Hillary Clinton's Use of a Private Email Server Perfectly Explains Why People Don't Trust Her

The Democratic presidential candidate ignored the rules when she set up the system-and has refused to play it straight during the investigation.



Details about Hillary Clinton's exclusive reliance on a privately run email server during her tenure at the State Department have dribbled out in tiny drips over the last year or so, but now you can find most of the crucial information in a single story, courtesy of a massive investigative piece in The Washington Post.  

The story provides a few new details but mostly serves as an extended roundup. Taken all together it's fairly damning: Whether or not she actually broke the law, the story suggests that her decision to circumvent the State Department's official email system entirely (she conducted all of her email correspondence through her private address via an unsecured Blackberry) while serving as Secretary of State was, at minimum, legally dubious. And even if Clinton didn't break the law, the decisions that she and her senior staff made reveal serious errors in judgment, as well a general sense of disdain on her part for transparency and accountability. It is a story that perfectly captures all of the reasons that people don't trust her.

Let's start with the legal question. According to The Post, various specialists interviewed for the story said her practices didn't fulfill government records requirements. In particular, Jason Baron, the former litigation director at the National Archives and Records Administration—someone, in other words, whose job is to know the finer points of government records retention requirements and make legal judgments about them—told a Senate committee that "the setting up of and maintaining a private email network as the sole means to conduct official business by email, coupled with the failure to timely return email records into government custody, amounts to actions plainly inconsistent with the federal recordkeeping laws." Saying that Clinton's behavior was "plainly inconsistent" with federal laws sounds an awful lot like a long way of saying that it was illegal.

The setup involved shady staffing too. The server at her home was maintained by Bryan Pagliano, a technology staffer at her presidential campaign and political action committee. After Clinton took office at the State Department, Pagliano was hired on as a political appointee in its IT department. That alone is unusual and probably unprecedented. As the Post reports, "officials in the IT division have told investigators they could not recall previously hiring a political appointee."

At the same time that he was working as a political appointee at State, he was also moonlighting as Clinton's private tech help, working on her email setup. His managers at State say they didn't know about the arrangement. When Pagliano was called to testify about Clinton's email setup before a Senate committee, his attorney said that he would plead the Fifth Amendment under questioning. Since then, he's been granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for cooperating with Justice Department investigators. 

This isn't just a legal question, though. It's also a political question, because Clinton is the Democratic party's all-but-certain presidential nominee, and the incident speaks to the way that Clinton makes decisions.

Even if Clinton didn't break the law, she certainly showed tremendously poor judgment in choosing to use a personal Blackberry connected to a privately run email server—housed at her residence in New York state—for her State Department business.

Although she didn't use the BlackBerry inside the secure space surrounding her State Department office, she traveled with it, despite blatant warnings about the risks of doing so. According to the Post, State Department security officials put together a memo warning her of the security risks of using an unsecured BlackBerry, following a speech by counterintelligence official Joel Brenner that basically said that government BlackBerrys had been hacked during the Beijing Olympics. Shortly after the memo was discussed with Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, Clinton took an extended overseas trip and, of course, brought her BlackBerry along. In other words, she ignored clear and direct warnings about the risks that her actions posed.

Beyond the potential security issues, it's hard to see her decision to ignore those warnings as anything other than a flagrant display of arrogance and personal privilege. The security team that briefed Mills had, among other things, indicated that Clinton's use of her personal device would set a "bad example" for other State Department employees. In a separate incident in 2011, the Post reports, a memo was sent out to State Department employees warning of "online adversaries" and instructing them to "avoid conducting official Department business from your personal email accounts."

That memo was signed by Hillary Clinton herself. But she didn't follow the instructions she delivered to her own staff.

So Clinton was warned about the security risks, warned that her behavior would set a bad example, warned that was she was doing was in violation of guidelines and expectations that others were expected to follow. But she didn't want to play by the rules.

And when she was called on it, she and her loyalists have been just as dismissive of oversight efforts—and come across as just as untrustworthy in the process

When news about her email first broke, Clinton insisted that there was no classified material at all on her private server. But there's no question at this point that an awful lot of classified material passed through her system. More than 2,000 of the emails she eventually handed over to the State Department had some classified information, and 22 of the emails were deemed so sensitive that they weren't released at all, even in redacted form. These were not some run of the mill, low-level classifications. 

Later, a spokesperson for her campaign defended her by saying "she was at worst a passive recipient of unwitting information that subsequently became deemed as classified." But according to a Post analysis, more than 100 of the classified emails on the server were written by Clinton herself. She's hardly a "passive" and "unwitting" recipient.

Nor were the emails marked classified after the fact. After a State Department inspector general report found several classified emails in a small sample, the IG reported that "these emails were not retro­actively classified by the State Department." 

Clinton eventually released about half the emails on her server (the rest, she says, were personal in nature) to the State Department, and she has patted herself on the back for eventually handing over the emails, declaring that she went "above and beyond" and "had no obligation" to turn over her communications. That is not true. As a federal employee, she was supposed to have turned over all her emails before leaving office. She at one point claimed on CNN that she'd never received a subpoena related to the emails. That's also not true. There's a copy of the subpoena online for all to see.

It's no wonder that so few people find Clinton trustworthy. Nearly 60 percent of Americans don't consider her trustworthy. In a Bloomberg Politics last week, just 25 percent of respondents said that she was the most trustworthy Democratic presidential candidate in the race, compared with 64 percent who picked her rival, Bernie Sanders.

Even if you don't think that Clinton's email setup was wrong, it's clear at this point that it was unusual and represented a bending, at least, if not a breaking of the requirements for government officials. It's the sort of thing that should provoke questions and investigations.

But when called on it, she responded with dissembling and misleading statements, and by praising herself for taking only the most minimally required steps to comply with oversight. This may be the most important revelation from the entire episode: Not only was Clinton willing to ignore the rules—the same rules that she expected others to follow—in setting up her homebrew email server, she's proven unable or unwilling to fully and truthfully account for her actions in the aftermath. It's almost as if Clinton doesn't want people to trust her. If that's the intended effect, well, she's been pretty successful so far.