WASHINGTON (AP) – Try as she might to focus on the policies she wants to enact if elected president, Hillary Rodham Clinton just can’t dig out of her inbox.
Clinton’s email problems are getting worse. She agreed to turn over her private server to the Justice Department this week on the same day Congress got word that at least two emails that traversed the device while she was secretary of state contained information that warranted one of the government’s highest levels of classification.
The developments suggest the investigation into the security of Clinton’s email setup could run deep into 2016, as she is trying to win the Democratic nomination for president and, potentially, the general election.
Clinton campaign aides argue there’s nothing for investigators to find. What worries them more is the lingering whiff of political scandal in a tightening primary race, and they pushed back hard on Wednesday, trying their best to dismiss the matter as nothing more than politics.
“Look, this kind of nonsense comes with the territory of running for president. We know it, Hillary knows it, and we expect it to continue from now until Election Day,” campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri wrote in an email to campaign supporters.
While her Democratic rivals have yet to seize on the issue, it has become a major part of the GOP case against Clinton.
“I think it’s about time that she dealt with the consequences of this,” said GOP candidate and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “This is something that isn’t just a matter of her not being able to tell the truth; this is something that has put national security at risk and highly questions her ability to be the commander in chief of the United States.”
Clinton’s campaign said she would turn over the server just hours after she wrapped up two days of campaigning in New Hampshire, where she outlined a plan to address college affordability and student loan debt – a centerpiece proposal of her policy platform.
The announcement about her email server, which got much more attention than her college affordability plan, marked a retreat for Clinton. She had previously refused the request of a House committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that the server be turned over to a third-party arbiter. Clinton’s attorney said then the server had been wiped clean and no emails remained on the device.
The reversal comes as her chief Democratic rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, is drawing some of the largest crowds of the presidential primaries. A self-described “democratic socialist,” Sanders has avoided addressing Clinton’s email saga, keeping focused on policy disagreements over the economy, trade and the Keystone XL pipeline.
“From our perspective, we want to keep this about Bernie and his message,” said Sanders campaign strategist Tad Devine. He added, “If you look at the polling, people are coming to the view that this is not an inevitable nomination anymore.”
Recent polls have shown a tighter race between Clinton and Sanders in the early contests of Iowa and New Hampshire than many expected, and Vice President Joe Biden – vacationing this week in South Carolina – has indicated that he will make a decision on whether to get into the race next month.
The email controversy, aides and supporters argue, won’t change existing views of a candidate who has spent decades in the political spotlight.
“I don’t think it really hurts her one way or another,” said Jan Bauer, the Democratic chair in Story County, Iowa, who is backing Clinton.
And Terry Shumaker, a longtime supporter in New Hampshire, said the issue didn’t come up during Clinton’s campaigning in the state this week. “People were free to ask about anything, and nobody asked about emails,” he said.
Clinton said in March she had exchanged about 60,000 emails during her four years in the Obama administration, about half of which were personal and deleted. She turned over the others to the State Department, which is reviewing and releasing them on a monthly basis.
The next batch, on Aug. 31, will come two days after Clinton and her primary challengers are scheduled to address members of the Democratic National Committee in Minneapolis. The final installment, on Jan. 29, 2016, will arrive three days before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1.
Each will give Republicans another opportunity to remind voters of the issue, as Rep. Darrell Issa did Wednesday, saying Clinton should be investigated criminally.
“If any other American had shown the same disregard for securing classified information that Hillary Clinton showed, the United States government would move quickly and decisively to hold them responsible,” he said in a statement.
A referral from the inspector general of the intelligence community to the Justice Department that led to the current investigation did not allege any criminal wrongdoing, and Clinton’s attorney has said federal authorities simply want assurances that the emails continue to be properly stored.
Even so, the rules covering the release of classified material are subject to interpretation and nuance. The Justice Department has been criticized by defense lawyers and secrecy experts alike for an approach they say is inconsistent.
Some of those same concerns are likely to be resurrected as Clinton’s server is inspected.
“I think people assume that the classification system is a rigorous and perfectly logical set of rules, but it’s not. It is a fuzzy subjective system that lends itself to conflicting interpretations” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker and Ken Dilanian in Washington, Catherine Lucey in Des Moines, Iowa, and Kathleen Ronayne in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)