As far as the FBI is concerned, it’s case closed.
But not so for Hillary Clinton’s Republican opponents. And criminal charges or not, voters should expect another 100 or so days of political recriminations over her controversial email habits ahead of November’s general election.
The national security agency on Tuesday cleared Clinton of criminal wrongdoing for using private email servers while Secretary of State.
The favourable outcome for Clinton came just days before she’s expected to be anointed the Democratic presidential nominee at the party’s convention in Philadelphia.
But Republicans weren’t waiting for the Department of Justice to make its final judgment, instead pouncing on the FBI’s reprimand that Clinton’s office was “extremely careless” in its handling of classified information.
That sound bite may have been damning enough.
“This is a clear indictment,” says Republican analyst Paris Dennard, a former White House consultant for president George W. Bush. “It’s a clear indictment of her judgment, which is what she’s running on.”
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump issued statements following the decision, asking, “What is Hillary Clinton hiding?” He also questioned the timing of the FBI press conference.
“It was no accident that charges were not recommended against Hillary the exact same day as President Obama campaigns with her for the first time,” Trump’s statement says.
He also cast suspicion on Bill Clinton’s meeting on the tarmac with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, five days before she was to be interviewed by investigators.
‘Rules just don’t apply’
To Dennard, the FBI’s decision to not recommend criminal charges against Clinton advances a popular theory among conservatives — that “the system is rigged.”
“There’s a veiled, dark cloud of suspicion about her government, and the American people think this is unfair, that the rules just don’t apply,” he says.
To the FBI, at least, it seems Clinton made an honest mistake.
It took a year and a half, as much as $13,000 a day sifting through a “jigsaw puzzle” of more than 30,000 emails, heated public testimony and thousands of man hours for the agency to reach its conclusions, which Director James Comey outlined for reporters Tuesday.
In a blunt assessment of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s actions, Comey said seven email chains containing “top secret” material were transmitted, despite the fact that “any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position … should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
Investigators found 110 emails in 52 email chains that contained “classified information at the time they were sent or received.”
What the FBI did not uncover was “intentional misconduct.”
Clinton has been eager to put the episode behind her. The campaign issued a statement saying it was pleased that “this matter is now resolved” and conceding — as Clinton has many times — that her use of personal email for official business was “a mistake.”
Republicans played down her exoneration, instead focusing on the FBI’s conclusion that her department was “lacking in the kind of care” that other departments take concerning classified materials.
“Will Hillary Clinton have the same reckless judgment when it comes to nuclear codes?” Dennard says. “This reinforces the theme that she cannot be trusted. This was not some slap on the wrist. This was some serious language.”
Intelligence experts have cautioned against presuming too much about the sensitivity of the information that may have been communicated via Clinton’s private email servers.
That’s because “over-classification” of documents is so rampant, says Elizabeth Goitein, a national security analyst and co-director of the Brennan Center for Justice.
‘The only thing that would’ve been an indictment of Secretary Clinton is an actual indictment.’– Stephen Vladeck, national security expert, University of Texas
Between 50 and 90 per cent of “classified” documents could actually be safely released, according to estimates from former government officials, Goitein says.
An email acknowledging the existence of the U.S. “targeted killing program,” for instance, would have been considered highly classified, despite the existence of the program being widely known, Goitein says.
There’s also a big difference between criminal intent and negligence, argues Stephen Vladeck, an expert on national security law with the University of Texas. That difference likely won’t make a large impact on her polling.
Though Vladeck doesn’t doubt Republicans will find a way to keep the email scandal alive, “the only thing that would’ve been an indictment of Secretary Clinton is an actual indictment,” he says.
Clinton can at least breathe a sigh of relief over avoiding prosecution.
The bottom line, Democratic strategist Craig Varoga says, is that the email controversy “is no longer a legal football, it’s going to be a political football,” something that could be far less politically damaging over the next four months.
As far as Trump’s claims of a “rigged system” favouring establishment Democrats, Varoga files those under the same “wild accusations” Trump has made in pushing the Obama “birther” conspiracy as well as assertions that Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of former president John F. Kennedy.
“Everybody and their mother knew Trump was going to say this was ‘rigged,'” he says. “We’re somewhere like 125 days from the election, and we’re going to have at least 100 more days of this. But make no mistake about it: the fact they found no evidence whatsoever means Trump has less ground from which to stand today.”