Hillary Clinton’s use of a personal email account during her time as U.S. secretary of state has been a source of controversy for the Democratic presidential candidate for months. On Thursday, a Republican-led committee in the House of Representatives was able to ask Clinton questions about those emails for the first time.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, opened the hearing, noting that the questioning into Clinton’s use of a private email address was not the original intent of the investigation.
“Not a single member of this committee signed up to investigate you or emails,” said Gowdy. “You had an unusual email arrangement, which meant the State Department could not provide your emails to us.”
The revelation of Clinton’s use of a personal email account came about as part of a congressional investigation into the deaths of four Americans at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.
Gowdy emphasized that Clinton’s emails were just as important as the emails of other witnesses. “It just took us a little more time to get them, and it garnered a little more attention in the process,” he said.
Clinton has acknowledged that her use of a private email server and account was a “mistake,” but she has maintained that all of her actions were legal. The FBI is examining whether Clinton broke federal laws that prohibit “knowingly” removing or housing classified information at an “unauthorized location.” Clinton also may have violated the Federal Records Act by eliminating personal emails from her server.
Republicans focused their questions on security concerns relating to the Benghazi incident, although Clinton’s use of email came up in relation to her attention to Libya in the months leading up to the investigation.
Correspondence on Libya
Committee member Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican, brought piles representing Clinton’s email correspondence relating to Libya in 2011 and in 2012. Brooks said the emails from 2012 showed what she said was a troubling lack of interest in Libya in the months leading up to the attack.
Republicans also questioned Clinton on her email correspondence with longtime friend and adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who provided what Clinton termed “unsolicited” advice on Libya.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said Clinton’s testimony at the hearing was just one step in the email investigation.
“She’s providing testimony and evidence right now that’s going to be pored through by investigators to see how that matches up with the testimony others have provided,” Bonjean said.
The controversy has followed Clinton throughout her presidential campaign and could affect her chances of winning the Democratic nomination, and ultimately the presidency, in 2016.
Bonjean said the hearing probably would not have a short-term impact on Clinton. For most people who have made up their minds, “this probably doesn’t move the dial," he said. "But from a long-term perspective, if she has contradicted herself or her testimony contradicts other witnesses to the hearing, that could have a long-term impact.”
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, one of Clinton's rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, said during the first Democratic candidates debate earlier this month that the American people were tired of hearing about Clinton’s “damn emails.” But concerns about the emails ultimately may be tied to the lasting nature of the controversy.
“The question isn’t whether the American people care about the damn emails,” said John Feehery, a columnist for The Hill. “The question is: Does the news media care about the damn emails, and does this drip, drip, drip still continue?”
The slow drip of information will only continue as the FBI continues its investigation and the bulk of Clinton’s emails are eventually released to the public.