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Clinton’s critics know she’s guilty, they're just trying to decide what she's guilty of

The Prime Directive driving bad Clinton coverage.

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The latest Hillary Clinton email revelations arose out of an unrelated investigation into Anthony Weiner’s sexting.

The best way to understand this odd hopscotch is through the Prime Directive of Clinton investigations: We know the Clintons are guilty; the only question is what are they guilty of and when will we find the evidence?

So somehow an investigation that once upon a time was about a terrorist attack on an American consulate becomes an inquiry into Freedom of Information Act compliance, which shifts into a question about handling of classified material. A probe of sexting by the husband of a woman who works for Clinton morphs into a quest for new emails, and if the emails turn out not to be new at all (which seems likely), it will morph into some new questions about Huma Abedin’s choice of which computers to use to check her email.

Clinton has been very thoroughly investigated, and none of the earlier investigations came up with any crimes. So now the Prime Directive compels her adversaries to look under a new rock and likewise compels cable television and many major newspapers to treat the barest hint of the possibility of new evidence that might be damning as a major development.

It’s the same drive that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial on the grounds that he had perjured himself to try to cover up an affair that was uncovered in an investigation that was originally supposed to be looking into a years-old Arkansas land deal on which the Clintons had lost money. The Whitewater investigation did not reveal any crimes. So rather than wrap things up and consider the Clintons exonerated, the investigators went looking under other rocks and came up with Monica Lewinsky.

There are several rules that govern media coverage of the Clintons, but this year the Prime Directive has dominated them all. Network news has devoted more minutes of coverage to Clinton’s emails than to all policy issues combined, even as email investigations have not uncovered any wrongdoing. It’s inexplicable news judgment, unless you simply assume there’s a crime out there.

The Clinton email fishing expedition

The words “Clinton,” “email,” and “scandal” have been repeated in close succession enough times that it’s understandable that most people believe in the existence of a Hillary Clinton email scandal.

The beginning of the story, however, was not emails but rather the deaths of four Americans at the US Consulate in Benghazi. Republicans have launched more than half a dozen investigations into Benghazi, desperately trying (and failing) to uncover evidence of Benghazi-related wrongdoing on the part of Barack Obama, Susan Rice, or Hillary Clinton. In the course of investigating things, investigators seek records, including emails. And it was in the course of seeking emails that it was initially revealed that Clinton was conducting official business via her personal email address rather than a State.gov one.

Because the Benghazi investigators assumed Clinton was guilty of something, they naturally assumed that the use of a private server was part of a conspiracy to cover up whatever that is.

But this is a crucial point: There is no reason to agree with the Benghazi investigators’ assumption that Clinton was guilty of something.

People are, normally, presumed innocent. The Benghazi incident has, in particular, been investigated very thoroughly. There was no wrongdoing. There was no crime. Since there was no crime, there was also no cover-up. And since there was no cover-up, the private server was not part of a cover-up. And, indeed, when Benghazi investigators sought access to the emails sent and received on Clinton’s server, they got them and found nothing to change the conclusion that there was no wrongdoing.

The investigation pivots

In the normal world, when you are investigated and exonerated, the matter is dropped. But since we know the Clintons are guilty, if Hillary didn’t do anything wrong at Benghazi and didn’t withhold information from investigators, there must be some other problem.

Thus the origin of the classified information scandal in which we have learned that some email threads that Clinton participated in contained classified information or documents.

Something missing from 95 percent of Clinton emails coverage is the fact that the use of a private email server has literally no bearing on these allegations. You are not supposed to discuss classified information over email, point blank. You’re not supposed to use a .gov account or a Gmail account or a private server or any other kind of email. The government has special secure channels that you are supposed to use for classified information.

This is important because it leads to the conclusion that where the investigators left the matter — there was some classified information mixed in with Clinton’s work emails but not in a criminally culpable way — is fairly banal.

And note that by the time we reach this point, we are multiple degrees of separation away from the original charge. There was no wrongdoing related to Benghazi. There was no cover-up. Then a separate inquiry into whether email was being knowingly misused for classified communication concluded, again, that it wasn’t.

Fishing into the next pond

Knowing all that, the natural thing to assume when you learn that one of Weiner’s laptops includes client-side copies of emails sent to or from Clinton’s private server is that there is nothing new in these emails. They are going to be duplicates of emails that have already been turned over. If by some chance some of them are different, they are almost certainly not going to expose grave crimes in Benghazi or willful mishandling of classified information on Clinton’s part. This has all already been thoroughly investigated.

But then you remember the Prime Directive: Clinton is guilty; we just don’t know what she’s guilty of or what the evidence is that proves it.

The Prime Directive is how meeting with a Nobel Peace Prize winner and rescuing hostages from North Korea or raising money for a foundation that saved millions of lives becomes a scandal.

In Prime Directive terms, the Weiner laptop is a major break. After all, the evidence of guilt must be out there somewhere. So why not Anthony Weiner’s laptop?

It’s only when you step outside the circle of madness that you can see how ridiculous this is. If nobody had ever seen a Hillary Clinton email before, uncovering a trove of them on the laptop of the estranged husband of one of her key aides might be a big deal. But Hillary’s email has already been exhaustively investigated from multiple different angles, and it shows no wrongdoing whatsoever. If you assume there is wrongdoing, then, yes, maybe all evidence of the wrongdoing was suppressed from what was turned over and Weiner’s computer contains secret new damning emails.

But what if all previous investigations have shown no wrongdoing because there was no wrongdoing? And what if the client-side copies of emails on Weiner’s computer are just client-side copies of emails, just like the emails in the inbox of everyone else who downloads email to a computer? What if Benghazi was just a tragedy and an example of how bad things happen in war zones? What if Whitewater was just a land deal on which some people lost money because real estate speculation is risky? What if Clinton has been getting away with it for all these years because she hasn’t done anything wrong?