ANALYSIS: No, Hillary Clinton Did Not Commit a Crime ... at Least Based on What We Know Today

ABC News legal analyst Dan Abrams makes the argument.

— -- Dan Abrams is ABC News' legal analyst. This article originally appeared on his new law and crime site LawNewz.com. Opinions expressed below are solely those of the author.

Apart from fierce partisans making a case for a litany of crimes she should face and certain defenders summarily dismissing all allegations of wrongdoing, there has been little sober, legal analysis of the issues.

The reality as I see it is one that won’t entirely satisfy either side — that based on what we know today, she likely did violate government procedures and rules, but not the law.

Facts

It’s critical to start by separating foolish and even potentially shady behavior from criminal. It should be clear to any objective observer that it was an enormous error for Clinton to use a homemade server for all of her emails while she was in a position that regularly handles and assesses the most sensitive of government secrets. She had admitted as much (although now she appears to be backtracking from that initial mea culpa).

What makes this different, however, is that she created and maintained her own server in her home, and therefore controlled, all her emails, personal and professional.

When analyzing the questions involved, far too many have lumped together potential record keeping regulations with espionage.

The Law

Based on what we know today, there are likely two primary laws at the heart of the probe and two or three others that might be considered investigative fallout. Partisans alleging that Clinton may have violated as many as 15 crimes are either exaggerating or simply seeking to overstate the gravity for effect.

1) The first and most discussed statute has been 18 U.S.C.A. § 1924(a), and it’s a misdemeanor:

It’s a tough argument for her to make that the federal records were being preserved properly “in the appropriate agency” which she led from 2009-2013. Furthermore, State Department internal communications made clear as early as 2011 that personal emails should not be used for “official department business.” Any possible ambiguity was eliminated in 2014 when President Obama signed changes to the Federal Records Act that explicitly prohibited federal officials from using personal email addresses unless they also copy or send the emails to their official account.

Even before 2014, however, it seems quite clear that the 2009 language and follow up cables from the State Department indicate she did not adhere to proper protocol. But there is a colossal difference between “wrong,” “improper” or even a regulation violation, and a federal crime.

Conclusion

To be clear, none of this means Clinton won’t be charged. There may be a trove of non-public evidence against her about which we simply do not know. It’s also possible that the FBI recommends charges and federal prosecutors decide not to move forward as occurs in many cases. No question, that could create an explosive and politicized showdown. But based on what we do know from what has been made public, there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate basis for any sort of criminal charge against her. I fear many commentators are allowing their analysis to become clouded by a long standing distrust, or even hatred of Hillary Clinton.

In fact, I recently expressed my view of this investigation to a friend who retorted “I didn’t know you are a Hillary guy?” I guess there is almost no way to analyze this case without being accused of partisanship but then please also mischaracterize me in this context as a Dennis Hastert guy, a George Zimmerman guy, a Brendan Dassey guy, a gun control guy and an anti-Obama guy (just to name a few).

Hillary bashing is good clean political sport but a federal criminal indictment is serious business, saved for serious crimes and hopefully based on serious evidence, which as of yet, has not materialized.

There are serious legal hurdles to overcome for those who would seek to file a charge under this law. First, none of the information she possessed and/or presumably “removes” had officially been declared “classified” at that time. That matters.

Sure, there is an argument that classified “documents” are not the same as classified “information” and that certain information is “classified at birth” and therefore always officially classified. And there’s no question that some of the information and/or documents were later declared classified.

But this isn’t a law school exam where we attempt to figure out how creative one can become in fitting a law into a particular fact pattern. We are talking about whether a criminal charge should be filed based on intentional conduct when even governmental agencies squabble over what is classified and what isn’t. So proving that she “knowingly” removed “classified information” “without authority” at the time seems far-fetched based on what we know today.

