The vaguely defined notion of a Hillary Clinton email scandal was good to Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign. It was really two separate and unrelated stories: Clinton’s use of a private server for State Department business, and the leaking of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee server—and the latter, we’d learn later, was a Russian military intelligence operation. For Trump, though, shadowed by his own career of fraud and seeking the presidency while refusing even to disclose his own tax forms to the public, it was useful and comforting to treat it all as interchangeable evidence that his opponent had something to hide.
Over the weekend, with Trump desperately looking for comfort, the email scandal reappeared in the news. The Washington Post reported that the State Department in August revived an investigation into Clinton’s emails, with a specific focus on the “email records of dozens of current and former senior State Department officials who sent messages to then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s private email.” Those officials who’ve been told they’re under scrutiny—up to 130, by the Post’s count—have been told that emails they sent “have been retroactively classified and now constitute security violations.”
The absence of any Hillary Clinton 2020 candidacy, however, makes this latest turn of the email story more of a Trump scandal than anything else. Though State Department spokespeople have denied that there’s any political motivation to this, one former official told the Post what seems obvious: that this is a way for Republicans “to keep the Clinton email issue alive.”
Even before this, Trump’s email fixation was tangled up in his rapidly escalating Ukraine scandal. Although most of the focus since the White House released the transcript of his July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been on his efforts to dig up dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden, the first “favor” Trump asks for is about emails. This element of the would-be quid pro quo was maybe more troubling than the Biden one, because in this case, Trump would be making nearly $400 million in military aid contingent on Zelensky’s pursuit of a conspiracy theory that you would have to work very hard to be stupid enough to believe.
“They say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people. … The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump told Zelensky in the call. Trump said, further, that he would like to put Zelensky or his “people” in touch with Attorney General Bill Barr to “get to the bottom of it.”
In this baffling request, Trump is giving weight to a theory that there’s a secret DNC server, in Ukraine, which contains evidence that the DNC hack was an inside job, perhaps the behest of Ukrainian interests, to pin the blame on Russia. CrowdStrike is the American cybersecurity company that investigated the DNC hacks, and its co-founder and CTO, Dmitri Alperovitch, is actually a Russian-born U.S. citizen. (The “wealthy” Ukrainian Trump might be referring to is Viktor Pinchuk, whose foundation has given money to the Atlantic Council, where Alperovitch is a fellow.)
None of this is true or even modeled on reality, and none of it should involve the separate issue of Clinton’s email server, anyway. But the whole subject of “emails” became one hazy blob in the public mind rather than two discrete stories. It is not clear, then, that Trump knew he was talking about DNC emails, and he may have also believed that Clinton’s 33,000 deleted emails might be the ones running from the law by laying low in some dingy Ukraine motel room.
“I think they could be,” Trump said during a press conference from the United Nations General Assembly last week, when asked whether Hillary Clinton’s “missing” emails could be “in Ukraine.”
So: The president might have committed an impeachable offense by using foreign military aid as a means to pressure a head of state to find a nonexistent DNC “server” that would prove Russian interference was a Ukrainian billionaire’s hoax, and which he might also be confusing with deleted Hillary Clinton emails.
And now he may have followed that up by using the State Department to pursue another aspect of his obsession, years after the end of the original FBI investigation. This is one of those stories that, before the Ukraine situation prompted the House of Representatives to move into an impeachment formation, might have just come across as the latest iteration of Trump’s wacky fixation with the parts of his 2016 campaign that made him feel good. At this moment, though, it reads as another potential use of executive power for retribution against a political opponent.
In the last campaign, then–FBI Director James Comey’s reopening of the email inquiry days before the election may well have put Trump over the top. This round of investigation might help bring about his undoing.