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Hillary Clinton fails Damage Control 101

No matter how much she tries to “put all of this behind her,” Clinton still can’t seem to get the politics right.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses as she is introduced to speak at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015. (Photo by Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton pauses as she is introduced to speak at the Brookings Institution in Washington on Sept. 9, 2015.

Take an objective look at Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and one question comes repeatedly to mind: “What is she thinking?”

From the very beginning of the revelations about Clinton’s email server, her campaign has been losing altitude and nobody appears to be at the controls. Now, five months later, a growing number of Democrats are starting to actively and publicly consider “anyone but Hillary.” It's no fluke that former Vice President Al Gore's name just “pops up” for consideration (really?) or that self-described socialist Bernie Sanders is now leading Clinton in New Hampshire and steadily gaining ground in Iowa. Vice President Joe Biden is seriously mulling a run and is being encouraged to do so by donors and the Obama administration. And, for the first time, polls are starting to show Clinton falling below 50% support with primary voters.

No matter how much she tries to “put all of this behind her,” Clinton can’t seem to get the politics right.

"Presidential campaigns, as Clinton should know by now, have a dynamic all their own. And for her, that dynamic is suffocating her campaign."'

It’s no surprise that Clinton is coming under increasing fire for her use of a private email address and server as secretary of state -- and the possibility that top-secret materials were exchanged on the unsecured system. With investigators recently seizing control of the server and a thumb drive containing 30,000 work-related emails from her lawyer, the once “non-story” has become the defining narrative of the Clinton campaign -- forcing more and more Democrats into a panic over her viability as a candidate for the presidency.

Going into this scandal, the Clinton campaign had three options: deny it, ignore it, or tell her side of it. And she’s done all three -- horribly. From the quintessential Clintonian dismissal of such matters (“It’s not about Benghazi. It’s not about emails or a server either. It’s about politics.”) to her painful tone deafness regarding the potentially lethal impact on her campaign ("You may have seen that I have recently launched a Snapchat account … I love it — those messages disappear all by themselves."), to her contrite recognition that perhaps the public was taking this more seriously than she was (“I should have used two emails – one personal, one for work – and I take responsibility for that decision."), Clinton’s message has been anything but clarifying.

RELATED: Hillary Clinton's apology evolution

Presidential campaigns, as Clinton should know by now, have a dynamic all their own. And for her, that dynamic is suffocating her campaign.

Despite protestations from the media and pleas from party loyalists, the former secretary of state shrugged her shoulders and waved off the growing concerns in Democratic circles regarding her use of the server and the drag it was beginning to have on her campaign. That is, until three letters changed everything: F.B.I. The fact that the Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an inquiry into Clinton’s emails is, as Progressives Today put it, “a disaster for Democrats.”

This will be no cakewalk for the Obama administration either. With his vice president looking to challenge Clinton and his Justice Department investigating her, when and how this probe concludes could have huge ramifications for the Democratic Party.

The politics of investigating, let alone prosecuting a presidential candidate, is a nightmare for Clinton and the administration, and the law makes that all the more difficult to avoid. According to the Espionage Act (which is a part of the U.S. criminal code), it is a crime for any government employee, through “gross negligence,” to allow national defense information “to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted or destroyed.”

Moreover, in October, 2009, an update to The U.S. Code of federal regulations on handling electronic records made clear: “Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system.” One would think that someone in Clinton’s inner circle would have pointed out that setting up and maintaining a private email server is not the same as preserving her emails in the State Department’s recordkeeping system. Remember, General David Petraeus was prosecuted, fined and given two years probation for allowing his girlfriend to see classified information.

A criminal probe that seemed unlikely just a few months ago is now very real, and the political fallout for Clinton is palpable.

And therein lies Clinton's problem: she can’t do the politics. Political common sense (a.k.a Damage Control 101) should have told her to turn over the server sooner and to get out in front of this story (the one thing you never want to do in politics is play catch up. Instead she pushed off the press and played hide and seek with crucial pieces of evidence, ultimately hurting her in the eyes of the public and emboldening her opponents to raise questions about her emails.

RELATED: Biden climbs in new national poll

More importantly for Clinton, when the public views you as untrustworthy, your problems may be bigger than you think. In the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, when voters were asked to name the first word that came to mind about Clinton, the top three replies were “liar,” “dishonest” and “untrustworthy.” Do Democrats really believe the country wants to elect someone they don’t trust and consider to be a liar?

At this point, it’s not so much that Clinton is beatable in the Democratic primary, it’s that she is beating herself -- leaving Sanders and Biden well-positioned to take the nomination if she continues to give it away. That’s politics.

Michael Steele is the former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and a political analyst at MSNBC.