2) But those legal requirements of intentional conduct regarding classified information do not exist in the language of 18 U.S.C.A § 793(f), which is a felony:

Here, if it is determined that by “gross negligence” she permitted information “relating to the national defense” (as opposed to the more formal “classified” definition) “to be removed from its proper place of custody,” then she could be facing up to 10 years behind bars.

Reading this as a layperson one might think this could be an easier crime to prove. Not so.

Could an aggressive prosecutor argue that it was grossly negligent for her to run all of her emails out of her home server and that it included “national defense” information “removed from its proper place of custody?” Sure, but that would also warp the intent and interpretation of this Espionage Law without far more evidence than what we have today.

In 1941, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case which challenged whether the phrase “national defense” in this Espionage Law was too vague and over-broad. The answer was no only because:

The Supreme Court clearly never envisioned a prosecution under the Espionage Act without “intent” to injure the United States and in “bad faith” (This was in reference to a different section of the same law but the point remains the same). Other courts have interpreted the phrase “national defense” narrowly as a direct result of the fact that on its face, the words seem so broad.

Furthermore, ”gross negligence” as a legal matter, doesn’t, and shouldn’t, just mean it was wrong or dumb or even just careless. Rather gross negligence is generally defined legally as:

As Professor Laurie Levinson explained in the National Law Journal:

That is another critical point here. This Espionage Law clearly was never intended to address a Secretary of State using — foolishly or even improperly to maintain her privacy — a personal email server to send and receive emails. Inevitably, this novel use of the law would leave a political stink. Efforts to compare this situation to other cases that have been prosecuted also fail on the facts.

Yes, many laws are regularly used as swords well beyond their intended purpose and if we learn that she or her aides were intentionally removing or even copying classified documents and moving or sending them to her unsecured personal server that could be a different story. We do know that in some of the released emails, her aides even discuss the need to steer away from classified information. Exactly what they did to give her access to certain information and/or who ordered it, will be important issues. Based on what we know today, however, charging Clinton with Espionage would be overreaching to say the least.

But even if the feds decide not to pursue either of those charges, any investigation is treacherous because you never know what else might be uncovered.

3) Maybe the most politically devastating legal allegation reported thus far is based on a Fox News report that the FBI is also now investigating whether she offered up political favors to those who donated to the Clinton Foundation.

“The agents are investigating the possible intersection of Clinton Foundation donations, the dispensation of State Department contracts and whether regular processes were followed,” Fox News reported.

This is the sort of crime and prosecution typically referred to as public corruption, which doomed former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, now sentenced to serve two years in prison. Although that case involved gifts and trips, etc., and the Supreme Court is reviewing his conviction, the danger with this sort of allegation is that once a prosecutor decides to move forward, they can be very difficult cases to defend. Typical political horsetrading, access and public corruption can be difficult to distinguish. Regardless, at this point there are plenty of allegations but absolutely no corroborated evidence to support any sort of criminal charge.

4) Depending on what was asked and answered, more than anything, Clinton might be concerned about the fact that the FBI has reportedly extended its investigation to include whether “materially false statements” were made to federal agents during the course of the investigation. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert learned the hard way that even if the feds decide you aren’t guilty of the crime they were initially investigating, you still can’t lie to federal agents. Keep in mind that public statements are generally not subject to possible criminal charges (unless you are Martha Stewart), but statements to federal agents must be truthful. Again, there is simply no evidence at this point that she lied to the feds.

Recent Legal Analysis

So how does all of this jibe with what Judge Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week:

Unfortunately, this is the sort of conflation of possible wrongdoing and crimes for which journalists are often criticized by lawyers. Judge Mukasey, for whom I have enormous respect, should know better. He seems to be arguing that because this all just feels wrong and even criminal-y, she should at least be charged with a misdemeanor. That is, of course, not how the law can or should work. In fact, Judge Mukasey learned the hard way that misstating the law when discussing the case against Clinton can be hazardous. Judge Mukasey also echoed the conservative talking point that the case against Clinton is eerily similar to the charges against former general David Petraeus:

“This is the same charge brought against Gen. David Petraeus for disclosing classified information in his personal notebooks to his biographer and mistress, who was herself an Army Reserve military intelligence officer cleared to see top secret information.”

