Hack Reveals Clinton Staffers’ Concerns About Private Server, But No Smoking Gun

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John Podesta, Neera Tanden, and Hillary Clinton in October 2013.Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When the news broke that Hillary Clinton used a private email server as secretary of State, her aides tried to control the damage, and some blamed each other — as we now know thanks to the campaign’s second email controversy.

The latest batch of emails from Clinton campaign chairm John Podesta’s hacked Gmail account, which were posted by WikiLeaks, show that he and other aides were concerned about how the server would reflect on Clinton, and even President Obama.

A March 2015 email chain among top Clinton aides notes that Obama said in a CBS News interview that he found out about the private email server “the same time everybody else learned it — through news reports.”

“… It looks like POTUS just said he found out HRC was using her personal email when he saw it in the news,” said Clinton communications staffer Josh Schwerin. “We need to clean this up — he has emails from her — they do not say state.gov,” Cheryl Mills, a longtime aide, wrote to Podesta.

The pro–Donald Trump website called this “the smoking gun” on Tuesday, and later in the day, the candidate told Reuters that the email is proof that Obama “knew all about” Clinton’s email setup. “That’s why he stuck up for Hillary, because he didn’t want to be dragged in. Because he knew all about her private server,” Trump said. “This means that he has to be investigated.”

At a campaign rally in Sanford, Florida, Trump said the email proves that Obama “had to know that Hillary was using an illegal server, but he claimed otherwise,” and called for an “investigation into the investigation.”

Trump has already called for a special prosecutor to look into Clinton’s emails, despite the fact that the FBI said there’s no cause for criminal charges. It’s not surprising that Trump is dragging Obama deeper into his conspiracy theory, but the email does not actually prove that the president was familiar with her email setup — nor does it even reveal much new information.

The State Department said back in January that Clinton’s emails contained 18 messages between her and the president, which were withheld from public release under the Presidential Communications privilege.

Also, as the Washington Post’s Philip Bump notes, there are two ways to interpret “we need to clean this up.” It can be read “nefariously (as implying that information would be hidden from the public) or as benign (suggesting that Clinton’s team and/or the White House needed to clarify Obama’s comments).”

The White House did, in fact, clarify Obama’s comment in March 2015. “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 that server had been set up or how Secretary Clinton and her team were planning to comply with the Federal Records Act,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

He reiterated that point on Tuesday, adding, “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, so I guess they’re back to recycling thoroughly debunked conspiracies.”

It’s possible that WikiLeaks is still planning to drop emails that show Obama directing a vast government cover-up of Clinton’s private server (though, it’s rather late for another October surprise). However, the juiciest thing Tuesday’s release has to offer is a peek at the sniping that went on among Clinton staffers over how they got into the email mess.

For instance, just after the New York Times broke the news that Clinton exclusively used a private email server at the State Department, Neera Tanden, who is close to both Clinton and Podesta, emailed him to say, “I highly recommend …. she start making some other, more positive news soon,” Podesta responded, “Really? That’s great advice.”

Podesta then complained about several other Clinton aides, saying they “weren’t forthcoming on the facts here.”

Tanden focused on Cheryl Mills, who was Clinton’s chief of staff at the State Department. “This is a cheryl special,” she wrote. “Know you love her, but this stuff is like her Achilles heal. Or kryptonite. she just can’t say no to this shit. Why didn’t they get this stuff out like 18 months ago? So crazy.”

“I guess I know the answer,” Tanden added later. “They wanted to get away with it.”