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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama on Clinton’s Emails

President Obama said he first learned “through news reports” that Hillary Clinton used a private email system when she was his secretary of state. But it turns out he did know she used a private email address, at least for some official business. The White House now says the two leaders traded emails and “the president was aware of her email address.”

Clinton, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, has come under criticism after the New York Times reported on March 2 that she exclusively used a private email account (registered to clintonemail.com) to conduct government business while secretary of state from January 2009 to February 2013. At the request of the State Department, Clinton two months ago turned over 55,000 pages of emails that involved government business, the Times reported.

Obama was asked about Clinton’s emails during an interview with CBS News correspondent Bill Plante on March 7.

Plante, March 7: Mr. President, when did you first learn that Hillary Clinton used an email system outside the U.S. government for official business while she was secretary of state?

Obama: The same time everybody else learned it through news reports.

Obama’s answer to Plante begged the question of whether the president emailed Clinton and, if so, how did he not know Clinton was using a private account? Two days after the president’s interview aired on CBS, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest clarified that the two leaders, obviously, did exchange emails and he knew her email address.

Earnest, who made his remarks at about 44:45 into his press briefing, said the president didn’t know that she had a personal email server and did not have a government account.

Earnest, March 9: [T]he president was referring specifically to the arrangement associated with Secretary Clinton’s email. Yes, the president was aware of her email address. He traded emails with her. That shouldn’t be a surprise that the president of the United States is going to trade emails with the secretary of state. But the president was not aware of the fact that this was a personal email server and that this was the email address that she was using exclusively for all her business. The president was not aware of that until that had been more widely reported.

The existence of Clinton’s private email account actually has been publicly known since March 2013, when the Smoking Gun wrote several stories about a hacker who broke into the AOL account of former Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal. Smoking Gun showed screen grabs of emails Blumenthal had sent to Clinton’s private email account, hdr22@clintonemail.com, when she was secretary of state. “Blumenthal’s memos and e-mails to Clinton were sent to her at a non-governmental e-mail address through the web domain ‘clintonemail.com,’ ” Smoking Gun reported on March 18, 2013.

As Politico explained at the time: “The hacker had apparently sorted the mail to list (and possibly download) the Word files attached to these specific emails, which include foreign policy and intelligence memos that were sent to Clinton when she served as Secretary of State.”

That’s why State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed the latest controversy over Clinton’s email as “not news.”

“I would also point out that the notion that she had this email account is certainly not news; it’s been reported on for more than two years at this point,” Harf said at a briefing on March 3 in response to the Times story. “So I was a little surprised – although maybe I shouldn’t have been – by some of the breathless reporting coming out last night, but I guess that’s the nature of where we are today.”

Marcel Lehel Lazar of Romania, who hacked into Blumenthal’s AOL account, was widely known as “Guccifer” and received more publicity for hacking into the personal email accounts of people more famous than a former Clinton aide. He also hacked into the account of a family member of George W. Bush to reveal the former president’s self portraits. In June, he was sentenced to four years in jail in Romania. A week later, he was indicted on charges of “wire fraud, unauthorized access to a protected computer, aggravated identity theft, cyberstalking and obstruction of justice,” according to a Justice Department press release.

Justice Department, June 12, 2014: According to the indictment, from December 2012 to January 2014, Lazar hacked into the email and social media accounts of high-profile victims, including a family member of two former U.S. presidents, a former U.S. Cabinet member, a former member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former presidential advisor.

We asked the White House if the president was referring to the March 2013 or March 2015 media reports when he told CBS that he learned about Clinton’s email account “[t]he same time everybody else learned it through news reports.” The White House, however, declined further comment.

— Eugene Kiely