Except that it is nothing like that case. Apart from the possible charge, there are actually few or no similarities from a factual perspective as the lead prosecutor in the Petreaus case explained in an op-ed in USA Today:

In the law, intent can be everything. Petraeus clearly knew he was violating the law, but based on what we know today, there is no evidence – not suppositions or partisan allegations but actual evidence – that Clinton knew that using a private email server was criminal or even improper at the time. Even assuming for argument’s sake she created the server to keep her emails out of the public eye, that is in no way remotely comparable to the Petraeus case. Efforts to contrast the two cases fall flat factually and legally.

Government Procedural Rules

But Clinton has also asserted that what she did “was allowed” at the time. So even if she isn’t found to have violated the law, did she violate any non-criminal federal regulations by failing to, at the least, maintain all her records properly?

Probably. According to 2009 National Archives Regulations obtained by Politico:

It’s a tough argument for her to make that the federal records were being preserved properly “in the appropriate agency” which she led from 2009-2013. Furthermore, State Department internal communications made clear as early as 2011 that personal emails should not be used for “official department business.” Any possible ambiguity was eliminated in 2014 when President Obama signed changes to the Federal Records Act that explicitly prohibited federal officials from using personal email addresses unless they also copy or send the emails to their official account.

Even before 2014, however, it seems quite clear that the 2009 language and follow up cables from the State Department indicate she did not adhere to proper protocol. But there is a colossal difference between “wrong,” “improper” or even a regulation violation, and a federal crime.

Conclusion

To be clear, none of this means Clinton won’t be charged. There may be a trove of non-public evidence against her about which we simply do not know. It’s also possible that the FBI recommends charges and federal prosecutors decide not to move forward as occurs in many cases. No question, that could create an explosive and politicized showdown. But based on what we do know from what has been made public, there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate basis for any sort of criminal charge against her. I fear many commentators are allowing their analysis to become clouded by a long standing distrust, or even hatred of Hillary Clinton.

In fact, I recently expressed my view of this investigation to a friend who retorted “I didn’t know you are a Hillary guy?” I guess there is almost no way to analyze this case without being accused of partisanship but then please also mischaracterize me in this context as a Dennis Hastert guy, a George Zimmerman guy, a Brendan Dassey guy, a gun control guy and an anti-Obama guy (just to name a few).

Hillary bashing is good clean political sport but a federal criminal indictment is serious business, saved for serious crimes and hopefully based on serious evidence, which as of yet, has not materialized.

“The agents are investigating the possible intersection of Clinton Foundation donations, the dispensation of State Department contracts and whether regular processes were followed,” Fox News reported.

This is the sort of crime and prosecution typically referred to as public corruption, which doomed former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, now sentenced to serve two years in prison. Although that case involved gifts and trips, etc., and the Supreme Court is reviewing his conviction, the danger with this sort of allegation is that once a prosecutor decides to move forward, they can be very difficult cases to defend. Typical political horsetrading, access and public corruption can be difficult to distinguish. Regardless, at this point there are plenty of allegations but absolutely no corroborated evidence to support any sort of criminal charge.

4) Depending on what was asked and answered, more than anything, Clinton might be concerned about the fact that the FBI has reportedly extended its investigation to include whether “materially false statements” were made to federal agents during the course of the investigation. Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert learned the hard way that even if the feds decide you aren’t guilty of the crime they were initially investigating, you still can’t lie to federal agents. Keep in mind that public statements are generally not subject to possible criminal charges (unless you are Martha Stewart), but statements to federal agents must be truthful. Again, there is simply no evidence at this point that she lied to the feds.

