Democrats Aren’t Rushing To Defend Hillary Clinton

After e-mail revelations, some Democrats are dodging questions more than offering Clinton cover

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National Journal
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Rachel Roubein and Lauren Fox
March 4, 2015, 12:50 p.m.

Every­one in Wash­ing­ton is talk­ing about Hil­lary Clin­ton’s use of a per­son­al e-mail ac­count dur­ing her four years as sec­ret­ary of State and her homebrew com­puter serv­er. Every­one, that is, ex­cept for many Sen­ate Demo­crats.

As op­er­at­ives, strategists and op­pos­i­tion re­search groups rush to her de­fense, some Wash­ing­ton Sen­ate Demo­crats are re­main­ing si­lent for the mo­ment, say­ing they’ve been too busy with the week’s packed sched­ule to be fully briefed on the crisis du jour.

Demo­crats have a dif­fi­cult line to walk. They don’t want to be seen hit­ting their strongest con­tender to keep the White House, but that does not mean they are rush­ing to shield her from cri­ti­cism either. For more than a dozen sen­at­ors, the easi­est thing to do was to shrug off ques­tions about Clin­ton’s private e-mail or the fact she was run­ning them through her own serv­er.

“[I’ve] been busy with oth­er things around here, like Prime Min­is­ter Net­an­yahu and ISIL and things like that,” Sen. Ben Cardin of Mary­land said on the way to a mid­day floor vote. “So I haven’t looked at it yet.”

(RE­LATED: The New, Scary Ques­tion Fa­cing Demo­crats: If Not Hil­lary Clin­ton, Then Who?)

Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren of Mas­sachu­setts—who has built a repu­ta­tion of rarely tak­ing press ques­tions in the hall­way—kept her head down as she bristled through cor­ridors of the Cap­it­ol base­ment with a crowd of re­port­ers mov­ing briskly to keep up.

Sen. Kirsten Gil­librand of New York asked “can we talk about it later? I have to go to my vote,” she said be­fore of­fer­ing up a press staffer’s name. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Min­nesota also said she was in a rush to get to votes.

A few—in­clud­ing Sens. Bar­bara Box­er, Chris Murphy and Tom Carp­er—came to Clin­ton’s de­fense. It’s not un­usu­al for a sec­ret­ary of State to use a per­son­al email ad­dress, they said, and a law that only al­lows gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials to use private email ac­counts if they ad­here to spe­cified stip­u­la­tions went in­to ef­fect after Clin­ton left her cab­in­et post.

“I’d be sur­prised if a num­ber of sec­ret­ar­ies of State hadn’t done that for as long as we’ve had email,” Carp­er, of Delaware, said. “That’s all I’m go­ing to say.”

“That’s a noth­ing bur­ger. Total,” Cali­for­nia’s Box­er said. “There isn’t one sec­ret­ary of State that ever did that be­cause the law didn’t change un­til after she left, so they’re mak­ing a moun­tain out of a mole­hill.”

But most Sen­ate Demo­crats who stopped to an­swer re­port­ers’ ques­tions out­side the Sen­ate on Wed­nes­day pleaded ig­nor­ance on the is­sue.

As Vir­gin­ia Sen. Mark Warner strode through the Cap­it­ol base­ment, headed to cast a vote on the up­per cham­ber’s floor, he said he needed to un­der­stand more be­fore com­ment­ing.

Montana Sen. Jon Test­er was near the el­ev­at­or a few minutes later, of­fer­ing a sim­il­ar an­swer: “I’m really not up to speed on that,” he said. “I’m really not. I’m sorry.”

New Hamp­shire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen re­peated the same re­frain later, say­ing “I don’t know enough about it to ap­pro­pri­ately re­spond.”

(RE­LATED: Hil­lary Clin­ton Still Doesn’t Get It)

As the el­ev­at­or doors closed, Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware said at about 11:30 a.m. Wed­nes­day, “I lit­er­ally don’t know any­thing about her home in­ter­net sys­tem.”

And as Sen. Ron Wyden—a strong ad­voc­ate for gov­ern­ment trans­par­ency—headed to­ward the Sen­ate of­fice build­ings, he said he was busy at the Su­preme Court all Wed­nes­day morn­ing.

“I haven’t had a chance to go through that. “¦ I’m go­ing to have to go onto health,” as oth­er re­port­ers waited to ask their ques­tions. “I just don’t have time for that one,” Wyden said, in­dic­at­ing the ques­tion could be re­vis­ited after he’d had more time to read the latest Clin­ton news.

Sen­at­ors Claire Mc­Caskill and Joe Manchin, however, neither avoided the ques­tion nor toed the party line. While, Mc­Caskill too wanted to know more, she said she is “fo­cused” on mak­ing sure the in­form­a­tion is pub­licly avail­able some­where.

