Politics & Policy

The Clinton-Obama E-mail Scandal

(Reuters photo: Randall Hill)

John Podesta’s e-mails, which we now have courtesy of WikiLeaks, confirm what we already knew: The Justice Department’s decision not to indict Hillary Clinton was a politicized travesty.

Podesta, a longtime Clinton hand and Democratic party operative, was President Obama’s top political adviser before becoming chairman of Clinton’s presidential campaign in February 2015. As he was transitioning, it was revealed that, as secretary of state, Clinton had regularly transacted government business over a private e-mail account and, in a major national-security breach, had used a non-secure server to send and store highly classified information. Moreover, to (further) evade transparency requirements, Clinton destroyed 33,000 e-mails, falsely representing them as “personal,” having to do with her daughter’s wedding and “yoga.” Nonetheless, the Justice Department declined to bring a case.

FBI director James Comey’s she-did-but-she-didn’t press conference had already made it clear that Clinton was given special treatment, as had investigative reports and interview summaries pried from the bureau by congressional Republicans. Podesta’s e-mails illuminate the improper coordination between the campaign, the White House, and the State and Justice Departments that led to Clinton’s getting a complete pass.

Although it was ostensibly investigating Clinton and her State Department staff (many of whom had become her campaign staff), the Justice Department kept campaign officials in the loop about developments in Freedom of Information Act cases related to Clinton’s e-mails, and about administration efforts to delay and minimize disclosures. The DOJ worked with the Clinton team’s defense lawyers to restrict the FBI’s ability to ask key questions and examine critical evidence. It also declined to present the case to a grand jury, which the DOJ must do in order to subpoena critical evidence and indict culpable suspects. Instead, it gave the suspects immunity from prosecution and made other gratuitous concessions in order to acquire evidence the production of which could have been compelled.

Meanwhile, as the former secretary’s claims about never having sent or received classified information were exposed as lies — in fact, some of her e-mails contained information classified at the very highest levels of secrecy — the State Department colluded with Clinton aides to control the fallout. Newly disclosed FBI documents suggest that high-ranking State Department official Patrick Kennedy leaned on the FBI, and perhaps other agencies, to downgrade classification of Clinton’s e-mails (which might bolster her false denial of transmitting classified information) and to exploit Freedom of Information Act exemptions (which would allow the State Department to withhold disclosure of e-mails that would be politically harmful). This news should come as no surprise. FBI reports had previously indicated that State Department brass were pressuring career officials to change designations to minimize Clinton’s apparent misconduct.

While Kennedy and others were applying pressure from Foggy Bottom, Podesta sought help from a different source. Months ago, the State Department grudgingly acknowledged that Clinton and President Obama had exchanged at least 18 e-mails over Clinton’s private account, and FBI reports obtained by Congress revealed that Obama used an alias on those occasions. Prior to that revelation, Podesta suggested to Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s top aide at State and a key campaign adviser, that the White House invoke executive privilege to shield those exchanges from a congressional subpoena.

FBI director James Comey’s she-did-but-she-didn’t press conference had already made it clear that Clinton was given special treatment.

Podesta’s proposal confirms that top advisers to Obama and Clinton were well aware of the improper e-mail setup, and provides further evidence that the likeliest explanation for the demise of the Clinton investigation is the simplest: The Clinton e-mail scandal is also the Obama e-mail scandal. Because the president’s e-mails would be admissible as evidence in the event of a Clinton prosecution; because it would then become clear that the president himself had sent classified information over a non-secure e-mail server, the communications of high-level executive officials with the president being presumptively classified; and because the president could not formally invoke executive privilege without tacitly admitting Clinton’s guilt — the president could not let any prosecution go forward. Huma Abedin’s requesting a copy of a Clinton–Obama e-mail exchange from investigators suggests she was canny enough to grasp the point at once.

It will be years before the details of this tangled saga are fully known; they may never be. But we know enough to predict that a Clinton administration would be like an Obama administration: rotten from the top down.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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