Hillary Clinton's Email Problem Is Unsolvable

03/10/2015 08:48 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015

Tuesday afternoon, the first act of "Hillary Clinton Email Dämmerung" concluded, with the former secretary of state providing an eager mass of reporters with a brief press conference, in which she "Addressed The Controversy For The First Time" and, as you might expect, "Raised More Questions Than She Answered."

Behind her lectern in the United Nations' Turtle Bay redoubt, Clinton insisted that she went above and beyond the call of duty in terms of releasing her email, complied with all rules, and availed herself of every precautionary step to safeguard government work from the clutches of nefarious parties. She restated an already well-trafficked assurance, that the emails that pertained to State Department business went to other State Department email addresses, and thus are recoverable, archivable, and transparent.

She explained her decision to use a personal email account for State Department business as a matter of convenience -- the desire to carry a single device instead of multiple ones, all of which served as a searing indictment of Blackberries, I guess, since most of the rest of the world has discovered that a single smartphone can contain multitudes of email accounts. As to whether the public should be assured that all of her email transactions were handled with the requisite responsibility, Clinton's response was to offer her own self-assessment that it was, and to point to pending releases of further email that, to her mind, would be sufficient to bear that out.

Of all the decisions that led to these events, Clinton said, "Obviously, it hasn't worked out." Yes, well, I suppose not.

If we decide not to overthink things, we can all admit that there is something that's beyond dispute. Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, is supposed to be subject to a certain level of oversight. While just about anyone sensible would admit that there are instances in which the head of our international diplomatic mission has to discuss matters that require secrecy, and that any top government official deserves some private space for frank criticism, private advice, and the opportunity to entertain controversial ideas, we are nevertheless entitled to the baseline assurance that what business can be conducted in the light of day is conducted in that matter, and that the actions of our elite officials will not be placed beyond scrutiny.

But it's hard to not overthink this, because a certain amount of overthinking was there from the start. Obviously, the simplest thing for Clinton to have done would have been to open and maintain some sort of "state.gov" email account and conduct State Department business in that domain. Had she done so, there wouldn't be an issue. In fact, had she done so and simultaneously had a personal email account on the side, this still wouldn't be an issue, because most people would find the notion that Hillary Clinton is not allowed to have a private email account to be insane. But by commingling the two -- government and personal -- Clinton opened the door to this criticism, because we can't be sure by what rules Clinton follows to guide her decisions to archive or delete emails. Does she follow State Department guidelines, or her own whims?

It is a thing that can't be known, and so, Hillary's email flap has become a problem that she can't solve, to anybody's satisfaction. This is true in the literal sense, because a lot of emails that were once in her "possession" have been deleted. But it's also true in a figurative sense. What is the ur-email she can provide, that once it is read, will assure everyone that full transparency has been achieved?

At this point, it's worth wondering what sort of missives members of the teeming press corps believe that they can or should be entitled to find in Clinton's private stash. I promise you, nobody in the wide world is interested in reading emails pertaining to Clinton's rote, day-to-day State Department work, and the number of political reporters in Washington who are genuinely concerned with State Department transparency is too small to be of statistical significance.

What people want to find is evidence of some buzzy internecine feud or conflict with the White House, some career-crippling statement of policy or opinion, some private message in which Clinton says something intemperate about a political opponent, or some tawdry act of State Department-Clinton Global Initiative synergy. (Of these, the last is the most vital to the American interest, but it would unfortunately end up in the hands of a media that lacks all interest in a substantial critique of how money and power now mesh to society's detriment, and it would be covered as a problem unique to Clinton rather than a pervasive problem in our political system.)

Failing that, evidence of some embarrassing family problem, health issue, or lifestyle choice would be what the press would seek to uncover in a Clinton email cache. (Assuming, of course, that there aren't simply hundreds of extant emails with the subject line "RE: BENGHAZI LOL.") But the salient point is this: Clinton's actions broadly suggest that she wanted to manage her emails in a way that guarded against a public humiliation, therefore nothing short of an email that publicly humiliates her will be sufficient to put this story to bed.

Compounding the insolubility of the email flap itself is the fact that this is precisely the sort of story that Clinton can ill afford because it "feeds an existing narrative" about her, and her campaign. Actually, it feeds two existing narratives. As New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt explained on Morning Joe, days after he broke the story on Clinton's private email account, “There’ve been questions about the Clintons over the years, about their transparency and secrecy, and this feeds into narrative.” Secondarily, as Jonathan Chait notes, "This revives the question of whether Clinton is capable of managing a competent campaign (and thus, in turn, a competent administration)."

Normally, it's best to keep yourself far from any story in which someone is "feeding" or "confirming" some sort of "narrative," if only because what the media calls a "narrative" is often miles and miles from the way normal human Americans actually think about politics. But in the Clintons' case, they keep adding their own ink to the story. Shortly after the email story broke, longtime Clinton adviser and anthropomorphic antithesis to the concept of congeniality Philippe Reines responded to a simple question from a Washington Free Beacon reporter by starting some sort of insane chain email with that reporter, a reporter from Gawker, Clinton's main spokesperson, and two media critics, on which he dyspeptically answered questions with more questions and generally displayed an aversion to grace and tact.

Who does this? Why did this have to happen? It boggles the mind. The simple, uncluttered choice would have been to simply answer the original reporter's inquiry with a "no comment" and move on, instead of inviting some sort of numbskull public sideshow. Just as the simple, uncluttered choice would have been to have a State Department email, on which to conduct State Department business.

It is, of course, an open question as to whether this will, in the end, mean anything at all. As New York Times' ace political scientist Brendan Nyhan notes:

The actual public response to the controversy is likely to be a combination of apathy and partisanship. Few Americans are paying attention to any aspect of the campaign at this point. Those who do notice will most likely divide largely along partisan lines, with Democrats interpreting her actions more charitably, especially once they see Republicans attacking Mrs. Clinton on the issue.

Any significant political costs are also likely to be fleeting because the revelations came so early in the campaign cycle. It is hard to believe that a lack of transparency in Mrs. Clinton’s use of email will have a significant effect on a general election that will be held some 20 months from now.

"All of this could change," Nyhan writes, "if a true bombshell emerges from [Clinton's] famous Blackberry." Indeed, the irony here is that if Clinton self-produces that bombshell, everyone will go home satisfied that she is being transparent. That's basically the only thing she can do at this point: torpedo her presidential campaign to save her reputation.

That's why there is no universe in which opting out of using a State Department email was a smart thing to do, sorry.

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