In March 2015, when The New York Times first reported that Hillary Clinton relied on a personal email account and server as secretary of state, she insisted "there is no classified material" in the emails she sent and received through that account. A few months later, she modified that defense, saying, "I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time." A month after that, she said she never "received anything marked 'classified.'" Now that it turns out none of those statements was true, Clinton's new position is that she "had no reason to believe that those emails were classified."
Clinton's campaign manager, Robby Mook, and her campaign press secretary, Brian Fallon, both used that formulation during interviews on MSNBC yesterday, trying to explain in what sense her false public statements about the emails were "truthful," as she described them in a jaw-dropping Fox News interview on Sunday. Although what she said was not true, the latest defense goes, she thought it was, so she was truthful.
Mook and Fallon noted that FBI Director James Comey, in his congressional testimony last month, said, "We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI." Although Mook thinks that means "everything she said to the FBI was true," that does not follow, since Clinton could have said false things she thought were true. In fact, according to Mook, that is what happened. "What she said to the FBI is the same as what she said [to the general public]," Mook said. If so, she said things to the FBI that the FBI determined were not true.
Although Comey repeatedly said there was not enough evidence to charge Clinton with deliberately misleading the FBI (a felony), he also repeatedly refused to say whether he thought Clinton deliberately misled the public. "That's a question I'm not qualified to answer," he said. "I really don't want to get in the business of trying to parse and judge her public statements."
While Clinton may not have been consciously lying in her initial public statements about the email controversy, she was at the very least reckless with the facts, saying things she hoped were true rather than things she knew to be true. Comey likewise found that she was "extremely careless" and "negligent" in her handling of "very sensitive, highly classified information," although he did not find enough evidence to accuse her of deliberately breaking the law. While gross negligence would have been enough for a criminal charge under 18 USC 793, Comey said applying that standard to Clinton would have been unfair, since there has been only one such prosecution in the century since the statute was enacted.
That does not mean it is unfair for voters to judge Clinton by her negligence with classified information. In his July 5 statement explaining his decision not to recommend criminal charges against Clinton, Comey had this to say about an email chain that included classified material: "There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton's position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation." He added that "even if information is not marked 'classified' in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it."
In her Fox News Sunday interview, Clinton tried to pass the blame to her underlings:
I was communicating with over 300 people in my e-mailing. They certainly did not believe and had no reason to believe that what they were sending was classified….
I relied on and had every reason to rely on the judgments of the professionals with whom I worked. And so, in retrospect, maybe some people are saying, well, among those 300 people, they made the wrong call.
At the time, there was no reason in my view to doubt the professionalism and the determination by the people who work every single day on behalf of our country.
Fallon repeated that defense yesterday, saying the classified emails "were sent to her by people that know the difference between what's classified and what's not, so she was acting entirely in good faith and had no reason to believe that those emails were classified." That's one way of looking at it. Another way: Clinton should have known that by insisting on using her personal email system for all of her electronic communication as secretary of state, contrary to her department's policy, she ran the risk of exposing classified information. Whether her choices actually endangered national security or not, they demonstrated a fear of transparency and an arrogant disregard for the rules everyone else is expected to follow—running themes of Clinton's career.
Clinton's attempts to minimize or explain away her carelessness with classified material have demonsrated a carelessness with the truth that is troubling in its own right. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler gave her latest performance Four Pinocchios, a rating reserved for "whoppers."
Defending that whopper yesterday, Mook emphasized that Clinton, after initially dismissing the email flap as inconsequential, eventually admitted she had erred. But he refused to specify the nature of the error—whether she regretted dodging the Freedom of Information Act, for instance, or felt bad about flouting the State Department's rules for handling sensitive information. "She has said this was a mistake," Mook said. "She's apologized. Obviously, it's created a lot of complications, a lot of difficulty, and she regrets it." It sounds like Clinton's only regret is getting caught.