Having frequently insisted on holding people accountable for incorrect predictions, I understand my obligation to confess error when I have made one. So I acknowledge that I underestimated the political fallout from Hillary Clinton’s use of a nongovernmental email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

But there is a limit to my contrition: I admit not to being wrong, but to being premature. I am no less convinced today than I was earlier in the summer that this is not only very much a nonissue substantively, but that it will ultimately play no role in the presidential election. And in keeping with the mixed tone of this piece – part retraction, part reaffirmation – I add one caveat which also serves as an explanation of my position. If any damaging emails are discovered – compromising national security; expressing seriously embarrassing comments; revealing instances of special favors to private parties; or exposing a cover-up of serious errors, then political damage will – and should – be the consequence.

But if there are no such examples, six months from now and more, as the fundamental issues differentiating Clinton’s positions from those of any of the potential Republican nominees become the focus of the national debate, it is inconceivable that the fact that she used a personal communications channel for some comments that in themselves demonstrate no misconduct on her part will sway a significant number of voters.

Clinton is suffering now – temporarily – from the combination of several factors. Most important is the ability of her detractors to imply that bad things are yet to be divulged. Much of this comes from Republicans who have switched their unsubstantiated attacks on her from Benghazi – where the facts have not been their friends – to asserting that what is at issue here is not the mistaken use of the wrong email server but the conscious decision to cover up numerous cases of inappropriate behavior. By themselves, these partisan insinuations would not have taken much of a toll – especially since their Benghazi narrative so clearly lacks credibility.

This is where the second, re-enforcing factor comes in, and it was my underestimation of its impact that accounts for my misjudgment. That is the opinion of much of the media that, in the absence of uncertainty about the outcome of the Democratic nomination contest, it is their responsibility to serve as Clinton’s de facto opposition.

It is true that they now have more to cover, with Bernie Sanders doing better than expected, and the possibility of a Joe Biden candidacy. But the focus on the email issue – the escalation of a decision about which office equipment to use into a major theme of the campaign coverage of the New York Times and other outlets – predates both of these phenomena. In fact, I believe so strongly that if the Sanders effort had gained momentum earlier, and that if Biden had begun talking about running much sooner, the email controversy would never have reached its current level, that I am emboldened to make another prediction. Given more important things to report on in the Democratic contest than was originally anticipated, the media’s attention to the case of the double email will diminish.


There is a third element to this which I find particularly frustrating, and that I hope – I am less sure – will also diminish as a Clinton negative. This is the argument that her use of a private email is part of a pattern of behavior on her part that may cross the line. There is no such thing.

As a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1998, I had the chance to question Kenneth Starr for five minutes – the amount of time allotted under House rules. Usually this is too little time to establish an important controversial point. But in this instance it was more than enough. Starr’s charge was to investigate not just the Monica Lewinsky affair, but literally every other accusation that been made against either Clinton: Whitewater; Vince Foster’s death; the FBI files and the White House Travel Office. In his answer to my asking why he had recommended impeachment based on the president’s relations with Lewinsky before the ’98 election, but withheld his exoneration on all of these other issues until after it – he reaffirmed that he had no basis for any negative conclusion about either Bill or Hillary with regard to any other matter.

This will not stop Republicans from repeating the charges Starr found baseless, after he spent millions of dollars investigating them for several years, but it should lead the media to note that he did so.

I repeat my prediction, with a longer time frame. Given that no compromising Clinton emails have been discovered, despite the great interest in doing so on the part of the media and her political opponents, unless there are some hidden away – maybe written in an obscure code – we will see an election in 2016 dominated by strong party differences over health care, financial regulation, abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change, immigration, taxation of the very rich, and whether we should send troops back into Iraq and Afghanistan. If the choice of an email server breaks into this lineup, my next apology will be wholly unqualified.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts. Follow him on

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