By the time Hillary Clinton faced down a swarm of salivating reporters at the United Nations Tuesday, intrigue had reached a fever pitch.
The New York Times had "broken" a story over a week earlier about Clinton exclusively using a private email account for government business while she was secretary of state, which "may have violated federal requirements," according to the lede of the story. And in the second paragraph:
Her aides took no actions to have her personal emails preserved on department servers at the time, as required by the Federal Records Act.
This suggestion about violating the Federal Records Act turned out to be false, as was later reported by other outlets like USA Today
. That specific regulation was signed into law in November 2014, well over a year after Clinton left her post and it was not retroactive.
The relevant regulation that the New York Times ultimately cited regarding how government officials are supposed to handle personal email accounts came from the National Archiving and Records Administration (NARA)—as the NYT public editor put it, "see page 51050, section 1236.22b." Oh right. Not sure how we could have missed it, but here it is:
"Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system."
That rule—one sentence in a 56-page, 56,000-word document—was established on November 2, 2009, ten months into Hillary Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state. "Obscure" doesn’t quite capture the nature of the new rule or its enactment. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that any agency officials, let alone Clinton herself, pored over the new regs and thought, "Uh-oh, we’ve got a problem," and then proceeded to willfully ignore its high-profile rollout.
For more on much ado about nothing, continue below the fold.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for why this overhyped story got so out of hand—starting with the original story itself and the herd mentality of the press that followed. But before we throw the entire lot of reporters into a trash heap, let me first say that I used to be one of them in Washington. As imperfect as they are, they are the only people charged with the task of trying to reveal the actual truth. While no journalist is perfect, it is their job to inform. No one else in Washington wants the whole truth to be told—not the Democratic or Republican party, not the politicians, not the advocacy organizations (conservative or progressive), and not the activists. All of those players want partial truths to be told—whatever works best for them in any given situation—and some clearly lie more than others. But without the reporters, warts and all, we got no chance at transparency.
And transparency is what made this story live and breathe. Shedding light on the dark corners of government strikes at the heart of a journalist’s job. In many ways, it’s that instinct—more than the regulation itself—that reporters were responding to.
Unfortunately, the New York Times overplayed the story from the start, in part, because it fed into a previously established narrative about the Clintons and the air of secrecy that seems to follow them around like a cloud. Even the Times admitted over a week later that the rules were so "vague" that government officials and agencies across Washington had differing ways of handling with them.
I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton mistrusts the press—with good reason, frankly. And to be sure, a lot reporters generally distrust the Clintons. So we may as well prepare now for more sensationalized stories.
But here’s a couple takeaways as we try to extract ourselves from the eGhazi rabbit hole.
1) The media needs to cover Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, and they will cover her one way or the other—even if it means following a virtual nothingburger to a press conference at the United Nations, which typically counts no more than a smattering of reporters at any given time;
2) Hillary needs a campaign.
Journalists will surely be journalists—and sometimes their fixation on transparency reveals important stuff, like the Pentagon Papers or Watergate or, more recently, Edward Snowden’s government surveillance revelations. Hillary’s emails, not so much.
But it’s up to candidates to be candidates. Had Clinton been more of a candidate—with the attendant infrastructure and staff and press operation—this story could have been at least partially diffused.
One way to do that is to have surrogates shooting holes through a story on an hourly basis for an entire week before a candidate finally steps up to the mic. Another way is to feed the beast with a better story. At least some coverage can be deflected with a legit story if you continually give reporters reasons to cover it.
In this case, the obvious story would have been the stunning breach of public trust that 47 Republican senators committed when they tried to derail the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran. The story was so outrageous that it pretty much developed legs on its own. But with an opposing campaign driving it home it would have blown up even bigger and faster.
As it is, newspaper editorial boards ranging from Kentucky to Illinois to New Hampshire skewered the effort along with their hometown senators who signed on to it (in these states, Sens. Mitch McConnell, Rand Paul, Mark Kirk, and Kelly Ayotte).
Clinton herself took a swipe at the letter in her press conference remarks before enduring a barrage of email-specific questions from reporters.
[T]he recent letter from Republican senators was out of step with the best traditions of American leadership. And one has to ask, what was the purpose of this letter?
There appear to be two logical answers. Either these senators were trying to be helpful to the Iranians or harmful to the commander- in-chief in the midst of high-stakes international diplomacy. Either answer does discredit to the letters' signatories.
This is the landscape on which Democrats want Hillary Clinton to be fighting. As secretary of state, she traveled to 112 countries
and has a fluency on foreign policy that not even the combined knowledge of maybe 20 GOP candidates could begin to touch. Remember Jeb Bush’s big foreign policy speech
—where he mixed up Iraq and Iran, among multiple other blunders? To steal a phrase from Jeb himself, "Holy Schnikes." I’ll take that matchup any day.
Fortunately, it's starting to look like Democrats will soon have the candidate they need.