The email headache that won’t go away – Politico

Tuesday was supposed to be one of the shining moments of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, featuring the much-anticipated campaign trail debut of President Barack Obama in North Carolina — a rally intended to put Republicans across the country on notice that Democrats, led by Clinton, were on offense.

But Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey muddied those plans with a blockbuster Tuesday morning press conference that announced that he would recommend no charges against Clinton over her private email arrangement to the Department of Justice, while nonetheless taking Clinton to task for her and her staff’s “extremely careless” handling of sensitive information. Even if her own address wasn’t hacked, he said, “it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s email account.”

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Any sigh of relief coming from Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters was a wary one, as the campaign and its allies puzzled through their responses to the mixed-news announcement in the hours before she was scheduled to take off on Air Force One with Obama for their debut joint campaign rally. Elected officials and surrogates seeking guidance from campaign on how to respond didn’t immediately get any. Even Correct The Record, a rapid response group dedicated to protecting Clinton, led its daily email blast with a headline previewing the North Carolina event, not about the emails, shortly after noon.

But the bottom line message from Clinton-aligned Democrats: with no indictment, this remains a political, not legal, headache. She can handle a political headache.

“We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by the Department is appropriate,” said Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon. “As the Secretary has long said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again. We are glad that this matter is now resolved.”

The presumptive Democratic nominee appeared to escape the party’s animating concern that could have spent her campaign into a spiral — an indictment — but Comey’s series of searing rebukes all but guaranteed the issue would linger on in Republican attack ads and talking points through Election Day.

“To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions. But that is not what we are deciding now,” the Obama-appointed Comey said as Clinton — who had not been previously briefed on the content of his announcement — spoke in Washington to a gathering of the National Education Association teachers union.

“Comey’s statement was obviously a rebuke, and the Republicans will use it as a cudgel,” said David Axelrod, the architect of Obama’s campaigns and an occasional Clinton critic. “But no indictment and no indication of criminal intent is an important line of demarcation. The email system she set up was ill-conceived and reckless. That is part of the record voters will consider. But the conclusion lifts the cloud of indictment no candidacy could have sustained.”

For Clinton’s rival Donald Trump — who’s been mired in his own controversy after tweeting an anti-Clinton image that was widely seen as anti-Semitic, distracting from news that Clinton met with FBI investigators for nearly four hours on Saturday — Tuesday’s announcement offered an opportunity to double down on his characterization of Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” while insisting to his voters that the political machine is stacked against them.

“The system is rigged. General Petraeus got in trouble for far less. Very very unfair! As usual, bad judgment,” he wrote in a pair of tweets shortly after Comey stepped off camera. “FBI director said Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #RiggedSystem.”

Before Clinton’s campaign could offer any formal statement, other Republicans piled on, recognizing a chance to amplify their criticism just days after her husband President Bill Clinton caused a blow-up by meeting socially with Attorney General Loretta Lynch on a Phoenix airport tarmac — an ill-advised get-together that ended a stretch of positive coverage that saw Clinton extend her lead over Trump in national and state polling as he struggled to expand his coalition and right his dysfunctional campaign ship.

Clinton’s surrogates and closest allies jumped to her defense though, declaring victory while both attempting to put the issue to bed and attacking Republicans for politicizing it.

Long-time Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf, a Clinton advisor in her 2008 bid, immediately turned to defending the process, rebutting Trump’s attacks on the rigged system.

“The fact that he had the press conference and what he said should put to rest for any reasonable person the integrity of the process,” he said. “The fact that he had the press conference on the day that Hillary and Barack Obama are campaigning together answers the question of is there any political influence. If he was in any way coordinating with the Justice Department or the White House he probably wouldn’t have done this on that day.”

“I’m not surprised. I have long believed that this was not going to be any more than what Secretary Clinton said,” added Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, a front-runner to be her running mate, at a roundtable discussion on the Zika virus during Comey’s announcement. “I never believed this was going to be something in the criminal realm or even close to it. So again, I’m going to have to read what was said to comment further.”

“I think it’s a relief for the Clinton campaign. I don’t think it will placate her detractors but then again they weren’t undecided voters anyway,” said former Indiana Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh. “My guess is this will put the issue at large to rest except for the folks that were against her anyway. So politically, it’s obviously a good development.”

David Brock, a close Clinton ally who founded Correct The Record and other Democratic groups, turned his fire on the GOP.

“I think the Republicans who recklessly rushed to judgment and smeared Hillary on this should admit they were wrong and apologize,” he said. “When history is written the trumped-up email controversy will take its place in the wax museum of fake Clinton scandals.”

Yet despite Brock’s contention that Comey’s description of Clinton’s treatment of classified material as “extremely careless” was beside the point, Republicans continued to pile on, seizing on that particular phrase to drill down on their central 2016 argument that Clinton is not trustworthy enough to be president.

“The findings of the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s wrongful use of a secret email server confirm why she is unqualified to be commander in chief” said Florida GOP Chairman Blaise Ingoglia in a statement. “She may not be indicted by a grand jury but this stunning admission by the FBI to her blatant disregard for the rules set up to protect national security will convict her in the court of public opinion.”

House Republicans’ campaign arm almost immediately blasted out an email highlighting Comey’s characterization.

“Just because Hillary Clinton is not going to jail doesn’t mean she should go to the White House. What the FBI confirmed today is that every material statement Hillary Clinton has made about the email scandal has been proven false,” added American Crossroads president Steven Law in a statement. “Clinton recklessly exposed national security information and assets to hostile powers, and that disqualifies her from having the integrity and judgement to be our nation’s Commander-in-Chief.”

Daniel Strauss and Annie Karni contributed to this report.

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