Why Hillary Clinton Can't Escape Controversy

Recent investigations provide her opponents with plenty of material for continued attacks.

Rick Wilking / Reuters

It has been quite a week for Hillary Clinton. On Tuesday, FBI Director James Comey recommended against criminal charges in the wake of an investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal e-mail server during her time as secretary of state. It was the second piece of good news for Clinton in a matter of days: A week earlier, House Republicans found no new evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton in an investigation into the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.

That is, it’s good news for Clinton up to a point. Investigations into the e-mail server and Benghazi attacks have loomed over the Democratic Party’s presumptive presidential nominee like a dark cloud. Clinton undoubtedly hopes to put these scandals behind her with the Democratic National Convention less than a month away. Yet both investigations have yielded results that Donald Trump, and other opponents, can seize on to reinforce the perception of many voters that Clinton is a corrupt politician who can’t be trusted—effectively guaranteeing that the criticisms will persist regardless of how hard the Clinton campaign works to distance itself from controversy.

Clinton’s political enemies will not find it hard to pick and choose from the FBI findings to make an argument that she can’t be trusted. “I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time it was sent and received,” Clinton said in July 2015. During a January 2016 interview on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd, Clinton said she “never sent or received any material marked ‘classified.’” In his briefing on Tuesday, Comey reported that “110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined ... to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received.” Later on, Comey noted that “only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information. But even if information is not marked ‘classified’ in an e-mail,” he said, “participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.” If nothing else, the FBI findings read like a rebuke that Clinton should have known better.

For that reason, the investigation could undermine Clinton’s case that her judgment makes her better suited to be president. Comey explicitly said that though there was not “clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.” The accusation of carelessness may undercut Clinton’s case that she, unlike Trump, is an experienced and steady hand, capable of keeping the nation safe. The charge also threatens to feed suspicions harbored by her opponents that the Democratic candidate doesn’t think the rules apply to her. That, in turn, could further erode public confidence in Clinton.

Comey made other assertions as well that could easily show up in attack ads against Clinton. The FBI “discovered several thousand work-related e-mails that were not in the group of 30,000 that were returned by Secretary Clinton to State in 2014,” Comey said during his press conference, adding that “some had been deleted over the years.” The FBI director insisted that there was “no evidence that any of the additional work-related e-mails were intentionally deleted in an effort to conceal them,” but Republicans could easily trot out the assertions to raise questions over Clinton’s conduct with regard to the e-mail server.

As long as Republicans can keep doubt over Clinton’s trustworthiness alive, they can ensure that she never manages to escape controversy. And even if Clinton is formally exonerated for using a private e-mail server, Trump can simply argue that the verdict is proof that the system really is rigged in her favor. He has already started making that case explicit: “FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem,” he tweeted on Tuesday. Meanwhile, Republicans can point to a recent meeting between former President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch to argue that Clinton has been unjustly shielded by the administration, regardless of Lynch’s insistence last week that she was prepared to accept the FBI’s recommendations.

Similarly, the House Republican Benghazi investigation can be used by critics to question the extent to which Clinton has been protected from retribution by well-placed political allies and raise the possibility of corruption. As Politico noted, the Benghazi report criticizes “what it called the administration’s ‘shameful’ stonewalling of the investigation,” adding that “the administration’s refusal to turn over all records to the panel made it impossible for committee investigators to say with certainty that they have reviewed all the facts surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.”

For their part, Clinton’s campaign will have to work tirelessly to beat back criticisms that seem destined to linger long after these investigations have concluded. The campaign has already characterized the House Republican Benghazi investigation as a partisan effort to discredit the candidate. On Tuesday, Clinton spokesperson Brian Fallon reacted to Comey’s press conference in a statement, saying: “We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the Department is appropriate. As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”

The notion that anything has been fully resolved, however, seems overly optimistic. No matter how much she wants to put controversy behind her, Clinton’s opponents can make sure it remains present in the minds of voters: They will continue to dredge up allegations of wrongdoing and raise questions over her culpability as long as it appears that to do so will be politically expedient. Clinton may wind up legally exonerated, but she may not fare nearly as well in the court of public opinion. She is guaranteed to face plenty of obstacles as she battles on toward the White House. And in yet one more indicator that Clinton’s path to the presidency is far from clear, a spokesman for Bernie Sanders announced on Tuesday that the FBI’s assessment will not impact the Vermont senator’s decision to remain in the race.