WASHINGTON — Several weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, trying to calm the fears of several important Middle Eastern allies over the emerging nuclear deal with Iran. He had just finished several days of negotiations in Geneva, was about to head next to London, and was operating on very little sleep.
But even as Kerry faced one of the biggest diplomatic hurdles of his career while abroad, he was also suddenly forced to confront a sticky diplomatic challenge at home. Around the time he was preparing for meetings with the new Saudi monarch at his opulent palace, Hillary Clinton was sending out a tweet urging Kerry’s State Department to quickly review and release the 30,000 e-mails she had turned over to the department from her personal e-mail server.
Hours later, Kerry barely hid his annoyance when the first question to him at a press conference was about whether the State Department was able to review all of her e-mails, or only those she voluntarily turned over.
“Let me check on that when I actually have time to pay attention to such an important issue when I get home,” he said with sarcasm.
If Kerry thought he was beyond domestic politics, the past few weeks have been a blunt reminder that he is not: The Democratic Party’s 2004 presidential nominee is now overseeing a sensitive, time consuming, and potentially explosive issue that poses a threat to the front-runner for the party’s 2016 nomination. Conversations with current and former aides and longtime confidants reveal how awkward the situation is for Kerry, a man who always wanted to be president himself.
At a moment when he is in the middle of trying to solve some of the world’s most intractable problems — and relishing a role that he’s long sought — Kerry and his advisers find themselves ensuring that the department he now oversees does a better job of preserving and maintaining records than it did when Clinton was in charge — but without directly undercutting her.
“Everybody realizes Hillary has a problem with this,” said one longtime Kerry confidant. “Nobody is happy they’ve got to take any bullets. But they all feel they’re generally on the same team. They’re going to be careful to hide their irritation and help cover her back.”
But with some congressional Republicans saying his State Department cannot be trusted, Kerry has tried to prevent himself from becoming collateral damage in Clinton’s own messy mini-scandal. Three weeks ago, Kerry wrote to the inspector general of the State Department, requesting a review of records retention practices.
Just hours after Clinton’s lack of e-mails became public on March 2, Kerry aides pointed out that he — unlike her — exclusively used a government e-mail account for his official communications, something he has continued to emphasize.
“As for myself, I deal with a state.gov address, and all of my e-mails are being secured by the State Department,” he said this past Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” even though host Bob Schieffer hadn’t asked about Kerry’s situation.
Kerry’s own approach to e-mail differed dramatically from Clinton’s.
When he came into the office, he asked for an iPad, which he had grown accustomed to in the Senate. He wanted to use the iPad so that he could receive his unclassified briefings materials and learn the various acronyms in the vast bureaucracy he was about to oversee, according to aides who were with him at the time.
He was also given a government Blackberry and an official e-mail account that ended in state.gov. The official account, his aides felt at the time, would be easier and more secure than the AOL and gmail accounts he has relied upon in the past — and still does, along with text messages, for personal matters.
The New York Times first reported last month that Clinton exclusively used her personal e-mail account while she was secretary of state. She later confirmed that the records were kept on a personal server in the Clinton home in Chappaqua, N.Y. Responding to a House committee investigating the 2012 attacks on Libya’s request for e-mails, the Times reported, State Department attorneys began to realize there were very few e-mails from Clinton’s official account.
In October, the department sent a letter asking Clinton and three of her predecessors for records related to their work, “such as an e-mail sent or received on a personal e-mail account while serving as Secretary of State.”
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright responded by saying that she never used e-mail during her tenure. Colin Powell said that he did use a personal account but he no longer had those e-mails and never printed them out. Condoleezza Rice said she never used her private account for work purposes.
One of Clinton’s top aides, Cheryl Mills, hand delivered notice that they were providing 55,000 pages of e-mails to the State Department in December. Some of those e-mails are likely personal, Mills wrote, and it would be up to the State Department to determine which to release.
The department is now undergoing a monthslong review of Clinton’s e-mails, and planning to release them in one full batch that will be posted online when the process is completed.
But Representative Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican who is leading a select committee investigating the Benghazi attacks, has said he no longer trusts the State Department.
“I have lost confidence, for myriad reasons,” he said last month on Fox News. “They lost every single opportunity over the past six months to tell us that not only did she not have an official e-mail account, they didn’t even have her records. You would think that would come up, in all the conversations that we had with the State Department. Which is precisely why they are not the neutral third party arbiter.”
Asked to respond, a State Department official said that Gowdy “has had possession of e-mails sent from Secretary Clinton’s e-mail since at least August of last year — none of which were from” a State Department account.
Although Kerry may have at times appeared to downplay the significance of the e-mails, behind the scenes it has been something he has sought to address.
The State Department in August alerted senior officials to not use personal e-mail for work purposes. In October, a cable went out to diplomatic posts worldwide with a similar reminder. In his letter last month to the inspector general of the State Department, he asked for a review of record-keeping and public disclosure practices, and specific recommendations for improvement.
“It is critical for the State Department to preserve a full and complete record of American foreign policy, consistent with federal laws and regulations,” Kerry wrote. “It is also important for the American public to have access to that record. The Department of State is committed to these interrelated principles of preservation and transparency.”
Clinton and Kerry have a cordial relationship, although at times it has become strained.
Clinton came to Massachusetts to campaign with Kerry when he faced Bill Weld in 1996, and they traveled together to Vietnam in 2000.
But there have been bumps, too. When Kerry made a comment in 2006 that students should study hard “and if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq” – something he said when he was considering another presidential bid -- Clinton was quick to publicly criticize him. In 2008, Kerry endorsed Barack Obama over Clinton.
“I don’t think [the relationship] ever recovered,” said one longtime Kerry aide.
Although Kerry wanted to be secretary of state when Obama was elected, the new president picked Clinton instead. But during Obama’s first term, Kerry -- then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- was a frequent asset.
When he traveled to Kabul in 2009 to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to agree to a runoff election, Clinton was personally giving him direction and touching base with him frequently on the phone. In December 2011, Kerry went on a secret trip to an ornate palace in Muscat, the capital of Oman, and began to open a dialogue with Iran.
“We kept a lot of things secret that we talked about,” Kerry said in an interview shortly before he took over as secretary of state. “We did a lot of things that people still don’t know — working together on certain things.”
After Kerry was nominated as secretary in 2012, it was Clinton who introduced him at his confirmation hearing. They’ve had lunch together since he took office, and they keep in touch with phone calls, according to aides. He also kept many of her staffers at the State Department.
Those who have been closest to Kerry say he is not considering another presidential run. One laughed at the idea. Another said he would have to be dragged out of the State Department’s Harry Truman building, he loves it so much. If Kerry, now 71, did decide to run, he would have to resign his current position.
“Is he doing anything? Is he making plans? No,” said one longtime Kerry friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Do we have kind of fun conversations? Sure. Does he think he’d make a great president? Sure.”
Kerry is focused on creating a legacy for himself as secretary of state – and he’s thinking a lot more about Iran than he is Iowa, according to sources who have spoken with him recently. But while he would not challenge Clinton in a primary, he still harbors some presidential ambitions.
“If she imploded… I gotta believe that this would be something that at least would cross Kerry’s mind,” said one Kerry confidant. “I’ve never wanted to be president. But my gut tells me it’s hard to lose that lustfulness.”
Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.