“The most im­port­ant thing is to make sure the in­form­a­tion was archived in some way and made avail­able in some way,” Mc­Caskill said. When probed by a re­port­er as to what hap­pens if the e-mails are not archived some­where, Mc­Caskill said, “It has to be now.”

Manchin also had heard the news. He wants to see what oth­er facts, if any, come out of the con­tro­versy, but “it sounds like some­body made a mis­take.”

But did that mean Clin­ton her­self made a mis­take? “I don’t know. We’ll find out,” he said. “I guess that someone must have ad­vised her that this is how oth­er people have op­er­ated.” It’s a po­s­i­tion he’s been in him­self, Manchin said, when he asks ad­visors what to do, and they re­spond with how a task was per­formed pre­vi­ously.

“So, I don’t know,” Manchin said. “I don’t know the facts. I really don’t know the facts.”

Even Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings, the rank­ing mem­ber on the Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Benghazi, said he was still wad­ing through the news and was un­sure how it would af­fect his com­mit­tee’s probe. He said, however, that his job on the com­mit­tee has nev­er been simply to pro­tect his party’s po­ten­tial pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ee.

“We will see, but I want to be clear, I am not try­ing to de­fend Hil­lary Clin­ton,” Cum­mings said. “I am try­ing to de­fend the truth “¦ we have some things we are go­ing to try and fig­ure out.”

(RE­LATED: Meet the Non-Clin­ton Clin­ton De­fense Team)

Already, Cum­mings’ coun­ter­part, Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Car­o­lina, said he would take all leg­al re­course to get Clin­ton’s emails.

“We’ve had new rev­el­a­tions even be­fore this, we just have not trum­peted them,” Gowdy said. The com­mit­tee was pre­par­ing Wed­nes­day to sub­poena emails on Benghazi from Clin­tone­mail.com ac­counts and staffers’ per­son­al ac­counts, The Wash­ing­ton Post re­por­ted Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

Rep. Raul Gri­jalva of Ari­zona said Clin­ton needs to re­spond quick­er to avoid re­vis­it­ing the is­sue.

“I hate the idea that it would re­vital­ize this whole Benghazi in­vest­ig­a­tions when they were dead, and they were not only con­clus­ive, noth­ing was found,” Gri­jalva said. “So the soon­er the par­ti­cipants in this case, Hil­lary and the State De­part­ment, provide full dis­clos­ure, the bet­ter off we’re go­ing to be.”

Some top House Demo­crats, such as Reps. Joe Crow­ley and Steve Is­rael, were quick to Clin­ton’s de­fense.

“I don’t be­lieve that the sec­ret­ary of state should be re­spons­ible for fig­ur­ing out wheth­er it was dot gov vs. dot com, and quite hon­estly I don’t think most Amer­ic­ans wake up in the morn­ing think­ing about it,” Is­rael, the former Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee chair­man, said. “I’m sure the Re­pub­lic­ans will now cre­ate a spe­cial se­lect com­mit­tee on dot gov, that’s what they do, and nobody should be sur­prised that they’re re­spond­ing the way that they are.”

The Clin­ton con­tro­versy high­lights a ma­jor vul­ner­ab­il­ity that has plagued the Clin­ton fam­ily be­fore. As Hil­lary Clin­ton at­tempts to rebrand her­self and gear up for a re­tooled 2016 cam­paign, Re­pub­lic­ans will con­tin­ue to paint her as a polit­ic­al ma­chine, a politi­cian so overtly con­cerned about her rise to the Oval Of­fice that she was will­ing to safe­guard every cor­res­pond­ence to pro­tect her pub­lic per­sona.

(RE­LATED: Maybe Hil­lary Clin­ton Should Re­tire Her White House Dreams)

“The Clin­tons al­ways have a way of not telling us something that is bad news,” said Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina.

Po­ten­tial 2016 Re­pub­lic­an chal­lenger Sen. Rand Paul said that the emails fit a pat­tern of be­ha­vi­or.

“I think we need to be very care­ful about elec­ted of­fi­cials obey­ing the law,” Paul said. “The thing that con­cerns me more than the emails is the fact that she has been re­ceiv­ing money from for­eign coun­tries … the Con­sti­tu­tion spe­cific­ally pro­hib­its people from tak­ing gifts while in of­fice.”

Sen. John Mc­Cain said Clin­ton could have simply avoided the con­tro­versy by not send­ing emails, the policy he holds.

“I don’t email at all,” Mc­Cain says. “I have oth­er people and I tell them to email be­cause I am just al­ways wor­ried I might say something. I am not the most calm and re­served per­son you know? I am afraid I might email something that in ret­ro­spect I wish I hadn’t.”

Cor­rec­tion: An earli­er ver­sion of this story misid­en­ti­fied Rep. Steve Is­rael. He is the former Demo­crat­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee chair­man.


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