When the political world's interest in Hillary Clinton's State Department emails was near its peak, the Washington Post's Chris Cillizza defended the media's fascination with the story. "Democrats, ask yourself this," Cillizza wrote in August. "If this was a former [Republican Secretary of State] and his/her private e-mail server, would it be a 'non-story'?"
As a rule, I continue to believe that's a smart way for political observers to look at every story. If the situations were reversed, how would you react to a controversy? If the accusations targeted someone you detest, as opposed to someone you like, would you see the story as legitimate?
The problem in this case, however, is that Cillizza's question wasn't really a hypothetical. We learned nearly a year ago from a Politico article that former Secretary of State Colin Powell "also used a personal email account" during his State Department tenure. Several months later, MSNBC found that Powell conducted official business from his personal email account managed through his personal laptop.
"But wait," Clinton's critics in the media and Republican circles protest, "what about emails that were later deemed to include sensitive information?" NBC News reports today that both of the Bush/Cheney-era Secretaries of State fall into the same category.
State Department officials have determined that classified information was sent to the personal email accounts of former Secretary of State Colin Powell and the senior staff of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, NBC News has learned. [...] In a letter to Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy dated Feb. 3, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick said that the State Department has determined that 12 emails examined from State's archives contained national security information now classified "Secret" or "Confidential." The letter was read to NBC News.
According to the report, of those 12 emails, two were sent to Powell's personal account, while the other 10 were sent to personal accounts of senior aides to Condoleezza Rice.
None of this is to suggest Powell or Rice's office is guilty of wrongdoing. In fact, Powell told NBC News the messages in question include information that's "fairly minor."
There's no reason whatsoever to believe otherwise.
The political salience of news like this, however, is that Clinton's critics would like voters to believe she's at the center of some damaging "scandal" because of her approach to email management. These new details suggest Clinton's practices were fairly common, and unless Republicans and the media are prepared to start condemning Powell and Rice with equal vigor -- an unlikely scenario -- it's starting to look like this entire line of attack lacks merit.
Or as the NBC News report put it, the new findings "show that past secretaries of state and senior officials used personal accounts to conduct government business and occasionally allowed secrets to spill into the insecure traffic."
As for Chris Cillizza's question -- if were talking about a former Republican Secretary of State, would it be a "non-story" -- it would appear the answer is, "Yep."
Postscript: Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement this morning, "Based on this new revelation, it is clear that the Republican investigations [into Clinton's emails] are nothing more than a transparent political attempt to use taxpayer funds to target the Democratic candidate for president."