Hillary Clinton has never, really, had a good answer for questions about her decision to set up a private email server to handle all of her correspondence during her four years as the nation's top diplomat.
"Convenience" she insisted when the existence of the server first went public. That morphed into a defiance that, eventually and inevitably, turned into an apology for making an innocent and careless mistake. Now, as the political world waits for the findings from the Justice Department's investigation into Clinton's server, the man who beat her in 2008 is offering some guidance to his former foe about how to deal with this whole mess.
"I continue to believe that she has not jeopardized America’s national security," President Obama said during an interview on "Fox News Sunday". He then added (at some length):
Now what I’ve also said is that —and she has acknowledged — that there’s a carelessness, in terms of managing e-mails, that she has owned, and she recognizes.This is a good answer — both now and whenever the Justice Department releases its finding on the email case. (Sidebar: If Justice indicts Clinton, this conversation is pointless because she will — and would need to — drop out of the race.)
But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective. This is somebody who has served her country for four years as secretary of state and did an outstanding job. And no one has suggested that in some ways, as a consequence of how she’s handled e-mails, that that detracted from her excellent ability to carry out her duties.
2. Obama makes the key point that Clinton "would never intentionally" endanger the country with her email setup. Yes, she may have been careless. Yes, she shouldn't have done it. But, no, there wasn't any malice in it. That won't sell with Republicans who believe that Clinton (and her husband) are constantly scheming and dancing on the line of legality. But that's not the target audience because those folks will never be convinced. What Clinton will need to do in the post-Justice-Department-ruling world is assuage doubts that the small percentage of undecided voters have about her and how she has handled this issue. Making clear that there was never an ill intent is a good start.
3. Obama, largely, ignores the specific question host Chris Wallace asked him — "Can you still say flatly that she did not jeopardize America’s secrets?" — and instead goes very broad with his answer about Clinton's record as secretary of state. The case Obama clearly wants to make is that it's unfair to judge Clinton off of one decision. Instead, Obama argues, the email issue should be properly contextualized as a relatively minor mishap in a broader success story for Clinton at the State Department. Again, conservatives and many Republicans won't buy that logic — seeing Clinton's time at State as one disaster after another. Doesn't matter. The key are the people — and, yes, there are still some out there who haven't made up their minds about Clinton and the email issue.
Obama has mostly stayed away from the 2016 campaign. But there's roughly a zero percent chance he's not a) following it closely and b) thinking of how he would have handled certain situations and circumstances that have arisen. Remember that he could have very easily said to Wallace, "I can't and won't comment on an ongoing Justice Department investigation." He didn't do that — for a reason: He wanted to show Clinton how to best handle this coming email decision (or, at a minimum, show Clinton how he would have handled it.)
Yes, of course, Clinton was watching — either live or via DVR. Will she follow the advice Obama passed her way via a national TV interview? We won't know until Justice makes its big announcement.
Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.