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Hillary Clinton Is (Her Own) Open Book

close-up of covers of copies of the book Hard Choices
photo by Mike Mozart

Hillary Clinton wants you to know all about Hillary Clinton.

She will be happy to tell you the whole story. If you can’t afford her $300,000 speaking fee, she’s willing to give you a discount to, say, $225,000 (as she did for the University of Nevada-Las Vegas) if you throw in a few perks. And if $225,000 is still too much for your budget, just spend about $15 to pick up a copy of her book, “Hard Choices.”

Clinton was able to write her book with the benefit of full access to all the emails from her time as secretary of state. In fact, many of her hard choices probably involved deciding which of these emails best told the Clinton story she wanted to tell.

Not only does she want to tell her own story; Clinton famously also wants to choose who else can tell her story and how. The contract for UNLV fundraiser appearance stipulated that no video or audio recording of the speech would be allowed. The UNLV Foundation would pay for a stenographer, but the resulting transcript would pass directly and exclusively into Clinton’s hands. Given Clinton’s history, not to mention the track record of her family more generally, this level of control should surprise no one. When someone else tries to frame the story, it seldom goes well.

So the revelation in The New York Times this week that Clinton exclusively used her personal email account during her time as America’s top diplomat is of a piece with the way she has always tried to maintain control of her own narrative.

In response to the Times article, Clinton’s office issued a statement defending her actions as both legal and in accordance with existing rules. Her office turned over 55,000 pages of email to the State Department last year in response to a request; an aide said that this amounted to about 90 percent of her emails, with the remainder pertaining to personal matters. The aide said that “nothing nefarious was at play” in the use of her personal account.

Clinton’s defenders observe, correctly, that keeping her official emails on a private account did not violate the law in effect when she served during President Obama’s first term. The State Department has said that there was “no indication” Clinton sent classified material through her personal email account, and that she sent messages to other State Department officials with “every expectation they would be retained.” Barring any new revelations, it does not appear that Clinton’s conduct was illegal.

But the administration, evidently choosing to distance itself from Clinton, says she violated White House policy regarding custodianship of official records. White House press secretary Josh Earnest said “very specific guidance” was in place specifying that executive branch employees should use official email accounts for government business. This statement implies that nobody at the White House ever emailed the secretary of state during Clinton’s four years in office. Strange, when you consider that the president is known to be inseparable from his BlackBerry.

Clinton’s defenders do seem to stretch the point when they claim that her use of private email was in keeping with both the “letter and spirit of the rules.” It is true that, at least until the Nixon administration, presidential papers were considered the personal property of the commander in chief. But there has been a Federal Records Act since 1950, and the Presidential Records Act of 1978 made clear that work produced by public officials on the public’s dime belongs to the public.

Such an argument also comes off as at least somewhat disingenuous in light of recent controversies about missing or incomplete email records. Perhaps the biggest recent incident that comes to mind is the criticism leveled at George W. Bush’s White House in the wake of the admission that an unspecified number of emails were “lost” due to presidential aides using Republican Party email accounts.

Another outcry followed The Associated Press’ revelation that many public officials have unlisted email addresses, which were subject to little oversight and interfered with the government’s ability to produce information when requested. As Paul M. Wester Jr., the chief records officer for the National Archives and Records Administration, told The Washington Post at the time, “If you don’t have the personal-use or alias accounts accounted for, you run a higher risk of not being as responsive as you need to be for [the Freedom of Information Act] or other document requests.” A 2014 federal law now requires that any use of private email for official business be documented by copying or forwarding the message to the official’s government account. That law was not yet in place while Clinton served, but it makes clear the ongoing importance of documenting official government business.

Clinton’s decision to keep sole personal custody of her records until and unless someone requests them, and to then decide herself which records actually belong to the public, is entirely out of keeping with a modern understanding of who owns the work of public officials. While Clinton turned over a great deal of material when asked, by using a private email instead of a government address, she once again positioned herself as the gatekeeper of what the public - and in this case, the government itself - needs to know about her work.

But Clinton does not see this disconnect as a problem. If you ask her anything about herself, she will be glad to tell you. Especially if you can come up with at least $15.

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