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About Those 33,000 Hillary Clinton E-Mails: QuickTake Q&A

"I will release my tax returns, against my lawyer’s wishes, when she releases her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted," Donald Trump said at the first presidential debate, continuing to hammer Hillary Clinton for using a private e-mail system while serving as U.S. secretary of state. After initially downplaying the matter, Clinton now says it "was a mistake" to use a private e-mail server. For months, Republicans have expressed the hope that she’d be indicted for passing classified information in non-governmental e-mails. Though prosecutors declined to charge her, Clinton’s e-mail decision-making remains a top vulnerability for her in the presidential election.

1. What are the 33,000 deleted e-mails?

Through her personal account,, Clinton sent or received about 60,000 messages while U.S. secretary of state from 2009 to 2013. About half of those, deemed work-related by Clinton’s lawyers, were turned over to the State Department and have been released in redacted form. The balance -- between 32,000 and 33,000, the ones Trump refers to -- were deleted from Clinton’s server after being deemed personal in nature.

2. Personal in what way?

Clinton said the e-mails deleted at her direction involved "planning Chelsea’s wedding or my mother’s funeral arrangements, condolence notes to friends as well as yoga routines, family vacations, the other things you typically find in inboxes." But FBI Director James Comey said Clinton’s lawyers merely screened for relevant terms in “header” information at the top of the e-mails to determine which messages were personal and which were work-related.

3. So those e-mails are gone for good?

Not necessarily. FBI specialists managed to recover about 15,000 deleted e-mails from the server. Of those, about 5,600 were deemed work-related, though many are duplicates of e-mails Clinton had already turned over. Under a judge’s order, the State Department is to release batches of those additional work-related e-mails on Oct. 7, Oct. 21 and Nov. 4, as well as after the Nov. 8 election.

4. Was Clinton permitted to delete the e-mails?

A technician with a company that managed the server after Clinton left office, Platte River Networks, deleted an archive of her e-mails in March 2015, using a program called BleachBit. Weeks earlier, a House committee had ordered that all e-mails be preserved. The technician told the FBI that he had been instructed to delete the e-mails in December 2014 and had forgotten to do so before having what he called an "‘oh s--t moment.’" The FBI’s Comey concluded the technician hadn’t sought to cover up wrongdoing.

5. Can Clinton release all 33,000 e-mails, as Trump demands?

The day after the debate, Trump said he’s "sure she could get" the deleted e-mails if she so chooses. But nobody can release deleted e-mails if they’re really deleted. In a 2015 letter to a congressional committee, Clinton’s lawyer, David E. Kendall, said no e-mails remained on Clinton’s server "or on any back-up systems."

6. Did Clinton break the law?

The FBI investigated whether classified information was included in her e-mails. The case was closed by the Justice Department after Comey determined that "no reasonable prosecutor" would file criminal charges. Yet he said that Clinton and her staff had been "extremely careless," a finding that continues to hurt her.

The Reference Shelf

  • A Bloomberg story on Clinton’s eight BlackBerrys.
  • A Bloomberg story on 22 e-mails withheld from release because they included top-secret information.
  • A Bloomberg story on the "(c)" marks on some of the e-mails.
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