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The Hillary Clinton Email Scandal in a Nutshell

hillary clinton email scandal

Why did Hillary Clinton use a personal email address when she was Secretary of State? (Wikimedia Commons)

Remember that "Texts from Hillary" meme that was making the rounds a few years ago?

Turns out, Clinton wasn't always texting on that BlackBerry. She was also sending emails from a private account rather than a government-issued email address, and it's come back to bite her, big time.

This may not seem like a big deal to you -- after all, the rest of us use personal email all the time. However, the standards are different for government officials. Email correspondence sent by government officials is supposed to be readily available via the Freedom of Information Act. You know, in the name of transparency and record keeping and all that good stuff. But when she was Secretary of State, Clinton used a personal email address … only. Meaning she didn't use her .gov address. Nope - she used not only a personal email address, but also an unsecure private server set up in her house.

This is a pretty questionable practice, considering that the Secretary of State is the United States' top diplomat, responsible for maintaining relationships with other countries, which includes highly sensitive negotiations.

This revelation is raising more than a few eyebrows.

But the Clinton email scandal also isn't as cut-and-dried as it might initially seem. Here's what you need to know.

Back up. What's going on?

It all started when The New York Times ran a story on Monday saying Hillary Clinton--the former first lady, former Senator from New York, and former Secretary of State--exclusively used a private email address during her time as Secretary of State, instead of using a government email address. Her private email address was hillary@clintonemail.com.

The Times said this was a serious breach of federal law, which requires all emails to be sent from a government email address, both for security purposes for archiving.

Did Clinton break the law?

A quick look at the timeline of events suggests that she probably didn't break any laws. Here's why.

  • Hillary Clinton became SecState on January 21, 2009.
  • In 2011, President Obama signed a memo updating federal records were managed.
  • On February 1, 2013, Hillary Clinton stepped down from her position in the State Department.
  • In August 2013, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) finally sent out guidance about the President's 2011 memo. It stated that emails of senior federal officials were now permanent federal records.
  • In September 2013, the first guidance about personal email use was sent out.

So technically Clinton probably didn't break any laws. She left the State Department before the NARA guidelines went into place. Heck, she left before the NARA email went out.

Though it's not 100% clear. When Josh Earnest, the White House spokesman, was asked about it, he didn't unequivocally say what Clinton did was legal.

Then it was fine for her to use personal email?

Well, even if it's not illegal, that doesn't mean it wasn't wrong.

UPDATE: The State Department is investigating whether Clinton broke some internal rules. And Fox News uncovered a cable (aside: we're still using cables in the 21st century?) telling State Department employees not to use personal emails ... from when Hillary herself was SecState.

Some people are saying that while technically it's fine, it just feels off because she was a public servant doing the nation's business, so why is it OK to use private email to do that?

Some are concerned that she may have correspondence and documents that should be part of the public record but aren't.

Will Clinton make her emails available?

Clinton's team turned over more than 55,000 pages of emails last year, which the State Department is currently sifting through for release.

And last night, she tweeted this:

But supporting transparency after being called out on shady activities is not the same as being 100% transparent from the very beginning.

Has this happened before?

Yes. Clinton's not the first U.S. official to be criticized for using personal email for correspondence.

In fact, when the "clintonemail.com" domain was first created in early 2009, the Bush administration had just come under scrutiny for the use of private email.

But it doesn't stop here. Here are a few other government officials who've been busted doing official business on personal email:

  • Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney
  • Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin
  • Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel
  • Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano
  • Former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson (she had a second email address under the alias "Richard Windsor")

So when it comes to government officials using personal email, shadiness abounds. This is clearly not just a Clinton problem. To be fair, though, Clinton took things to a new level by owning her own server. On the upside, since Clinton's server was inside her house, it was protected by the Secret Service against physical attacks. Not so for Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin, one of whom used Yahoo.

It's also worth noting that the current Secretary of State, John Kerry, is the first Secretary of State to be required to primarily rely on a government email address. (You know, because of that new law around official government email.)

Anything we're still not sure of?

Probably the biggest unknown is whether Clinton actually turned over all of the required emails. After all, they're under her control.

We're also not sure how other officials have been reprimanded for sending government correspondence from personal emails.

How will this affect the 2016 presidential election?

Here's the thing: Most people in politics think Hillary Clinton will announce she's running for president a few weeks from now. She wants to be the Democratic nominee. (She ran eight years ago too, but lost the nomination to a guy named Barack Obama.)

But these recent allegations might make her plans a bit more complicated.

That said, there are a lot of Democrats who are standing by Clinton's side right now. Just look at Democratic strategist Paul Begala's rather colorful response:

"Voters do not give a shit about what email Hillary used. They don't even give a fart."

Well, OK then.

Many who are critical of Hillary Clinton think she needs to be challenged in a primary instead of just the Democrats just handing her the nomination next year. Doing so would prep her for the even more rigorous campaign trail of competing for the Oval Office, and could bring out some other power players in the Democratic party. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been mentioned, though it's unclear if either actually intends to run.

The fact is, Clinton probably can't afford any more scandals like this if she does intend to run for President.

Regardless of what those emails actually contain -- some could be as harmless as forwarding an interesting article -- the story is already out there, accusations have been made, and people are already choosing what they want to believe.

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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The Hillary Clinton Email Scandal in a Nutshell

Lauren Wethers

Lauren is originally from outside Saint Louis, but traveled down the Mississippi River to be a student at Tulane University, where she is the editor-in-chief of The Tulane Review and director of the New Orleans Universities Relay for Life. She has also written for NOLAWoman.com and Winnovating. One day she’ll figure out how to make the Time Turner real, but until then, she’d like to thank coffee for her success. Follow: @laurenwethers.

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