It’s classic Clinton strategy: In the 20 years-plus that I’ve covered them, I’ve dealt countless times with their legal-political tactics (or is it the other way around?) of digging in and hoping the controversy goes away, then when it doesn’t, retreating when few are looking, and hoping once again that the issue either fades or can be finessed when it comes up months later. Usually when it does, it is dismissed as “old news,” with a possibility that we in media, with our tunnel vision, are single-mindedly focused on the big story of the moment and don’t have time for this.
So it is with the infamous private email server that Hillary Clinton utilized when she was secretary of state. By now, we all know that she bypassed the government system for her own. In March, when that was reported, she finally held a news conference to reluctantly deal with an issue that was already hitting her in her longstanding weak spot: her credibility.
She had grudgingly released to the State Department the emails she and her advisers determined needed to be turned over to avoid controversy … note that she chose which ones. Furthermore, they would not be handing anyone her server because the rest of her communications on it were non-official, personal stuff, like family matters.
Besides, she went on, she had wiped the server clean. So the family matters would no longer be there for prying eyes to see, even when the family runs the Clinton Foundation and even when questions have persisted about foreign donations to their charities while she was secretary of state. That was then.
The next day I was among those on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program who agreed that, if ordered to, she certainly would turn over the server or else. And four months later, persistent Republican House committee investigators and equally persistent attorneys in various court cases have, in fact, forced her hand. In true “know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em” fashion, her spokesman declared: “She directed her team to give her email server that was used during her tenure as secretary to the Department of Justice, as well as a thumb drive containing copies of her emails already provided to the State Department. She pledged to cooperate with the government’s security inquiry, and if there are more questions, we will continue to address them.”
Note that the announcement came as those of us in the tunnel-vision media were singularly preoccupied with all thing Donald Trump. So the decision, significant as it is to Hillary Clinton — whose trustworthiness ratings in polls are pretty dismal — is nevertheless a concession made in the darkness, outside the glare of our obsession with The Donald.
But a huge consideration remains: Remember, she saw to it that the server had been wiped clean. Are federal agents able to use sophisticated forensic technology to recover the stripped data, or is it gone forever? By now there are so many questions about the thousands of entries she deemed personal, and still more about her emails with close aides and friends, which also might add to the swirling controversy.
But for now, Hillary Clinton has faced reality and turned over her server. We have no way of knowing whether it contains material that is legally difficult or politically troublesome. Her campaign immediately belittled the whole matter as “nonsense.” We don’t even know whether we’ll ever know.
It’s doubtful, however, that these maneuvers will solve one of the fundamental problems of her candidacy, her credibility. If she’s the nominee, her campaign may have to rely less on perceptions of her character and more on emphasizing the wackiness of her Republican opposition. But that’s over a year away, enough time for the Clinton forces to hope, true to form, that the issues go away. Or that they find some other way to obfuscate.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN