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The Justice Department won’t prosecute Hillary Clinton over her handling of emails as secretary of state, but Donald Trump and the Republicans will certainly litigate the issue in the court of public opinion during the Republican National Convention.
"Hillary Clinton is the embodiment of corruption. She's a corrupt person. What she's done with her e-mails, what she's done with so many things," Trump said recently.
He added, "I think it might be her greatest accomplishment, escaping the recent scandal, and her lies, and the loss of 33,000 e-mails. But it wasn't a loss, she discarded (them). That in itself is a major crime. Other people have been paying tremendous prices for what they've done, which is peanuts compared to what happened with Hillary Clinton."
PolitiFact has fact-checked claims about the controversy since last year. Our PolitiFact Sheet will help you separate what’s real from what’s spin.
Clinton exclusively used a private email address while serving as secretary of state from 2009-13.
Instead of using the State Department email system (with an email address ending in @state.gov), Clinton used a personal email address (@clintonemail.com) housed on private servers located in her Chappaqua, N.Y., home.
Because she didn’t use the government system, the department didn’t have her emails on hand when the House Select Committee on Benghazi asked to see them. So in 2014, Clinton’s lawyers combed through the private server and turned over about 30,000 work-related emails to the State Department and deleted the rest, which Clinton said were about personal matters.
Clinton has said she used the email setup for convenience, so she would only have to use one device for email. But there’s some evidence Clinton did it for privacy reasons as well. She said in 2010 that she would be open to a departmental email but added, "I don’t want any risk of the personal being accessible." The FBI found that she used multiple mobile devices throughout her tenure, but it’s unclear if she switched out periodically or used more than one at the same time.
Some classified information ended up on her private server, which was an unclassified system, but there was not enough evidence to charge her with a crime.
Clinton had repeatedly said she did not have any classified emails on her server, but the results of the FBI investigation show that claim was incorrect.
Of the tens of thousands of emails investigators reviewed, 113 contained classified information, and three of those had classification markers. FBI Director James Comey has said Clinton should have known that some of the 113 were classified, but others she might have understandably missed.
Comey said the Justice Department shouldn’t prosecute Clinton because there isn’t enough evidence that she intentionally mishandled classified information. FBI investigators didn’t find vast quantities of exposed classified material, and they also did not turn up evidence that Clinton intended to be disloyal to the United States or that she intended to obstruct justice.
However, he called Clinton’s email setup "extremely careless."
Clinton frequently dealt with sensitive and classified information as secretary of state, and the amount that the FBI found in her email server is miniscule in comparison. It appears that she generally dealt with classified information in an appropriate way.
To electronically transmit classified information, State Department employees must use a specific closed system, not their usual @state.gov email addresses. Clinton has said she viewed classified information in hard copy in her office, and she used other secure channels when traveling. Some emails now made public actually show Clinton’s team discussing how they couldn’t email each other classified information over the private server and instead had to move the conversation to a more appropriate venue.
There are legitimate problems with the government classification process. For example, transparency experts say the government regularly over-classifies, such as classifying information that wouldn’t actually damage national security if released. And the State Department and the intelligence community regularly disagree over whether information should be classified, including about some Clinton emails.
The FBI also determined that about 2,000 of Clinton’s emails contained information that was retroactively classified, meaning the information is classified now but not when the emails were first sent — so no one mishandled these emails.
Clinton skirted State Department rules about records management, security and transparency.
The State Department’s policy as of 2005 is that all day-to-day operations are to be conducted on the official State Department information channel, which Clinton never used. She was also obligated to discuss her setup with several internal offices and demonstrate that it was properly secure, yet she did not. Some of those officers told the State Department Inspector General that they never would have allowed the private email setup had she asked.
Clinton did not ensure that her work-related emails were preserved on the State Department system in real time, nor did she surrender them immediately when she left office. This made her virtually impervious to Freedom of Information Act requests for her emails while in office and beyond.
Clinton’s email record remains incomplete. FBI investigators found thousands of work-related emails that were not among the 30,000 Clinton turned over to the State Department, and many more might still be out in the ether. Comey said there is no evidence these emails were deleted in an attempt to conceal information.
Clinton says that at the time, she thought her setup was allowed. But it’s hard not to be skeptical of that narrative because she was involved in multiple memos urging employees to minimize personal email use. And Bureau of Diplomatic Security employees tried unsuccessfully to get Clinton to use a department-issued BlackBerry smartphone as soon as she took office.
Clinton’s email setup exposed her to hacking.
There’s no evidence that anyone successfully hacked Clinton’s email servers, but they certainly were not impervious to attack. It’s possible that a sophisticated hacker gained access but left no trace.
Comey said the private servers did not have full-time security staff, which are found at government agencies and commercial email providers like Google. Further, he noted that Clinton used her personal email abroad, which could have allowed "hostile actors" to access her account.
Had Clinton used an @state.gov email address, it’s very likely that it would have been hacked, too. In fact, it’s known that Russian actors recently hacked the State Department email system. According to the New York Times, some State Department employees turned to private email addresses at least temporarily in order to avoid Russian hacker disruptions.
PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton's email: Did she follow all the rules?" March 12, 2015
PolitiFact, "Four pressing questions about Hillary Clinton’s State Department email," July 25, 2015
PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton's emails: classified or not?" Sept. 10, 2015
PolitiFact, "Hillary Clinton said 'my predecessors did the same thing' with email," March 9, 2016
PolitiFact, "What we know about the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails," May 12, 2016
PolitiFact, "Fact-checking Hillary Clinton's claim that her email practices were 'allowed,'" May 31, 2016
PolitiFact, "FBI findings tear holes in Hillary Clinton's email defense," July 6, 2016