Almost a year after it was first reported that Hillary Clinton used a private email server for communications as secretary of state, the department is to release the final batch of the Democratic presidential candidate’s messages sometime Monday — the end of months of piecemeal disclosure that often frustrated the campaign and subjected it to criticism from both sides of the aisle.
Efforts to probe her time as the nation’s top diplomat and find wrongdoing there, however, are just beginning.
As they did under her husband’s presidency, conservatives have spent months or even years setting up investigations into Clinton. Using federal disclosure laws and the power of congressional inquiry, the critics are now increasingly focusing not on the candidate but to a small circle of her aides, some of whom have worked for her for years and now serve in key roles on her campaign. Evidence may become public as the presidential race heats up, the critics say.
On Feb. 23, for instance, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington ruled that the conservative government transparency group Judicial Watch was entitled to gather evidence in a lawsuit it filed seeking paperwork on Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s authorization to do outside work while employed by the State Department.
The judge also appeared to agree that Judicial Watch might need to question Abedin, who is now vice chair of Clinton’s presidential campaign, and others who used, maintained or communicated on the private server.
The group says haggling over the evidence-gathering plan, known as discovery, might provide revelations during the tumult of the presidential campaign.
“It’ll be over the next several months discovery will be taking place — May, June, July,” said Tom Fitton, the group’s president.
Freedom of Information Act experts say the length of the process, nominally aimed at digging into Abedin’s employment, may benefit groups seeking to expose misdeeds by Clinton or suggest that their exposure is near.
“This is not good news if you’re Hillary Clinton, because it means that this is going to keep the issue alive, and it’s going to be a source of new information,” said Anne Weismann, executive director of the transparency group Campaign for Accountability and a former Justice Department lawyer who oversaw government information litigation.
Weismann also said that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is probing the security of Clinton’s email setup, might intervene and ask the court not to release documents pertaining to the law enforcement investigation — documents generally exempt from disclosure under FOIA.
“That’s going to put Judge Sullivan in a difficult place,” Weismann said. “I don’t think he will want to screw up an FBI investigation.”
The FBI declined to comment on its plans.
The issue probably won’t stay inside the court. Although the House Benghazi Committee, which is said to be wrapping up its work, is perhaps the best known investigation into Clinton because it brought her in for almost 12 hours of testimony in October, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who chairs the powerful Judiciary Committee, has been investigating the server setup and Abedin’s employment.
His committee’s role in oversight of FOIA compliance may mean he will use any revelations from the Judicial Watch discovery to step up his inquiry.
A spokeswoman for Grassley didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Abedin seems to draw the ire of conservatives in particular, with accusations ranging from being overpaid to having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The former issue is under investigation, with Abedin claiming she has worked while she was supposed to be off. The latter was slammed by John Boehner when he was speaker of the U.S. House as unfounded and “pretty dangerous.”
Conservatives say inquiries into Abedin, often described as a surrogate daughter to Hillary Clinton and a frequent presence beside her on the campaign trail, may be the best way to find answers they believe must lie in Clinton’s records. They also say Abedin is a fair target for any investigation.
“It is important to shed light on Huma Abedin’s ethical controversies, as so many of them directly involve Secretary Clinton,” said Jeff Bechdel, communications director at the PAC America Rising, a Republican-allied group that does opposition research on Democrats and has published a report on Abedin.
“Given her influence in Clinton’s inner circle and their emerging interconnected scandals, it is increasingly clear that Abedin’s ethics are extremely relevant to understanding the ethics of Secretary Clinton,” according to Bechdel.
Another anti-Clinton group, Citizens United, best known for successfully challenging restrictions on spending by outside groups before the Supreme Court, has filed a previously unreported FOIA request requesting communications between Abedin and another assistant to Clinton in search of meetings that never made it onto official schedules.
The group previously unearthed of a set of emails that suggested Abedin’s outside work, both for the Clinton Foundation and for a consultancy founded a Clinton ally that had international clients, had created conflicts of interest.
“The Clinton machine has always been made up of Bill and Hillary and their closest aides,” said David N. Bossie, president of Citizens United. Abedin and Hillary Clinton’s onetime chief of staff Cheryl Miller “have been in Hillary Clinton’s orbit for years upon years.”
Abedin’s lawyer, Miguel Rodriguez, did not respond to requests for comment.
Groups haven’t confined themselves to Abedin. Citizens United, has filed FOIA requests for various e-mail chains involving Abedin, Mills, a top foreign policy aide to Clinton’s campaign, a top Clinton Foundation adviser and even Chelsea Clinton. Each request might land the parties in court or stoke congressional inquiries.
“We are now closing the loop by looking at the complete record,” Bossie said.
Brian Fallon, a spokesman for Clinton, called the myriad investigations into former aides and campaign officials, “nothing more than fishing expeditions by right-wing groups that have devoted themselves to attacking the Clintons for decades.”
David Brock, who runs a pro-Clinton super-PAC, said “a lot of casualties” in the Whitewater investigations of the Clintons in the 1990s resulted from “harassment of staff aides getting harassed.”
“It’s part of the strategy of legal terrorism that they’ve engaged in with the Clintons for as long as I remember,” Brock said.
Brock, formerly a conservative journalist who attacked the Clintons, said conservatives are looking for a “silver bullet” to use against the former president and first lady.
“They’re not going to let go of that idea,” he said. “Old habits die hard.”