WASHINGTON—Newly disclosed emails show top Obama administration officials were in close contact with Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential campaign in early 2015 about the potential fallout from revelations that the former secretary of state used a private email server.
Their discussion included a request from the White House communications director to her counterpart at the State Department to see if it was possible to arrange for Secretary of State John Kerry to avoid questions during media appearances about Mrs. Clinton’s email arrangement.
In another instance, a top State Department official assured an attorney for Mrs. Clinton that, contrary to media reports, a department official hadn’t told Congress that Mrs. Clinton erred in using a private email account.
The previously unreported emails were obtained by the Republican National Committee as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit seeking records of Mrs. Clinton’s time in office. The RNC provided to The Wall Street Journal only some of the emails, leaving it unclear what was in the remaining documents. The RNC said it released only emails relevant to the communication between the White House and State Department.
Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs, and strategy at the nonpartisan advocacy group Issue One and an expert on ethics and campaign finance, said the email exchange would probably raise no legal concerns because federal law permits members of the White House staff to engage in some political activity.
Mrs. Clinton’s email arrangement has dogged her campaign for months, with Republicans and other critics saying it shows a carelessness with government secrets and undermines her claim to good judgment. Donald Trump’s campaign posted a statement on his website last month saying the Obama White House knew Mrs. Clinton was using a private email server.
Mrs. Clinton has acknowledged the arrangement was a mistake, but she has rejected the notion that national secrets were placed at risk. Her campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment about the new email disclosures.
The emails highlight the revolving door between the State Department, the White House and the Clinton campaign in early 2015 as Mrs. Clinton geared up to run for president.
The New York Times reported on March 2, 2015, that Mrs. Clinton had exclusively used a private email account for government business when she was secretary of state. That set off months of controversy for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, culminating in a Federal Bureau of Investigation probe that recommended against prosecution of Mrs. Clinton.
At the time of the initial report, Mrs. Clinton hadn’t formally declared her intention to mount a presidential campaign, but she had begun hiring staff ahead of her formal announcement on April 12, 2015.
Ten days after the story broke, White House communications director Jennifer Palmieri emailed State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki to ask, “between us on the shows…think we can get this done so he is not asked about email.” That apparently referred to Mr. Kerry, who appeared in an interview on CBS ’s “Face the Nation” three days later.
Ms. Palmieri had previously announced she would be leaving the administration to join Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in mid-2015, but was still at the White House when she sent the email. Other emails show Ms. Palmieri helped arrange for Ms. Psaki to move from the State Department to the White House communications job Ms. Palmieri was vacating. “Agree completely and working to crush on my end,” wrote back Ms. Psaki, who would move to the White House weeks later.
A day later, Ms. Psaki added, “Good to go on killing CBS idea.” She continued, “And we are going to hold on any other TV options just given the swirl of crap out there.” Mr. Kerry wasn’t asked on CBS about the email server, though it isn’t clear how Ms. Psaki could have guaranteed that.
Teased by Ms. Palmieri about her use of the phrase “swirl of crap,” Ms. Psaki wrote back: “Ha I mean—the challenging stories out there.”
CBS spokeswoman Caitlin Conant said the network had made no commitments about what questions Mr. Kerry would face. “No subject was off-limits when this interview was arranged, as is the CBS News standard,” she said. “CBS News’ State Department correspondent was in Egypt with Secretary John Kerry in the home stretch of the Iran nuclear deal negotiations and discussed policy issues of the day with him on this official trip.”
State Department spokesman John Kirby added that there was nothing unusual about the Palmieri-Psaki exchange. “It is common practice for State Department and White House staffers to be in touch when agency officials are potentially conducting television interviews,” he said.
The RNC also obtained an entirely redacted discussion between nearly a dozen top White House communications officials with a subject line referring to Mr. Kerry’s appearance on CBS. A White House official said the internal debate at the time was about whether Mr. Kerry should appear on the shows at all, rather than any attempt to influence what questions were asked.
In another email coming from the State Department, Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, told Heather Samuelson, one of Mrs. Clinton’s attorneys, about new documents the State Department had posted concerning the former secretary of state.
Ms. Samuelson was one of the attorneys who reviewed Mrs. Clinton’s emails to determine which were government-related and which were personal before providing the official ones to the State Department. She was interviewed by the FBI as part of its probe and granted limited immunity in exchange for turning over her laptop as part of the investigation.
In another exchange, Mr. Kennedy told Ms. Samuelson that Politico was “running [a] story that State official said Secretary Clinton did wrong thing. Wildly inaccurate reporting.”
A Politico spokesman said the organization stood by its reporting. The story reported that Joyce Barr, assistant secretary of state for administration, had said in testimony to Congress that Mrs. Clinton’s record-keeping practices were “not acceptable.” An internal watchdog report later concluded that Mrs. Clinton’s email use wasn’t permitted under State policy.
Mr. Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said Mr. Kennedy was “simply offering a reaction to a press article.” He added it wasn’t unusual for State officials to be in contact with former secretaries or their staff.
Corrections & Amplifications:
The New York Times reported on March 2, 2015 that Hillary Clinton used a private email account for all her government business. An earlier version of this story said the newspaper had reported she used a private email server, a fact that was reported days later by a different news outlet. (Oct. 7)
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