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Email controversy poses general election threat for Clinton even if no charges filed

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters as she campaigns at East Los Angeles College in Los Angeles, Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

As #DropOutHillary trended on Facebook and Twitter this week in the wake of Bernie Sanders' victory in the Indiana Democratic primary, one theme that emerged in many posts by Sanders supporters was outrage over Hillary Clinton's email practices as Secretary of State.

"Anyone who cannot/will not follow basic government protocol for email/top-secret information is unqualified to be POTUS," one Sanders backer tweeted.

The anger directed at Clinton from even some Democrats over classified information found in emails she kept on a private server suggests that the likely Democratic nominee may not be able to leave the issue behind even if an FBI investigation concludes that neither she nor her aides committed a crime.

Recent media reports suggest the law enforcement probe is nearing its end. CNN reported Thursday that FBI agents and federal prosecutors have begun interviewing top Clinton aides and expect to speak to the candidate herself soon.

According to CNN, FBI officials expect to complete their inquiry in the next few weeks and submit a recommendation to the Justice Department regarding whether to pursue criminal charges against anyone involved.

Sources close to the investigation told CNN and the Washington Post that the FBI has so far found no evidence that Clinton willfully violated laws regarding the handling of classified information.

Although Clinton has long claimed that the security of her email server was never breached, the Romanian hacker whose infiltration of former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal's email helped reveal her use of private email for government business now says otherwise.

In interviews with Fox News and NBC News from jail, Marcel Lehel Lazar, known as Guccifer, claimed that he easily accessed Clinton's server multiple times but found nothing of interest there. He has provided no proof to support his claim.

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon has dismissed Lazar's allegations, suggesting that if he truly hacked Clinton's data, he would have released the material online, as he did with other targets.

Federal officials have also told CNN and the Washington Post that there is no evidence that Clinton's server was ever breached.

"We don't have any reason to believe that it might be true," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters at a press briefing Thursday.

Clinton's email troubles extend beyond a potential criminal case, though. The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch recently received approval from federal judges to depose some of her closest aides. One judge also suggested that Clinton herself could eventually be subject to a deposition.

Judicial Watch has been asking questions about Clinton's tenure at the State Department since 2009, submitting more than 60 FOIA requests on a variety of subjects. Director of Research Chris Farrell said Friday that the 2016 election may be drawing more attention to the organization's work, but for them, nothing is really new here.

"The questions we've asked and the litigation we're involved with has been ongoing for years," he said.

The case that will now lead to depositions of Clinton staffers is one that had initially been closed, but it was reopened after the State Department notified Judicial Watch that it had found responsive documents in Clinton's emails.

"Frankly, we're the only reason anybody knows anything about it," Farrell said.

The organization is very interested in the progress of the FBI investigation, but Farrell emphasized that law enforcement's findings will have no bearing on their case.

"We have questions that have to be answered in our own right with respect to our civil litigation," he said.

The public first learned of Clinton's email setup from news reports last March, and media outlets have reported extensively on the thousands of pages of documents that the State Department has released from the server. Clinton was often dismissive of concerns about the issue on the campaign trail last summer, but she did eventually apologize and admit using a private email server was a bad decision.

Still, Farrell listed a number of unanswered questions that Judicial Watch believes it is entitled to have answered under FOIA, including details about how Clinton's server was established, who had access to it, what searches were done for records on the server, and the procedure by which they were reviewed.

"[The public] has an affirmative right to know this information," he said. "It's not up to Mrs. Clinton to decide. The public is owed that information."

Judicial Watch continues to fight for access to emails that Clinton has said she deleted because they were personal in nature. The group also frequently posts new documents released by the State Department that it claims prove the former secretary is lying about her email practices.

This week, Judicial Watch released emails from top aide Huma Abedin's clintonemail.com account that suggest more work-related messages from Clinton exist that her campaign and the State Department have not made public.

"These emails further undermine Hillary Clinton's statement, under penalty of perjury, suggesting she turned over all of her government emails to the State Department," Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a press release. "How many more Hillary Clinton emails is the Obama State Department hiding?"

While Farrell observed that the organization's inquiries about Clinton are independent of election year politics, he believes this is absolutely something voters will be interested in learning more about.

"She is the only cabinet officer in the history of the country who elected to set up her own outside, outlaw communications channel," he said.

Clinton's email practices have become a frequent talking point for Republican critics aiming to portray her as untrustworthy, but Sanders has largely refused to use the issue against her. At the first Democratic debate last fall, Sanders said he was tired of hearing about Clinton's "damn emails."

Polls suggest the controversy has hurt Clinton, with a majority of Americans saying they believe she did something wrong and the percentage who do not trust her rising. According to exit polls, primary voters who prioritized honesty in a candidate have overwhelmingly supported Sanders.

However, with Donald Trump tightening his grip on the Republican nomination, some are skeptical that liberals and Democrats would really choose him over Clinton in the general election if she is the nominee.

"Hillary Clinton is not going to lose one single real Democratic or progressive voter to Donald Trump in November, no matter what, because he will be the most unpopular and demagogic nominee in history," said Democratic strategist Craig Varoga. "It's absurd to think that Trump can somehow molt and lose his hate-filled and demagogic policies, now that the nomination has been decided."

Varoga questioned the sincerity of those who might say in the fall that Clinton's email practices drove them to vote for Trump.

"Any Republican candidate or opinion leader who claims that the emails somehow convinced them that it's okay to vote for Donald Trump was just looking for an excuse to support their worst nominee in history."

With a Republican candidate known for peddling in conspiracy theories, though, even a complete exoneration of Clinton would be unlikely to silence the attacks against her, according to Varoga.

"It took years for the birther issue to go away, despite being a 100% loony tune conspiracy," he said, "and just this past week, Donald Trump falsely tried to tie Ted Cruz to the 1963 JFK assassination -- so who knows how long the email issue will remain a favored topic by Trump or his glassy-eyed apparatchiks."

John Carroll, a professor of mass communication at Boston University, agreed that partisan Democrats probably will not be swayed by the email issue, but it could hinder Clinton's ability to appeal to independents and to Republicans who are repelled by Trump.

"There's a certain segment of the voting population that's pre-disposed to believe all this about Clinton, all the negative charges," Carroll said. "And there's a certain segment that's predisposed to dismiss them. And then you have the people in between who aren't really sure what to think, and those are the ones that Clinton has to worry about."

Ardent Bernie Sanders supporters and anti-Trump Republicans will have a high threshold to get behind Clinton. For them, trust could be an important issue, and the end of the FBI investigation will not take those concerns off the table.

Carroll pointed to the Judicial Watch civil lawsuits and the comments by Lazar as proof that the email controversy may not fully dissipate before the general election and will reinforce existing doubts about Clinton for some voters, no matter how hard she tries to neutralize it.

"It becomes like whack-a-mole," he said. "Maybe the FBI investigation recedes but then the Judicial Watch suit pops up."

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