] Chelsea’s wedding … as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes’ is unconvincing. Does she have some secret yoga move she doesn’t want the world to know about?
“And I wish I could be sure that Clinton is now, finally, doing everything in her power to ensure that any extant e-mails are turned over to the State and Justice departments. Unfortunately, I can’t. She stonewalled for so long — there’s no other word for her stance — that recent pledges of openness and cooperation ring hollow.”
That’s exactly right. It’s why the Clinton camp is, according to Robinson’s news-side colleagues at the Post, increasingly worried about what will be revealed and what the (political, anyway) consequences will be as her past explanations continue to be undermined. It’s why a perennially “inevitable” candidate is again looking mighty vulnerable, with ever-louder whispers that Joe Biden or even Al Gore may come riding to Democrats’ rescue. It’s why, in a political environment that has taken on a decidedly anti-establishment mood across the board, Bernie Sanders is drawing the crowds Clinton might have expected on the way to her coronation as nominee.
And it’s why it’s almost too late for the kind of apology, explanation and cooperation Robinson wishes we might have from Clinton to do her much good.