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Fax machines, iced tea or honesty? Why Clinton emails matter

Democratic presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gestures before speaking to supporters Saturday, June 13, 2015, on Roosevelt Island in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Amid the many revelations in the 3,000 emails from Hillary Clinton’s time as secretary of state that were released Tuesday, a few seemed to be dominating the media coverage of the documents on Wednesday morning.

“Hillary Clinton vs. a fax machine,” a CNN headline read.

“Email bombshells from Hillary's secret account show she didn't know when cabinet meetings were held, was dumbfounded by a fax machine and emailed aides to fetch her iced tea,” reported the Daily Mail.

According to The Guardian, “She loves iced tea and can't work a fax.”

Many Twitter users have also honed in on Clinton’s apparently epic battle with a fax machine.

Some news reports and analyses have focused instead on Clinton’s relationship with outside advisers and questions over who in the Obama administration knew about her private email account and when they knew about it.

The consensus seems to be that there are no bombshells, but that does not mean the emails will not have an impact on Clinton’s campaign for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

With tens of thousands of pages of additional emails expected to be released in monthly installments between now and January, this could be a sign of bigger troubles to come or future releases may just reveal more problems with technology and requests for beverages.

Either way, even if they do not do serious political damage, said Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the emails could be a consistent thorn in Clinton’s side as she attempts to gain momentum in the fall.

“This is going to continue to drip out until January of next year,” he said, keeping questions about her honesty front and center for voters, many of whom, according to polls, already do not trust her.

“Even if there are no smoking guns… there isn’t anything that’s going to build up more trust in her as a candidate,” he said.

Conservative political strategist Lisa Boothe agreed that the emails could reinforce the perception that Clinton is hiding something, even if they do not uncover any big secrets.

“It is something that is going to continue to create problems for her and is going to continue to create problems for the Clinton campaign,” she said.

“It shows that there’s a little bit of a game that’s being played here,” Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak said, noting that Obama administration officials who claimed not to have known she was using a personal email address actually did.

A June CNN/ORC poll found that 57% of Americans do not consider Clinton honest and trustworthy. A statement and video put out by the Republican National Committee Monday before the latest emails were released attempts to capitalize on that doubt.

“The trustworthiness issue will continue to hang around and she’ll have to deal with it,” Skelley said. However, “trustworthiness alone will not sink Hillary Clinton.”

One Democratic strategist dismissed the suggestion that the emails damaged Clinton’s image.

“My sense is there’s no there there,” said national Democratic strategist and former Clinton White House staffer Bob Weiner.

“They want to do it in drips and drabs,” Weiner said of Republicans, “but they tried that against Bill Clinton” with scandals in the 1990s that never took him down.

Political scientist Dennis Goldford, a professor at Drake University, said the emails would likely be viewed through a partisan filter.

“For Republicans, this already confirms pre-existing suspicions,” he said. “For Democrats, it’s another Republican snow job. The question is what does it do to independent voters.”

The danger for Clinton, according to Goldford, is in these details potentially supporting allegations that she cannot be trusted.

“You don’t want to set in concrete the sort of narrative that raises questions about who you are,” he said.

In addition to the honesty question, according to the conservative strategists, the emails are a distraction from issues that Clinton would prefer to discuss on the campaign trail, forcing her to continue defending her term as secretary of state and her husband’s presidency.

“It’s definitely not what Hillary Clinton wants to be talking about,” Boothe said.

Mackowiak said the focus on Clinton’s history is particularly harmful for her.

“She’s going to be successful if she’s able to convince voters she’s the future,” he said. “She’s not going to be successful if voters think she’s the past.”

One aspect of Clinton’s past that the emails have brought to the forefront is her relationship with Sidney Blumenthal, a writer and former aide to Bill Clinton who sent her advice on many issues, including the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, Libya.

Clinton’s characterizations of her relationship with Blumenthal “seem a little off based on what we’ve read in the emails,” Skelley said, and he appears to have advised her on more topics than previously thought.

Boothe said the question about Blumenthal may not resonate with voters, but they feed into larger concerns about the Benghazi attack that Republicans will continue to challenge.

“It adds more fuel to the fire for the Benghazi committee to want to investigate what his role is,” she said.

Unless future emails reveal something much more significant about Blumenthal, though, Mackowiak doubts regular voters will care about criticism of his role.

Clinton’s campaign released a video Wednesday titled “Charade” attacking Republicans for the amount of time and resources that have gone into investigating the Benghazi attack and questioning their recent focus on Blumenthal.

Goldford said the “silly” aspects of the emails, such as the fax machine thing, may not stick with voters because they do not fit in with a narrative about Clinton.

“My guess would be that this isn’t going to have a particular impact itself,” he said.

Although Mackowiak described those details as “trivial,” he said they could help Republican paint Clinton as out of touch and unrelateable.

“You can build a narrative around her that she’s otherworldly,” he said, adding her inability to use a fax machine and debating which private plane to use to existing criticisms of the millions of dollars the Clintons have made since the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency.

“Talk about the 1%,” he said. “They’ve lived the 1% lifestyle.”

If Clinton does reach the general election, Mackowiak predicted that those aspects of her life will open her up to some of the same attacks Democrats used on Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012.

“Turnabout is fair play,” he warned. “They went after Mitt Romney so hard for being successful and being wealthy.”

“A lot of those problems are going to be huge boulders that Hillary is carrying around. They are going to weigh her down and I do think she’s going to have a hard time convincing people that she’s a normal person.”

Weiner, however, had a warning for opponents who try to use the latest emails to tarnish Clinton.

“If you victimize the Clintons, the backlash is worse than the attack,” he said.

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