Why did Hillary Clinton handle her email account the way she did? Generally speaking, the focus has been on the possibility that she wanted to keep her official emails on a private server so they wouldn’t be accessible to the public via FOIA requests. I think this is probably wrong, but before I explain why, I want to lay out the following fact pattern:
- In 2009, when Clinton took office, the State Department was willing to issue her an official BlackBerry with a state.gov address, but the device wasn’t allowed to connect to a personal email account. Likewise, a personal device could connect to a personal account, but not to a state.gov account.1 So if Clinton didn’t want to haul around two devices, her only choice was to use a personal BlackBerry and conduct official business on a personal account. That’s what she decided to do.
- This was a dumb and fateful choice. So was her decision to use a single email account instead of two separate accounts for work and personal business. Why did she do it? It’s impossible to say for sure, but there’s abundant evidence that Clinton was almost completely technically illiterate. She had virtually no experience even using a computer, and frequently discarded new BlackBerries after a few days because she was frustrated that they worked differently than her old one. She had no computer on her desk. She was famously confused by her iPad. Like a lot of people, she basically treated email like magic: you type some words, press a button, and your words end up somewhere else. All the intricacies of protocols and servers and intermediate storage and backups were like so much Greek to her.
- That said, Clinton was well aware that her department emails were official records and had to be retained. The evidence makes it very clear she knew this. What’s more, while her use of a private server may not have been known widely, there were plenty of people who did know. It’s hard to believe that she did this with FOIA in mind, since a non-government email account would have been a spectacularly stupid and ineffective way to try to avoid FOIA requests.
- Clinton did in fact retain all of her emails on her private server. When the State Department asked for them, she turned everything over to them promptly, with no hedging or negotiation.
- There’s been lots of feverish speculation that Clinton may have deleted some official emails before turning them over to State, but there’s no evidence that this ever happened. In fact, it’s harder than it sounds to do this. If you delete an email—and its stored copy and its backup—and that email is referenced from another email, you’re busted. If there’s an email chain that suddenly ends without having been resolved, you’re busted. If there’s an unexplained “18-minute gap” in the email IDs, you’re busted. If Clinton or her aides had deleted a bunch of embarrassing emails, they’d have to be very, very careful to make sure there was no evidence of a “missing” email anywhere in the stuff she turned over. That would require a lot of extremely careful work.
- As it happens, a number of Clinton’s emails have been recovered that were missing from the material she handed over to State. Did she or her aides deliberately withhold them? Not a single one of them has been even remotely suspicious or embarrassing, so it hardly seems likely. After all, why delete innocuous emails?
- In November 2010, Clinton’s BlackBerry was malfunctioning and her staff suggested getting an official State BlackBerry. In response, Clinton wrote, “Let’s get separate address or device but I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible.”
When you put all this together, it leads to an obvious conclusion: Hillary Clinton did want to protect her emails from FOIA, but the emails she was concerned about were her personal emails. Unfortunately, her initial decision to use only a single email account—probably because she was technically illiterate and simply didn’t understand why this was such a bad idea—turned everything into a circus. Before turning her records over to State, she had to carefully pull out all the personal emails and then make it clear that she wanted them deleted so they could never, ever be retrieved. Her experience led her to believe that personal or not, if they were somehow accessible they would be subpoenaed and leaked and everyone would go bananas over them.
So her staff complied. Once the official emails had all been turned over, they ordered the electronic records deleted, the hard disks erased with BleachBit, and the backups destroyed, along with a new retention policy that all of Clinton’s personal emails would be deleted after 60 days. This was done not because there were missing official emails they wanted to hide, but because they wanted to make sure Clinton’s personal emails were well and truly gone.
I believe the fact pattern of Clinton’s email usage fits this conclusion far better than any other. We’ve now seen tens of thousands of Clinton’s official emails—more than we’ve ever seen from any other high-level federal official—and they’re boring as hell. We’ve seen emails that were deleted and then recovered from other people’s accounts. They’re boring as hell. The vast bulk of them are short conversations with a handful of close aides, and are largely restricted to the tedious minutiae of press releases, talking points, schedules, and other day-to-day matters.
What’s more, paranoia over exposure of her personal emails fits perfectly what we know about Clinton’s character. She distrusts Republicans in Congress, she distrusts the press, and she feels that both will take any chance they can to embarrass her with out-of-context leaks of her personal life. Whether or not you think this attitude is justified, it’s unquestionably the attitude she has.
One final note: I’m a partisan. I’m keenly aware that I’m motivated to find innocent explanations for Clinton’s actions—partly because I like her, and partly because I don’t think she’s shifty and scheming. Obviously you have to take this into account. Nonetheless, I think the evidence pretty clearly points in one direction: Hillary Clinton was concerned about her personal emails being made public, and after her initial bad decision to use a single account for everything she was stuck. Anything she did to erase her personal emails would inevitably affect her official emails too. She never cared about those, but everyone else did.
1I think this is true. If anyone knows different, let me know.