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Fact Check: Hillary Clinton's Email Defense Is A Mixed Bag

Hillary Clinton waits behind a curtain before a rally at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee on Thursday. She continues to struggle to explain her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
Morry Gash
Hillary Clinton waits behind a curtain before a rally at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee on Thursday. She continues to struggle to explain her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

Five months have passed since we first fact checked Hillary Clinton's arguments defending her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. The controversy has not gone away, and the Clinton campaign, hoping for a post-Labor Day reset, is ramping up its defense.

It posted four points on its website, titled, "Hillary's emails in 4 sentences." It also links to the State Department's cache of the emails and links to a fact sheet for "(lots) more answers to other questions you may have."

Let's take the four sentences and examine those:

1. "Hillary takes responsibility for her decision to use a personal account, and the challenges it has created."

She takes responsibility — sort of.

Clinton tried joking about it earlier this summer. "I recently launched a Snapchat account," she said at a campaign event. "Those emails disappear all by themselves."

And when Fox News' Ed Henry asked if she had "wiped" the server, she responded, "What? Like with a cloth or something?"

Neither went over well.

Since then, and as the controversy has lingered, Clinton has become more contrite. There were variations of her responsibility-taking in the past week.

"What I had done was allowed, it was aboveboard. But in retrospect, as I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts — one for personal, one for work-related emails," Clinton told ABC. Then came the apology: "That was a mistake. I'm sorry about that. I take responsibility."

On the Ellen show, she echoed that, but like what she told NBC's Andrea Mitchell last week, she said she was "sorry for all the confusion that has ensued. I take responsibly for that."

Sorry for the confusion is not quite the same as being sorry for having done it.

Interestingly, Clinton did take a modicum of responsibility in her initial press conference on the issue in March at the United Nations. She never said she took responsibility or that she was "sorry," but she did say:

"Looking back, it would've been better if I'd simply used a second email account and carried a second phone, but at the time, this didn't seem like an issue."

She added before taking questions:

"Again, looking back, it would've been better for me to use two separate phones and two email accounts. I thought using one device would be simpler, and obviously, it hasn't worked out that way."

And during questioning, she reiterated:

"I did it for convenience and I now, looking back, think that it might have been smarter to have those two devices from the very beginning."

2. "Her use of a private email account was allowed under State Department rules."

Yes, her use of a private email account was allowed and other secretaries of state have used them. But it is unprecedented that any of them had used a private server.

Government watchdogs say she may not have violated the letter of the law, but that she violated the spirit of the rules. According to the campaign's fact sheet, as FactCheck.org notes, it cites a rule that was in place from the National Archives in 2009:

"Agencies that allow employees to send and receive official electronic mail messages using a system not operated by the agency must ensure that Federal records sent or received on such systems are preserved in the appropriate agency recordkeeping system."

Clinton has said several times that her work-related emails were almost always sent to people with government email accounts, so they were automatically housed in those archives. And she has repeatedly said that she turned over 55,000 pages of, or 30,000 total, work-related emails.

It is worth noting, however, that the rules have since changed since she left the State Department, and her arrangement would no longer be allowed.

3. "Nothing she sent or received was marked classified."

So far, there is no evidence that she has sent or received any emails that were marked classified at the time. More than 100 have been retroactively classified. Clinton's campaign chalks this up to feuding between agencies and a classification system that they say has run amok.

Clinton initially said the following in her March press conference:

"I did not email any classified material to anyone on my email. There is no classified material. So I'm certainly well aware of the classification requirements and did not send classified material."

She has since adjusted her language to note that she never sent anything "marked" classified.

4. "She provided all of her work-related emails to the State Department."

This is unknowable at this point. As noted above, she said she handed over 55,000 pages or 30,000 emails that were work-related. But she was the filter.

She said the server was wiped clean, but it has since been turned over to the Department of Justice, and the FBI is investigating. Does the FBI find something that should have been included in the emails she had turned over? That's unclear at this point.

The thing to watch in all this will be that Oct. 22 House Benghazi hearing in which Clinton will testify.

For Clinton politically, she needs to get past this issue, because she continues to slip in the polls, and the more the emails dominate the discussion, the less she's able to talk about the issues she cares about and believes plays well with the general public.

NPR's Amita Kelly contributed research to this post.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.