WASHINGTON — The White House counsel’s office was not aware at the time Hillary Rodham Clinton was secretary of state that she relied solely on personal email and only found out as part of the congressional investigation into the Benghazi attack, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The person said Clinton’s exclusive reliance on personal email as the nation’s top diplomat was inconsistent with the guidance given to agencies that official business should be conducted on official email accounts. Once the State Department turned over some of her messages in connection with the Benghazi investigation after she left office, making it apparent she had not followed the guidance, the White House counsel’s office asked the department to ensure that her email records were properly archived, according to the person who spoke on a condition of anonymity without authorization to speak on the record.
Clinton announced in a late-night tweet Wednesday that she wants her emails released. She asked the State Department to vet the 55,000-plus pages she handed over, leaving the diplomatic agency with the intensely politicized task of determining which can be made public.
The State Department said it would review the emails as quickly as possible but cautioned it would take some time.
The email saga has developed as the first major test for how the White House and President Barack Obama’s administration will deal with Clinton’s likely 2016 presidential campaign — and the inevitable questions that will only get louder as 2016 approaches.
Since the revelations surfaced this week, the Obama administration has been pummeled by endless questions about Clinton, who hasn’t formally announced a run. In the absence of an official campaign to defend her, the White House press secretary has been put in the awkward position of being a de facto Clinton spokesman and the most public voice speaking on her behalf.
While trying to avoid doing political damage to Clinton, the White House has put the onus on her aides to explain exactly what happened.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged Wednesday that Clinton would have emailed White House officials on a non-government account. But the person familiar with the matter said the White House was not aware that was her sole method of email and that she wasn’t keeping a record of her emails at the State Department.
The person said the White House’s concern was that agencies much maintain records for historical and legal purposes in the case of a Freedom of Information Act request or subpoena. If the State Department didn’t control the records, officials there could not search and ensure they are turning over what is required and that could create a legal issue for the agency.
Earnest said the guidance given to government officials is that they should forward work emails on a personal address to official accounts or even print them out and turn them over to their agency to ensure they are properly maintained.
“If in fact Secretary Clinton’s team did what they say they did — and that is reviewed her email, collected all of her personal email that was related to her official government work and turn that over to the State Department so that they could properly preserve and maintain it — that would be consistent with the Federal Records Act, and that’s the president’s expectation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
The Associated Press has reported that Clinton’s account was set up on a computer email server traced to her home in Chappaqua, New York. On Wednesday, the Republican-led Select Committee on Benghazi issued subpoenas for emails from Clinton’s personal email related to Libya.
Top White House aides have been in contact with Clinton’s team to clarify specific facts that the White House is likely to be asked about. The White House also reached out to Clinton’s team ahead of Tuesday’s press briefing to advise them of what the White House planned to say, according to a senior White House official, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations.
“It’s almost impossible for the White House to give firm answers because there’s just too much you don’t know,” said Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s former press secretary. “It’s an extraordinarily delicate dance they have to do to not throw someone overboard, but not get anyone in the White House in deeper trouble.”