‘We Need to Clean This Up’: Clinton Aide’s Newly Public Email Shows Concern
In a March 2015 interview, President Obama said that he had learned about Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”
But that assertion concerned aides of Mrs. Clinton, who knew that the president himself had received emails from the private address, according to a hacked email made public on Tuesday by WikiLeaks.
“We need to clean this up — he has emails from her — they do not say state.gov,” Cheryl D. Mills, a top aide, wrote to John D. Podesta, another senior adviser, on March 7, 2015.
Two days later, Mr. Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, tried to clarify the president’s remarks, saying that he had, in fact, exchanged emails with Mrs. Clinton through her private account. But Mr. Earnest suggested that the president had no idea the emails could be a problem, because he had relied on Mrs. Clinton to make sure that using a private account did not break any laws.
“The point that the president was making is not that he didn’t know Secretary Clinton’s email address — he did — but he was not aware of the details of how that email address and server had been set up, or how Secretary Clinton and her team were planning to comply with the Federal Records Act,” Mr. Earnest said on March 9.
For Mrs. Clinton, the private email account to conduct State Department business has been a constant source of criticism during her presidential campaign, prompting a series of explanations and apologies from her and her aides, and even an F.B.I. investigation.
The email exchange made public on Tuesday highlighted how the issue was quickly viewed with deep concern not only for Mrs. Clinton, but also for her political ally and former boss, the president.
The release also followed months of Republican arguments that the Obama administration had coordinated with the Clinton campaign to limit the damage from the emails, up to and including the Justice Department’s decision this summer not to prosecute her.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, declined to comment on Ms. Mills’s email to Mr. Podesta, just as the campaign has declined to discuss any of the tens of thousands of internal campaign-related emails that have been released by WikiLeaks over the last month. The emails were hacked from the account of Mr. Podesta, who is now the campaign’s chairman, and the campaign has blamed the Russian government for breaking into his account in an attempt to help Donald J. Trump defeat Mrs. Clinton on Nov. 8.
The president’s spokesman said Tuesday that Mr. Obama’s original comment that he had not known about the private email server was accurate.
“I recognize that some of the president’s critics have attempted to construct some type of conspiracy about the communication between the president and the secretary of state, but they’ve failed to put forward a conspiracy that withstands any scrutiny,” Mr. Earnest said.
Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private, nongovernmental email server to conduct State Department business raised concerns about whether she had exposed classified information to hacking. The F.B.I. concluded that while she had been “extremely careless,” ultimately she had committed no crime.
Besides the implication that the Clinton team had worked to protect Mr. Obama, the messages about Mrs. Clinton’s private email server, like others recently released by WikiLeaks, revealed the kind of stagecraft and damage control that go on behind the scenes of a modern political campaign.
They showed how Clinton advisers immediately grappled with the issue, anticipating that her opponents would try to exploit to reinforce a perception that she was untrustworthy.
Neera Tanden, another adviser, traded several messages with Mr. Podesta on March 2, 2015, the day The New York Times first reported Mrs. Clinton’s use of the private email address.
Ms. Tanden predicted that Jeb Bush, who was viewed at the time as the potential Republican front-runner, would “go to town” on the issue because his own emails as Florida governor were public.
Ms. Tanden also lamented the timing of the revelation and blamed Ms. Mills, a close Clinton confidante who had worked with her at the State Department, calling it a “Cheryl special.” She suggested that Ms. Mills and other members of Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle who knew about the private emails had probably hoped to keep them secret.
“Why didn’t they get this stuff out like 18 months ago? So crazy,” Ms. Tanden wrote. “Unbelievable,” Mr. Podesta responded.
Ms. Tanden wrote back: “i guess I know the answer. they wanted to get away with it.”
Another exchange between Mr. Podesta and Ms. Mills released last week appeared to show them discussing whether Mrs. Clinton’s private emails to and from Mr. Obama could be withheld from the public under the law.
“Think we should hold emails to and from POTUS,” Mr. Podesta wrote on March 4, 2015, using the acronym for the president of the United States. “We could get them to ask for that.”
The State Department has said that Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama and exchanged at least 18 emails on her private server, and in January officials there said those messages would be shielded from release, citing the longstanding practice of delaying the release of presidential communications until after the president has left office.
This month, the F.B.I. released a series of records from its investigation, which revealed that Mr. Obama had used a pseudonym to communicate by email, including with Mrs. Clinton and others. The F.B.I. records did not reveal the pseudonym.