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Email questions follow Clinton into 2016 as document release falls behind schedule

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens during a town hall style campaign event, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015, at South Church in Portsmouth, N.H. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The State Department is ringing in the New Year by releasing 5,500 pages of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's emails on Thursday afternoon.

As ordered by a federal judge, the agency has been releasing the Democratic presidential front-runner's electronic correspondences from her term as secretary on a monthly basis since the summer, with the final batch scheduled for release at the end of January. Clinton has been criticized for using a personal email address on a private server kept in her home for her official business rather than a state.gov address.

Emails released so far have shed some light on communications about the terrorist attack on a diplomatic compound and a CIA annex in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, an incident that has been the subject of multiple congressional inquiries, but they have not produced anything particularly surprising.

The State Department initially planned to release more than 8,000 pages of emails Thursday, but it said in a statement that it will not be able to meet that goal. Additional emails will now be released next week.

The emails released Thursday will also reportedly be more difficult to search than previous batches due to incomplete data fields.

Clinton has claimed her email arrangement was intended to be convenient at the time, but it has become an ongoing political problem for her campaign since it was revealed earlier this year. She has since acknowledged that it was a mistake to handle her email this way and she has apologized to the public for it, but some questions do remain.

Clinton turned over about 55,000 pages of work-related emails to the State Department after deleting thousands of personal emails. While she initially said she sent and received no classified information on the email account, she has amended that claim to say that she received nothing that was marked classified.

It is still unclear whether any material was classified when she received it or appropriately marked that way, but nearly 1,000 emails so far have been redacted because of information that is now classified. Statements by the inspector general for the intelligence community have indicated that at least two emails may have contained "top secret" information when they were sent.

"This gives a whole new definition to 'document dump,'" said John Carroll, assistant professor of mass communication at Boston University, "because you wouldn't think you could bury something more than releasing it the evening of New Year's Eve, except this is going to be even more opaque because this batch is less searchable than previous batches."

Any information harmful to Clinton politically will likely be highlighted by her Republican critics next week and throughout the campaign, even if the emails are not widely discussed Friday.

"The Republican presidential candidates will probably give these more exposure than the actual news media. They'll jump on whatever they can find to try to damage Clinton and try to essentially put her on the defensive," Carroll said.

Regardless of what journalists and political opponents find in the latest email dump, Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said the damage caused to Clinton's candidacy by the issue is already "pretty baked in."

While polls have indicated that the email questions are not a high priority for most voters, especially in the Democratic primary, a majority do feel that Clinton did something wrong. It also appears to have taken a toll on voters' opinion of her honesty, a characteristic on which her low poll numbers are rivaled only by Republican front-runner and Politifact "Lie of the Year" winner Donald Trump.

"I don't think Democratic primary voters care all that much," Carroll said. "Most of Hillary Clinton's supporters have come to terms with whatever trust gap they might associate with Clinton."

"It is a political liability but it is not one that is going to hurt her in the primaries," O'Connell said.

He suggested Democrats are more concerned about how the Republican nominee will use the emails against Clinton in the general election than by her behavior. To attack her successfully on the matter, though, he expects her opponent will have to point to specific emails and world events.

While Thursday's release follows the State Department's pattern of dropping thousands of pages of emails on the last day of the month, O'Connell noted that it is also the start of a long holiday weekend.

"They're purposely releasing them at times like tonight when no one's paying attention," O'Connell said.

The emails may prove to be a small element of a larger political and legal problem for Clinton: the ongoing FBI investigation of her private server.

"That is a very interesting situation and only time is going to tell how damaging it is," O'Connell said.

FBI officials have repeatedly insisted that their work is not affected by politics and the election will not dictate the timeline of their work. In a worst-case scenario where she or a close aide could face criminal charges for mishandling classified information, it has the potential to completely derail her campaign.

"It could turn out to be nothing or it could turn out to be a huge thing, but that's probably one of her big worries," he said.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, he noted that the optics of developments like the staffer who set up the server asserting his Fifth Amendment rights are very bad for Clinton.

Craig Varoga, a Democratic strategist, pointed to three developments that he believes have deflated the email issue as a political problem in the primaries and potentially also in the general election.

"One, Bernie Sanders famously said that he was sick of hearing about them, so unless he does a 180, that issue is dead among Democratic primary voters," he said.

The second factor is that "Donald Trump has taken all the oxygen out of the Republican contest," making it difficult for GOP candidates to steer the conversation to other issues besides whatever his latest controversy is. If Trump stumbles and another candidate takes the lead, that dynamic could change.

Third, with most of Clinton's emails released, Varoga said he has not yet seen any credible evidence that national security was actually harmed by her actions. It is unknown if the security of Clinton's server was ever breached or if the information that has been redacted from over 1,000 of her emails could have endangered the country if it was.

Unless such evidence emerges, Varoga doubts even independent and swing voters are focused on Clinton's email practices.

However, Carroll said the email issue could contribute to the larger narrative that Clinton cannot be trusted if handled effectively by Republicans in the general election.

"The Republican candidates will try to make it an ongoing problem in the general...roll it into this overall narrative of Clinton being duplicitous and untrustworthy," he said.

"By themselves, they have less impact than when they're bundled together with other elements that call her honesty into question."

While the email releases are supposed to be completed in January and the controversy may fade from voters' memories, O'Connell predicted Republicans will resurrect all of the questions about the emails and the private server in the fall.

"Six months is a political lifetime," he said. "You're going to have to remind the public."

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