Nine days and one tense press conference later, where does the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private email account as secretary of state go from here?
Democrats familiar with Clinton’s response effort, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity, said the former secretary of state would like to put the issue behind her and not address it again -- at least until she announces a presidential campaign sometime next month. Her allies feel Clinton performed about as well as possible at her United Nations face off with the press Tuesday, and see the story as moving from a media-driven inquisition into government transparency to the safer terrain of partisan politics.
“Now the tables are turned,” said one Democrat who has been in communication with Clinton’s team during the controversy. “Now it's just about politics -- and even worse, partisan politics.”
A story that began with a headline in The New York Times declaring Clinton may have broken the law has now evolved into one about an effort by Republicans to pressure Clinton to turn over her personal emails. "Now it’s not The New York Times versus Hillary Clinton, it’s Trey Gowdy and Jason Chaffetz versus Hillary Clinton, and that’s more comfortable ground,” said another well-informed Clinton ally of the two Republican lawmakers leading the charge to get Clinton turn over a private email server she used as secretary of state.
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And Democrats on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, who were getting increasingly nervous as their party’s presumed presidential nominee kept everyone in the dark while controversy built to a fever pitch, seem ready to close ranks behind Clinton after she explained herself. “All of this, I think, is politics. I think it is sad,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer on MSNBC, whose California colleague in the Senate called on Clinton to explain her emails three days ago. “Let's move on to what's important the people here.”
Republicans, of course, are nowhere near satisfied. But that’s inevitable, say Clinton allies, some of whom lived through the grueling 1990s congressional investigations of the Clinton White House. And more the GOP cranks up the legal pressure, the more controversy starts to resemble a partisan witch hunt, say Clinton allies.
Clinton’s strategy, however, relies on cooperation from the press to lose interest in the story and leave Republicans as the sole inquisitors.
There was little evidence of that Wednesday, however. Clinton’s press conference landed the front page of every major national newspaper in the country and dominated cable news and social media chatter. The coveraged -- including msnbc -- focused on questions Clinton did not answer. And the generally staid AP announced it would sue the State Department to gain access to Clinton’s emails.
But in the absence of new reporting and fresh revelations, it’s unclear how long the story can continue to sustain itself. If Clinton spoke about it again, it would only feed oxygen to a smoldering fire, the thinking of those close to her goes.
Asked Wednesday if he thought the issue was closed, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters, “Ultimately, I think it will be up to all of you to make your own determinations about how secretary Clinton has resolved this matter.”
Clinton has three more events scheduled before her a widely expected campaign launch in April. On Monday in New York, she'll be inducted into the Irish America Hall of Fame, and then on Thursday, she gives a paid speech in New Jersey. Her final event, in Washington the following week, will be to present a journalism award. Her standard protocol is to not make herself available to the press.
Republicans, meanwhile, want Clinton to turn over her email server to a neutral third party who can verify that she gave the State department any work related messages. Clinton has no interest in doing that. “The server will remain private,” she said Tuesday.
So where does that leave the GOP? Gowdy said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” Wednesday that his committee “doesn't have the power” to seize Clinton’s private server. But, he continued, the House of Representative as a whole might: “That's frankly an open constitutional question,” he said.
Gowdy has already sent out subpoenas for Clinton’s emails related to Benghazi and legal experts think House Republicans probably have legal grounds to pursue the server.
"I don't see any fundamental constitutional reason why, presented with what they see as a recalcitrant witness, they cannot legally compel the server to be turned over to the Committee and forensically searched for all of the documents that are relevant to the congressional inquiry into Benghazi,” said David Rivkin, a partner with BakerHostetler who served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel's Office under Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Daron Watts, a partner at Sidley Austin who deals with congressional investigations, said it might take a new House resolution to expand lawmakers’ authority to pursue Clinton’s personal emails, but that the House could probably compel her turn over her server if they were willing to push hard enough. “The House has broad authority for oversight and investigation of these types of matters. And it's been confirmed by the Supreme Court of the United States on a number of cases,” Watts said.
Politically, however, it would be a dramatic and unprecedented move with potentially explosive consequences. Clinton has handed Republicans a gift with the private emails, but it’s one that could explode in their face if if they go too far and spark a backlash. “They are always at risk for overstepping,” former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele told MSNBC Wednesday. “I think this is a lot of noise about nothing, since the extent American people haven't really tuned in on this.”
That’s especially true for questions on the Benghazi terror attack, a controversy to which few Americans are paying attention and which primarily interests Republican voters. But the House Oversight Committee, led by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, moved quickly to prepare new subpoenas for Clinton’s emails Wednesday afternoon.
When Democrats controlled Congress and probed Karl Rove’s use of a non-official email account in the Gorge W. Bush White House, they never subpoenaing the server he used at the Republican National Committee.
Clinton’s husband emerged from the apotheosis of the 1990s partisan investigations -- impeachment -- with the highest approval rating of his tenure in the White House, and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was forced to resign for overplaying his hand. Democrats are ready for Republicans to make a similar mistake. “The Republican party is turning into the email police and at some point the American people are going to get scared of that,” Sen. Barbara Boxer told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell.
Clinton, making a direct appeal for sympathy from Americans Tuesday, said, “No one wants their personal emails made public.”
Clinton’s allies already have a ready-made argument for anyone going hoping to make Clinton’s private emails public: Show us yours too. On Wednesday, David Brock, a top outside Clinton ally, sent a letter to Gowdy arguing that as long as he wants Clintons’ emails, Gowdy should turn over his as well.
“That was tip of the spear,” said another Democrat familiar with Clinton’s response. “Every time somebody makes the argument that she held something back when she made the decision on public versus private, she's going to ask to see their private emails.”
Nonetheless, Republicans in the House, who have already sued President Obama over healthcare and immigration, and voted to hold his attorney general in contempt, may see narrow political gain in pursuing Clinton’s server with their full legal might. Many hail from deeply conservative gerrymandered districts where primary challenges are a bigger threat than primaries, and subpoenaing Clinton would likely play well with the base.
And some Democrats think she's hardly out of the woods yet. Said one Clinton Wednesday, "I'm glad yesterday's over, but I'm not sure today's much better."