‘Extremely careless.” That’s not a description most voters want for a president, and those two words, spoken by FBI Director James B. Comey on Tuesday, will no doubt haunt Hillary Clinton into November. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee can accurately argue that the needless risk she took by handling classified information on a private e-mail server does not seem to have damaged national security — and that her Republican opponent does not exactly personify responsibility himself — but it’s still up to her to convince voters that she’s learned from her mistakes.
The investigation, which began last year after the revelation that Clinton had used a private e-mail server for official business while serving as secretary of state, did not result in criminal charges because, according to Comey, there was no evidence that Clinton intended to break the law. But he did chastise the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee for allowing classified information onto her unsecured server, where it was more vulnerable to hackers and foreign spies. The mishandled information reportedly includes information about the American drone program in Pakistan, which is widely known but nominally secret.
It’s appropriate for Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who on Friday promised she would accept Comey’s recommendations, to end the criminal investigation now. Stupid is not always illegal. That might disappoint Clinton’s political opponents, who have been pining for criminal indictments, but charging Clinton on such thin evidence would have struck many as another example of prosecutorial overreach aimed at the Clinton family. It’s a lesson that her opponents never seem to learn, but exaggerated accusations can drown out legitimate questions.
Even absent criminal charges, concern about Clinton’s judgment is entirely fair. One step that she could take to reassure voters would be to introduce some new blood into an inner circle that was apparently unable or unwilling to warn Clinton about the mistake she was making with her e-mails, or to keep her husband, former president Bill Clinton, from his ill-advised conversation with Lynch last week. Hillary Clinton should reach far outside the ranks of “Hillaryland” and her husband’s former supporters in her choice of a vice presidential running mate — perhaps to other Democrats who have demonstrated a willingness to criticize her when appropriate. The vice president is the only senior White House official whom voters pick, and the only one the president can’t fire, so picking a strong running mate from outside Clinton’s personal orbit would send an important message.
Over the next few days, Clinton’s public reaction to the FBI’s findings will also provide a chance for her to demonstrate to voters that she’s taking the issue seriously. She and her surrogates should not attack Comey. They should not attempt to deflect legitimate questions about her judgment by lumping all criticisms together with Donald Trump’s tweets about “Crooked Hillary.”
The GOP has been crying wolf for so long about Bill and Hillary Clinton that it’s easy — maybe too easy — to brush off all criticism as politically motivated witch hunts. In this investigation, the FBI did voters a favor by separating the anti-Clinton hyperbole from the substance. The outcome may not have been criminal charges, but it wasn’t total exoneration of Clinton’s instincts either. The onus is now squarely on Clinton to explain why she deserves voters’ trust.