Skip to main content

Will Hillary Clinton Ever Escape the Shadow of Her Email Scandal?

How the email saga could derail Clinton’s potential presidency.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Hillary Clinton’s email scandal just won’t go away.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has just informed Congress that the agency is reviewing its investigation into the Democratic presidential candidate’s use of a private email server during her time as secretary of state after new emails have come to light.

“In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” FBI director James Comey wrote in a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information, as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”

The announcement comes as a major blow to a Clinton campaign already racked by email woes following days of disclosures by WikiLeaks (likely the “unrelated case” to which Comey is referring). It’s worth noting that, in July, Comey testified before Congress that, while there was no evidence Clinton’s use of a private email server was “intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information,” the secretary of state was “extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information”—a carelessness that’s reflected in the FBI’s 47-page report on Clinton’s electronic correspondences.

The new FBI investigation could cost Clinton something just as important as an election victory: a mandate to govern.

While the new FBI investigation probably won’t uncover any nefarious plot by Clinton to deceive the American public, it certainly won’t help a Democratic candidate already suffering from historic unfavorability ratings among voters. Among registered voters, Clinton has a 59 percent unfavorability rating, almost as high as Trump’s 60 percent, according to a recent Washington Post/ABC poll; a whopping 62 percent of respondents said that Clinton was far from “honest and trustworthy,” just below Trump’s 64 percent. Americans still tend to prefer Clinton to Trump, but it’s apparently a choice for many between the lesser of two evils.

The return of Clinton’s private email server to the national spotlight in the days before the election will only exacerbate her unfavorability rating. Her email debacle has been more of a stain on her public image than any controversy over Benghazi or the Clinton Foundation: According to a mid-September Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly half of American adults (47 percent) were “very concerned” about Clinton’s email issues. Some 52 percent of those respondents said they were concerned the secretary’s sloppiness exposed sensitive information to hackers, a fear that the WikiLeaks disclosures have effectively confirmed.

To be clear, it’s unlikely the new FBI investigation will cost Clinton the election. Donald Trump is too scandal-ridden and quixotic to win at this stage. The electoral math just isn’t there, no matter how much the new investigation may sink Clinton in the polls in the coming days.

But the new FBI investigation could cost Clinton something just as important as an election victory: a mandate to govern. Presidents only really have a year or so to actually govern before they start running for re-election, and even if they win a second term they’re often rendered politically insouciant by the ever-earlier drumbeat of the next presidential contest; this is the reason why the first 100 days of the presidency has become so symbolic beyond FDR’s administration: It’s a policy sprint meant to solidify a legislative agenda before fledgling campaigns suck all the political oxygen out of Washington.

It’s not just unfavorability that threatens Clinton’s political moxie. Since the release of the 2005 video of his awful remarks about sexual assault, Trump’s campaign has pivoted from underdog status to scorched earth: Rather than try to shore up his base and close the gap between himself and Clinton, Trump’s mantra of corruption and election-rigging is designed to undermine and delegitimize Clinton at every turn. While presidential losers tend to graciously concede and throw their political energy behind their opponent in an affirmation of democratic principles, Trump’s exemplified an “if I can’t have it, nobody can” mentality, which is going to pose a major challenge for Clinton should she win the White House.

That can, in a sense, end Clinton’s presidency before she ever takes the oath of office. “Her Republican opponents will quickly argue that her election was not a referendum on her immigration-reform plan, her infrastructure spending ideas, or her childcare and family-leave proposals, three legislative priorities she is likely to push during her first year in office,” explainsTheNew Yorker’s Ryan Lizza. “The campaign, they will claim, was simply a rejection of Trump. If Republicans control both chambers of Congress, their argument that Clinton lacks a strong mandate will be even more powerful: while Americans may have given her the White House, they also voted for congressional Republicans to serve as a brake on her agenda.”

Thanks to the unusually vicious 2016 campaign, Clinton might make history in two ways: She may be the first woman president, but also the weakest president to enter the White House in modern American political history.