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‘Careless’ emails should harm Clinton, but probably won’t

‘Careless’ emails should harm Clinton, but probably won’t

Besides a distaste for some aspects of globalisation, one thing which unites the most ardent Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump supporters is the desire to see some sudden collapse in support for Hillary Clinton's campaign. 

Despite decrying her 'extremely careless' behaviour, it seems unlikely that Jim Comey will be a deus ex machina for Clinton's opponents on this front. The FBI Director's recommendation earlier this week that criminal charges not be pursued against Clinton for her use of personal email servers while secretary of state has already been taken up by US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who has declared the investigation into the matter closed.

Whether the recently relaunched State Department internal investigation might result in some greater repercussions for Clinton remains to be seen. For now it appears more likely to take to focus on those who aided and abetted her irresponsible communications.

Of course, a lack of criminal charges doesn't preclude any harm to Clinton's reputation. And, as the New York Times best pointed out, Comey and the FBI did tear down some of the claims Clinton and her team had made about the level of risk involved in her email practices, including her statement in August last year that 'I did not send classified material'. At the time, these types of reassurances reduced the email affair to a debate around transparency, rather than one of national security as it now appears.

The FBI found 110 emails in 52 email chains that contained classified information, with seven of these at the top-secret level. 'There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton's position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation,' Comey said. [fold]

Assessments from US national security wonks have generally been in line with Comey. It's difficult to judge the severity of the associated risks without the classified information in question being made available, but the general principle Clinton compromised is significant, particularly in the context of the oft-discussed cyber threat to the US from countries such as China and Iran.

Still, despite often traveling in fits and starts, Clinton's campaign has proven resilient until now. Though the accusations over Clinton and her team's ill-considered behaviour should lead to a significant loss of political capital heading in to the election (particularly for someone who prides herself on being a capable defender of America's national security), it likely won't.

Firstly, the email scandal as a whole has largely failed to have the resonance that Republicans and conspiratorial Sanders supporters flooding online message boards had hoped until now. Early on in the primaries, Sanders himself was exhausted enough by the saturation coverage to tell Clinton that America was 'sick of hearing about your damn emails', a comment greeted with hearty applause. Despite the implications, debates on proper management of information just don't seem to capture public attention; just ask President Obama, who is enjoying impressive end-of-administration approval ratings several years after the far more fateful Snowden revelations.

Secondly, the generally unappealing Trump campaign has definitely lowered the bar for expectations around Clinton heading into November's poll. While she is repeatedly assessed as being 'not honest and trustworthy' and among the least popular major party candidates in American history, she is also routinely beaten for top spot in these rankings by her competitor. 

In addition to his broad unpopularity, Trump is also being consistently exposed as an ineffective politician (likely due to never having been one previously). He has only amassed a fraction of Clinton's campaign funding, and has failed to land any major blows on the topic of Clinton's email server. This is even with the gift-wrapped crash landing of Bill Clinton onto a Phoenix runway ahead of this week's verdict.

Here, the peculiar appeal of the Trump campaign to GOP primary voters (its ability to reduce the issues of the day to their basest, typically through ad hominem and factually deficient attacks) seems a liability in terms of responding to the nuances of the email affair. Trump's failings have in turn limited the increasingly autonomous Republicans in Washington to summoning Comey before a House of Representatives committee to answer further questions. This attempt to spread a sense of outrage will likely prove futile, and will be largely confined to those present. However, should it descend into a Benghazi-like farce, the proceedings might even convince those Democrats unhappy with Clinton's behaviour to fall in behind her by reminding them of the overly partisan and obstructionist forces uncomfortably allied with Trump.

Commenting on the upcoming hearing, House Speaker Paul Ryan said there been 'nothing but stonewalling and dishonesty from Secretary Clinton on this issue'. It's difficult to disagree with that assessment, but this doesn't imply any negative repercussions for Clinton's presidential campaign from the email affair. On this issue, an unpopular and ineffective Trump may be her biggest ally. 

Photo: Getty Images/Mark Wilson

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