Opinion

Clinton Forgot It's Not the Crime, It's the Cover-Up

FBI email findings further tarnish already flawed nominee

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 19: Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during her campaign rally at the Clark County Government Center Amphitheater in Las Vegas on Friday night, Feb. 19, 2016, one day before the Nevada Democrats' presidential caucus. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Of course, it could have been worse.  

FBI Director James Comey could have recommended prosecution of Hillary Clinton or her closest aides for being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information."  

But an FBI recommendation of an indictment over Hillary's home-brew email systems would have provided the Democratic Party with an escape hatch. Since Democratic delegates to the Philadelphia convention are not legally bound, there would have been a groundswell of support for Joe Biden as a last-minute substitute nominee.  

Instead, the Democrats are saddled with their most flawed nominee since an exhausted party nominated John W. Davis on the 103rd ballot in 1924. Hillary Clinton's disapproval rating  averaged 55 percent even before Comey read his statement Tuesday morning in a firm uninflected voice.  

Fortunately for Hillary — but not the Democrats — heedless incompetence is not a federal crime. Comey's cascade of carelessness is an indictment of a woman who is partly running for president on her ability to handle a 3 a.m. emergency phone call on a secure line.  

FBI Director: Clinton ‘Extremely Careless,’ But No Criminal Charges Recommended (Video)

The FBI found that 110 Clinton emails were classified at the time they were received or sent. Comey suggested that the former secretary of state's emails would have been safer had they been housed "with a commercial service like Gmail." The FBI director also concluded, "It is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal email account."   Another disturbing detail emerging from Comey's statement concerns the roughly 30,000 emails that Clinton's lawyers deleted as "personal." Protecting her privacy, the lawyers did not even read the emails before dispatching them to electronic oblivion. Instead, the attorneys made their judgment based solely on subject lines and key word searches.  

[ Clinton Emails Report Lands With a Thud on Capitol Hill ]  

It is quite likely that Clinton would have lost the nomination had these damning details come out in March 2015, when she was giving her marathon press conference at the United Nations.  

Those were the days when the former secretary of state was blithely claiming that she had "opted for convenience to use my personal email account ... because I thought it would be easier to carry just one device for my work and for my personal emails instead of two."  

Running against a grumpy septuagenarian socialist from Vermont with scant interest in foreign policy, Clinton managed only to limp through the primaries. Imagine what a serious Democrat — if not Biden mourning the death of his son than maybe John Kerry — could have achieved. Especially since Comey hinted that a proper punishment for Clinton would have been to strip her of her security clearance.  

With his unusual public announcement of his recommendations to the Justice Department, Comey may have been motivated by a desire to protect Attorney General Loretta Lynch from her own embarrassing entanglement with the Clintons. Displaying creativity in his efforts to sabotage his wife's presidential ambitions, Bill Clinton clambered aboard Lynch's plane at the Phoenix airport last week ostensibly just to chat.  

Back in the days of Whitewater and witch-hunting independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr, Hillary could claim with justice that she was a victim of "the vast right-wing conspiracy." But the only person to blame now is the woman named Hillary Rodham who worked on Richard Nixon's impeachment over Watergate.  

It remains baffling that Hillary — a veteran of the only two presidential impeachment attempts since the 1860s — forgot the mantra of Watergate: "It's not the crime. It's the cover-up."  

Whatever Clinton thought she was hiding on her private email servers (political scheming, questionable contacts with the Clinton Global Initiative), it almost certainly would have cost her far less political distress than the FBI investigation. Instead of a few days of bad press over an ill-advised email or two, the email issue will haunt her through the November election and beyond.  

[ State Department Report Too Soft on Hillary Clinton ]  

If this were a normal election, the Democrats would deserve to take their lumps for sticking with a de facto nominee who believed that she was exempt from all rules about secure handling of government documents. If this were a normal election, the Clinton tradition of entitlement might rightly become an overarching issue.  

Instead, the Republican Party has gone off the rails with its decision to anoint as its putative nominee Donald Trump — that bilious billionaire whose arrogance is only exceeded by his ignorance.  

Hillary Clinton has proven problems with classified information. But Trump, with his hate-mongering, advocacy of war crimes and intemperate personality, cannot be trusted with the nuclear codes.  

In the most important American election since maybe the Civil War, it is infuriating that Hillary Clinton has so willfully damaged her own reputation for competence and trust. But in the face of the authoritarian menace of Donald Trump, we and the Democrats are, alas, stuck with her.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer." Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.