The Slatest

The Two Questions CNN Should Ask Hillary About Her Email at the First Debate

Photographs of Democratic presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley hang on their debate podiums a day before the CNN Democratic Debate in Las Vegas.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton’s private email setup has dogged her campaign since before she even officially declared—and for good reason. The former secretary of state has gone from ignoring the controversy, to dismissing it, to unconvincingly apologizing for it. Through it all, the Democratic front-runner has failed to provide the type of forthright answers that the American public deserves from a woman who was then the nation’s chief diplomat and who is now asking voters to make her the next president of the United States of America.

Tuesday’s CNN debate, though, is unlikely to provide the needed clarity—and the moderators shouldn’t spend too much of their limited time in Las Vegas belaboring the point. Clinton’s been giving carefully calibrated responses for months now, and it’s hard to believe that Anderson Cooper and co. will be able to force her off-script given how long she’s had to prepare. They’re moderators, not miracle workers.

Still, they are also journalists, and they don’t want to reward Hillary’s stonewalling and spin. What I’m proposing, then, is that they open with two—and only two—questions on the topic before moving on to ensure the debate fulfills its more pressing purpose: giving Democratic voters a good, long look at where and how Clinton differs from Bernie Sanders and the rest of the field on matters of policy.

And what are those two questions?

1. Secretary Clinton, when deciding what information was safe to send over your private email account, did you ever consider the possibility that some nonclassified material was sensitive enough that it might reasonably be classified at a later date?

If I were running the show, the first question would be tied directly to the next batch of Clinton’s personal emails, which the GOP-led House Benghazi panel is set to release prior to Tuesday’s debate. According to Chairman Trey Gowdy, those emails will include one that shows Hillary forwarded along the name of a CIA source over her non-government-secured email—information that her critics say proves that she knowingly passed along sensitive information on an unsecured network (regardless of whether such material was officially classified at the time). That’s a serious charge, and one Clinton should be forced to respond to. Even if she dodges by dismissing the panel’s ongoing investigation as a political witch hunt, simply asking the question would remind voters that the ongoing controversy is an entirely self-inflicted wound.  

2. Secretary Clinton, do you believe the Benghazi panel has done a public service by helping to expose your private email setup?

This question would force Clinton to finally pick a lane: Is the ongoing controversy nothing but a “distraction,” as she long maintained? Or did she really do something wrong, as her recent apology suggests? It can’t be both. This question would tell us whether Clinton truly regrets what she did, or if she only regrets that voters now know what she did.

More generally, the question would remind the public that despite the ongoing partisan bickering that surrounds All Things Hillary, criticizing Clinton for political gain and taking serious issue with the decisions she’s made aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Given what we now know about the Benghazi panel, it’s impossible not to notice the politics that are driving the Republican-led investigation. Given what we now know about Clinton’s email use, it’s equally impossible to make the case that the public isn’t better off knowing about her unusual email practices.

Anyone hoping to see Hillary face a more extensive grilling about her email, meanwhile, won’t have to wait long after the curtain goes down on the debate stage. Clinton is set to appear before the Benghazi panel on Oct. 22. “I’m going to insist that all questions are asked and answered,” Gowdy told Fox News this summer, “so she’s going to be there for a while.”

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Democratic primary.