Updated at March 10, 2015 at 6:08 p.m.
In her first public comments on a controversy involving her emails, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton answered questions from the press for 20 minutes, but her response amounted to this: You've just got to trust me.
Clinton revealed that she had sent and received more than 62,320 emails from her private account. Of those, 30,490 she deemed work-related and turned over to the State Department. The other 31,830 she apparently deleted. The central question of the jousting match between Clinton and reporters was how she distinguished the personal emails from those relating to her official duties. Her explanation was simple: She decided.
As Clinton pointed out, that may follow the letter of federal rules. Government employees are allowed to use their personal email, and they're expected to choose which are professional and have to be turned over for public records, and which are personal. She said that even if she had used two devices or only a state.gov email address, she would still have made that decision. But that legalistic defense doesn't necessarily do much to quash her political problem. The question at the heart of the scandal is what might have been hiding in the emails that were not put in the public record—dealings with corporations, with aides, and with foreign heads of state, for example—that may be relevant to her duties as secretary or her presumed presidential bid.
"I have no doubt that we’ve done exactly what we should have done," Clinton said. "I feel that I’ve taken unprecedented steps to provide these work-related emails," she added. "I have absolute confidence that anything that could be in any way connected to work is now in the possession of the State Department," she reiterated. "We trust and count on the judgment of thousands, maybe millions of people, to make that decision, and I feel that I did and even more," she said—but of course, she must have known she'd be held to a different standard than those legions of low-level bureaucrats.
Clinton parried questions about a presidential campaign, dodging inquiries about whether and how the scandal might affect her decision on whether to run and the timing of an announcement. But she did say this: "With respect to any sort of future issues, I trust the American people to make their decision about political and public matters." The question now is whether the American people will trust her decisions.
It was Clinton's first major press availability in months. She seemed mostly confident, but showed flashes of sarcasm and impatience, and was dismissive of some questions, especially a final inquiry about an ambassador apparently fired for using private email. She portrayed herself as just another ordinary American: "No one wants their personal emails made public." Her comments could set the stage for a classic Clinton media strategy, as outlined by David Corn this morning: Lash out at the press, claim the mantle of victimhood, and when necessary, insist that black is white.
On the trust question, however, there were troubling signs. "When I got to work as secretary of state I opted for convenience to use my personal email account, which was allowed by the State Department, because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and personal emails," Clinton said. "Looking back, it would’ve been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone." Yet as recently as two weeks ago, she told journalist Kara Swisher that she carried two phones during at least part of her tenure as secretary of state.
Clinton also argued that because most of her work-related emails were sent to other people using official government accounts, they were being recorded, anyway. But some of the communication that has aroused the most interest is her communiqués with close staffers including Huma Abedin, who appears to have used her own account on Clinton's personal server. As examples of the sorts of messages she did not turn over, she cited arrangements for her daughter's wedding and for her mother's funeral. She rejected suggestions that an independent arbiter could or should review her emails to decide which qualified as work-related—although if the personal emails were deleted, it might be irrelevant. She was vague on that question, not saying clearly that they were deleted but saying that she "didn’t see any reason to keep them."
On two questions, Clinton offered surprisingly blunt and unequivocal answers: She said there were no security breaches on her email server, and she said she did not email any classified information.
But seldom were Clinton's answers so straightforward and simple. Far from putting an end to questions, the press conference seemed to raise a whole new set of concerns. Three seem especially salient to her political prospects. First, do Americans buy her explanation that she used personal email out of convenience rather than as an attempt to shield her work from public scrutiny? Second, do they trust her to have sorted her emails honestly and correctly, dividing work from personal matters? And third, will any of this make any electoral difference, or is it a process-oriented Beltway brouhaha? The last question will probably be the easiest to answer.