For more than five months, Hillary Clinton has been saying that she used a private server and e-mail address as secretary of state purely as a matter of convenience. And her critics, of course, keep expressing skepticism about whether that was her true motivation: Surely, she was instead hiding something—or at best, just keeping her Spidey skills up.
Now, with the Justice Department looking into whether classified information was handled correctly, it may be time for the Democratic presidential front-runner to stop presenting herself as someone whose personal convenience is so paramount that potential security concerns never even occurred to her. Or as someone who, as her communications director Jennifer Palmieri said on With All Due Respect last week, “really didn’t think it through.”
Clinton has worked long and hard to establish herself as strong on national security, which is harder for any Democrat and even more challenging for a woman in her party. She accomplished that feat after serving on the Senate Armed Services Committee and logging four years as our top diplomat. With that memorable, and highly controversial, 2008 campaign ad about a 3 a.m. phone call to the White House, she went to extremes, many Democrats felt, in trying to convince voters that they could rest safe and secure in the knowledge that their children were snug in their beds and Hillary Clinton rather than Barack Obama was in the Oval and on the case.
But if she and her team keep telling us that she doesn’t even want to shoulder the burden of carrying around two phones, eventually someone’s going to believe her and wonder whether the most convenient response to that 3 a.m. phone call wouldn’t be to roll over and go back to sleep. Especially given the long-standing criticism that the Clintons are all about the Clintons, painting herself as someone who does whatever’s easier is an odd political strategy. She’s stuck to it, though, even as her polling numbers fall and Joe Biden considers getting into the race.
In a March news conference at the United Nations, Clinton first told reporters that in exclusively using a private server and personal account for official government business, “I opted for convenience to use my personal e-mail account—which was allowed by the State Department—because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal e-mails instead of two.”
Over and over that day, she said she’d been short-sighted: "Looking back, it would have been better if I'd simply used a second e-mail account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn't seem like an issue."
“I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn’t worked out that way. So I did it for convenience and I now, looking back, think that it might have been smarter to have those two devices from the very beginning.”
Now, of course, the F.B.I. is investigating the security of her server and thumb drives containing work e-mails from her time at State. Yet she’s still thinking it would reassure us somehow to know she was really only doing what suited her at the time:
“What was supposed to be convenient,’’ she said in Las Vegas last week, “has turned out to be anything but convenient.”
Asked if leaders don’t take responsibility, she repeated the formulation: “I take responsibility … in retrospect this didn’t turn out to be convenient at all. And I regret that this had to become such a cause célèbre.”
There's no doubt about that. But did her use of a private server make her communications any less secure? Because it was private, those e-mails that weren’t to a government address wouldn’t have been available under the Freedom of Information Act, as they’re supposed to be. And whether or not she was trying to hide anything in particular, she may also be telling the truth about her underlying motivation, since privacy is always more convenient than a lack of privacy is.