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Donald Trump’s attack over Hillary Clinton’s emails shows just how confused the “email controversy” has become

Trump calls on Clinton to release emails he says she’s wrongfully deleted.

Ducking questions about his personal finances, Donald Trump went after Hillary Clinton for her private email server during the presidential debate on Monday night.

Trump said:

I will release my tax returns, against my lawyer's wishes, when she releases her 33,000 emails that have been deleted. As soon as she releases them, I will release my tax returns, and that's against — my lawyers say don't do it. ...

When you have your staff taking the Fifth Amendment, taking the Fifth so they are not prosecuted, when you have the man that set up the illegal server taking the Fifth, I think it's disgraceful. And believe me, this country thinks it's disgraceful — really thinks it's disgraceful, also. ...

Why did she delete 33,000 (emails)?

Trump was alluding to the private email server Clinton used while secretary of state — something she apologized for again on Monday night.

Trump was making a two-fronted attack: 1) that Clinton is hiding a stash of 33,000 emails that should be public, and 2) that she deleted emails she shouldn’t have.

But if you pause for a second, you’ll realize that Trump’s accusations are actually in direct opposition to one another. How can Clinton release emails she’s already deleted?

This contradiction was lost in the speed of the debate, but it’s worth noting that Trump is attacking Clinton for refusing to release emails and for deleting them so they could never be recovered.

Think about it: Is Trump saying that Clinton wrongfully deleted her emails so they couldn’t be found? Or is he saying she’s refusing to release the emails she also doesn’t have? On Monday night, he did both in essentially the same breath.

Trump’s missive is the Clinton email scandal story in a microcosm. Critics have made confused — and, as here — even contradictory accusations around Clinton’s email server, often combining unrelated or different stories simply related to both “Hillary Clinton” and electronic mail that often add up to more than the sum of their parts.

What really happened with Hillary Clinton’s emails

This confusion surrounding the “Clinton email scandal” is not new — the term has become a catchall for Clinton perfidy, even though the underlying controversies are better understood as distinct accusations.

The reality is that there are actually three or four distinct controversies that involve both Hillary Clinton and email.

  • One controversy related to Clinton’s emails is that she exchanged classified information over a private server that was susceptible to hacking by foreign agents. This is an issue about cybersecurity — that Clinton didn’t do enough to safeguard government secrets. (This is what the FBI’s investigation was about.)
  • Another claim is that Clinton’s private server allowed her to avoid public records laws. This is a controversy related to the idea of transparency — that government officials have to keep records of their work, and that Clinton deliberately avoided doing so.
  • Separately, emails from Clinton’s aides have also fed into different controversies about the Clinton Foundation and the Benghazi compound attack. At heart, these stories are about donor access and foreign policy.

Trump didn’t go over Clinton for really any of these. Instead, he made vague accusations related to another idea — that she was engaged in a cover-up to either hide the emails or delete them so they couldn’t be found.

This is probably the weakest accusation related to Clinton’s emails. When Clinton was secretary of state, she exchanged all of her emails through a private server on a private email account. After the New York Times revealed the existence of Clinton's private server in 2015, the State Department ordered her to turn over her emails.

The key fact here is that Clinton largely did comply with that request. She ordered her lawyers to hand over any possibly "work-related" emails to the State Department, and they did so — handing over around 30,000 emails to the State Department that were subsequently released.

Another 33,000 emails Clinton exchanged — the ones Trump referenced — were kept on a private server managed by a private contractor. Many of those emails, the ones Clinton’s attorneys determined not to be work-related, were subsequently wiped off that private server.

There’s been a lot of arguing over whether Clinton’s private contractor should have deleted the emails when it did. But it’s completely at odds with the accusation that Trump leveled: that Clinton should release emails that were deleted.