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Editorial: Good news, bad picture for Hillary Clinton

  • Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses a gathering on the Boardwalk Wednesday, July 6, 2016, in Atlantic City, N.J. Mel Evans—AP


Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Hillary Clinton, who struggles to win public trust, squandered her limited supply of it by setting her own rules on email communications while secretary of state. And then she inflicted more damage on her reputation by misrepresenting the steps she took to comply with federal records rules.

On Tuesday, she dodged a bullet. The director of the FBI said he had concluded that Clinton, the presumptive Democratic candidate for president, did not intentionally break the law governing classified documents, show disloyalty or act to obstruct justice. And because of that, James B. Comey said he would recommend to the Justice Department that Clinton not be charged with crimes related to her handling of classified information.

An indictment could have changed the game, in an election cycle that has defied political conventions. Had Comey’s decision gone the other way, Clinton’s long-held hope of becoming this country’s first woman president might be in serious jeopardy today.

Clinton may not have committed crimes related to classified materials, but the details provided Tuesday by Comey, coming on top of a highly critical report by the Department of State’s inspector general’s office, may confirm public doubts about her judgment.

Comey, a Republican and former federal prosecutor, said the activities uncovered in a year-long FBI investigation, including an interview with Clinton last weekend, raised troubling questions about Clinton’s conduct and about how the State Department handled classified information. He called her conduct “extremely careless.”

Normally, FBI recommendations on prosecution to the Justice Department are confidential. Comey’s 15 minutes of remarks Tuesday are believed to be the first time the FBI made public details of an investigation that will not lead to charges.

The details stung. Comey pointedly refuted Clinton’s repeated claim that none of the emails were classified when she sent them. In fact, of 30,000 emails she turned over to the State Department, 110 contained information that was classified at the time she sent or received the messages. One can only conclude that her statements about them were inaccurate, misleading or outright falsehoods. None of those things recommend someone for high office. And while Clinton has said she turned over all of her work-related emails from her time as secretary of state, Comey said the FBI discovered “several thousand” others.

Comey also said it was possible that hostile foreign governments could have gained access to classified materials through Clinton’s conduct. He noted that if she was still employed by the State Department, such behavior would bring disciplinary action. Details like those led to complaints this week that Comey had both cleared and smeared Clinton. But given the politics and timing – with both major party conventions just weeks away – Comey was in a tough position. He made the right call to lay out the agency’s findings in clinical detail. After more than a year of speculation, it was time to let facts speak, as they had a month ago, when the IG’s office released its own findings about the email matter, also highly critical of Clinton.

That agency found that Clinton misrepresented email practices by earlier secretaries of state, failed to provide archives of her work in that role in a timely way (waiting about two years to do so) and generally flouted rules of the record-keeping process. Clinton’s supporters are used to peering through the fog of supposed scandals so long associated with her and with former President Bill Clinton. The most stalwart look past questions of trustworthiness to find an immensely capable and experienced public servant. But even they must wonder.

Along with the Comey’s decision, the Clinton campaign received the gift that keeps on giving: rhetoric from rival Donald Trump that missed an opportunity to portray himself as more trustworthy. Instead, Trump spoke of a “rigged” system and sounded his usual conspiracy trumpet. It is now up to voters to decide what to make of it all. Clinton is far better prepared to hold this office and is still likely to win it. But she didn’t help her cause with reckless handling of her emails. While Bernie Sanders may not have cared about Clinton’s “damn emails,” as he put it in a memorable debate moment, the American people might.