White House alerted to potential Clinton email problem in August – Politico
The White House, State Department and Hillary Clinton’s personal office knew in August that House Republicans had received information showing that the former secretary of state conducted official government business through her private email account — and Clinton’s staff made the decision to keep quiet.
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Sources familiar with the discussions say key people in the Obama administration and on Clinton’s staff were aware that the revelation could be explosive for the all-but-announced candidate for president. But those involved deferred to Clinton’s aides, and they decided not to respond.
In the end, Clinton’s staff waited six months — until after the New York Times published a story on Tuesday about the email account and the possibility that it hampered public access to official records — to begin their response.
Clinton’s slow-off-the-block defense has left many political strategists and observers confused because even a presidential campaign in its early stages should have been prepared to get out ahead of bad news. Had the existence of the email address and private server been made public in August, they say, it could have become a marginal issue in the run-up to the midterm elections, which Democrats badly lost anyway and in which Clinton wasn’t a candidate. But the decision to let it linger has meant it will cast a much larger shadow over Clinton’s expected campaign announcement.
According to the sources, the problem came to light in August as the State Department prepared to respond to a request from the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. State Department officials noticed that some of the 15,000 pages of documents included a personal email address for Clinton, and State and White House officials conferred on how to handle the revelation, which they expected the committee to notice. But they felt that Clinton’s personal staff should take the lead, since she was no longer in government, and Clinton aides decided to wait and see.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill said aides believed the former secretary’s email practices broke no rules and were no cause for concern. Clinton tweeted earlier this week that she wanted all her emails from her tenure as secretary made public.
“There was nothing to get ahead of,” Merrill said. “This was perfectly permissible and the practice of past secretaries, and not only did she turn over all pertinent emails, she has taken the extraordinary step of now asking them to be released to the public. When that’s done, which we hope is soon, it will become clear that it’s all in there and then some.”
As the scandal has grown, White House aides have worked to put distance between the president and the mess. Although Clinton aides have been in touch with the White House about the response in recent days, the situation has put the White House in the uncomfortable position of having to defend the expected presidential candidate because her own staff has left a public vacuum—setting up a potentially precarious dynamic between staffers for Clinton, who have traditionally been reluctant to engage with reporters and aides, and aides to President Barack Obama. Between the two camps, animosity buried after their 2008 primary campaign occasionally flares up.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest took care to point out that Obama himself was unaware of any issues with Clinton’s email. “The expectation of the president is that everybody throughout his administration is acting in compliance with the Federal Records Act,” Earnest said on Wednesday.
The White House does not have Clinton’s full email record, and was only made aware of the situation with her account after receiving the standard notification that a congressional committee had asked for, and received, documents from any agency, he said.
“The White House doesn’t have it and so can’t speak to it,” said one person familiar with the situation.
It’s not clear when Republicans recognized the potentially damaging information in the emails. Though emails with the personal address were among the Benghazi documents the State Department produced in August, it wasn’t until November 18 that the House Select Committee specifically mentioned her private account, in a new request for documents from Clinton and other senior State Department officials.
“The Department is committed to working with the Select Committee,” said a senior State Department official. “We have been in constant, often daily contact with the Committee as we have tried to make the Committee’s priorities our own.”
The official said that State has “long had access to a wide array of Secretary Clinton’s records — including emails between her and Department officials with state.gov accounts as well as cables.”