Democrats scrambled on Tuesday to contain the fallout for Hillary Clinton, their favored 2016 presidential candidate, after allegations she inappropriately used her personal email for work while secretary of state.
The Clinton camp quickly sought to discredit a New York Times report published late Monday that said her exclusive use of a personal email account from 2009 through 2013 and a lack of email preservation may have run afoul of the Federal Records Act.
The report got wide play, largely because it fuels a political narrative from Republicans that Clinton and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, are obsessed with secrecy and seek to play by a different set of rules.
Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill, however, said Clinton had followed both the “letter and spirit of the rules” while she was secretary of state.
Clinton made no reference to the debate over her email use on Tuesday night when she delivered a 30-minute speech at a gala dinner in Washington for Emily’s List, a political organization that helps elect Democratic women who support access to abortion.
The State Department also defended Clinton, with spokeswoman Marie Harf saying, “There was no prohibition on using a non-state.gov account for official business, as long as it’s preserved.”
Democratic lawmakers and party loyalists tried to cast Clinton’s use of personal email as nothing unusual. They noted that previous secretaries of state, including Colin Powell, used personal accounts. They also pointed out that when Republican George W. Bush was president, senior adviser Karl Rove had used an address through the Republican National Committee to conduct some business.
A National Public Radio report said Chuck Hagel had not used an official account when he was defense secretary.
It is unclear what the damage from the report will be. The rules governing high-level officials’ emails have been in flux in recent years, so it is far from certain that any formal action will be taken against Clinton.
But it does provide ammunition for critics, especially for a congressional committee investigating the events surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, attack against a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed.
Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican congressman who chairs the House Select Committee on Benghazi, said the committee learned recently that Clinton had used more than one personal email address.
“The fact is the State Department cannot certify they have produced all of former Secretary Clinton’s emails because they do not have all of former Secretary Clinton’s emails, nor do they control access to them,” he said.
Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah said the House Oversight Committee, which he chairs, will work with the Benghazi committee “to further explore Hillary Clinton’s use of personal emails while at the State Department.”
Jeb Bush, a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination who recently released a trove of emails from his time as Florida governor, many sent on his personal account, demanded Clinton’s emails be made public.
Officials acknowledge that Clinton used a personal email account throughout her State Department tenure.
The State Department said Clinton last year turned over emails from the period after a records request and that 300 of these were sent to a committee investigating Benghazi.
A total of 55,000 pages of material covering the time she was in office were turned over, the agency said.
The Obama administration has acknowledged that the federal government is still in the process of modernizing its policy on archiving emails and other digital information.
Federal agency heads were told in August 2012 they would have to start keeping electronic records of all emails. A subsequent memo said explicitly that work performed through a personal email address may also need to be archived.
Jason R. Baron, a lawyer at Drinker Biddle & Reath who is a former director of litigation at the National Archives and Records Administration, said he believed that “the sole use of a private email account by a high-level official to transact government business is plainly inconsistent with the Federal Records Act and longstanding policies of the National Archives.”
However, James Lewis, a technical expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the reality is many senior officials use personal email.
“The issue here was intent. Was she doing it deliberately to avoid having her emails tracked, and was there classified information?” he said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Amanda Becker; Additional reporting by Emily Stephenson, Lesley Wroughton, Roberta Rampton, Amanda Becker, Jonathan Allen and Jim Finkle; Editing by James Dalgleish and Jeremy Laurence)