Recent Legal Analysis

So how does all of this jibe with what Judge Mukasey wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week:

Unfortunately, this is the sort of conflation of possible wrongdoing and crimes for which journalists are often criticized by lawyers. Judge Mukasey, for whom I have enormous respect, should know better. He seems to be arguing that because this all just feels wrong and even criminal-y, she should at least be charged with a misdemeanor. That is, of course, not how the law can or should work. In fact, Judge Mukasey learned the hard way that misstating the law when discussing the case against Clinton can be hazardous. Judge Mukasey also echoed the conservative talking point that the case against Clinton is eerily similar to the charges against former general David Petraeus:

“This is the same charge brought against Gen. David Petraeus for disclosing classified information in his personal notebooks to his biographer and mistress, who was herself an Army Reserve military intelligence officer cleared to see top secret information.”

Except that it is nothing like that case. Apart from the possible charge, there are actually few or no similarities from a factual perspective as the lead prosecutor in the Petreaus case explained in an op-ed in USA Today:

In the law, intent can be everything. Petraeus clearly knew he was violating the law, but based on what we know today, there is no evidence – not suppositions or partisan allegations but actual evidence – that Clinton knew that using a private email server was criminal or even improper at the time. Even assuming for argument’s sake she created the server to keep her emails out of the public eye, that is in no way remotely comparable to the Petraeus case. Efforts to contrast the two cases fall flat factually and legally.

Government Procedural Rules

But Clinton has also asserted that what she did “was allowed” at the time. So even if she isn’t found to have violated the law, did she violate any non-criminal federal regulations by failing to, at the least, maintain all her records properly?

Probably. According to 2009 National Archives Regulations obtained by Politico:

It’s a tough argument for her to make that the federal records were being preserved properly “in the appropriate agency” which she led from 2009-2013. Furthermore, State Department internal communications made clear as early as 2011 that personal emails should not be used for “official department business.” Any possible ambiguity was eliminated in 2014 when President Obama signed changes to the Federal Records Act that explicitly prohibited federal officials from using personal email addresses unless they also copy or send the emails to their official account.

Even before 2014, however, it seems quite clear that the 2009 language and follow up cables from the State Department indicate she did not adhere to proper protocol. But there is a colossal difference between “wrong,” “improper” or even a regulation violation, and a federal crime.

Conclusion

To be clear, none of this means Clinton won’t be charged. There may be a trove of non-public evidence against her about which we simply do not know. It’s also possible that the FBI recommends charges and federal prosecutors decide not to move forward as occurs in many cases. No question, that could create an explosive and politicized showdown. But based on what we do know from what has been made public, there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate basis for any sort of criminal charge against her. I fear many commentators are allowing their analysis to become clouded by a long standing distrust, or even hatred of Hillary Clinton.

In fact, I recently expressed my view of this investigation to a friend who retorted “I didn’t know you are a Hillary guy?” I guess there is almost no way to analyze this case without being accused of partisanship but then please also mischaracterize me in this context as a Dennis Hastert guy, a George Zimmerman guy, a Brendan Dassey guy, a gun control guy and an anti-Obama guy (just to name a few).

Hillary bashing is good clean political sport but a federal criminal indictment is serious business, saved for serious crimes and hopefully based on serious evidence, which as of yet, has not materialized.

It’s a tough argument for her to make that the federal records were being preserved properly “in the appropriate agency” which she led from 2009-2013. Furthermore, State Department internal communications made clear as early as 2011 that personal emails should not be used for “official department business.” Any possible ambiguity was eliminated in 2014 when President Obama signed changes to the Federal Records Act that explicitly prohibited federal officials from using personal email addresses unless they also copy or send the emails to their official account.

Even before 2014, however, it seems quite clear that the 2009 language and follow up cables from the State Department indicate she did not adhere to proper protocol. But there is a colossal difference between “wrong,” “improper” or even a regulation violation, and a federal crime.

Conclusion

To be clear, none of this means Clinton won’t be charged. There may be a trove of non-public evidence against her about which we simply do not know. It’s also possible that the FBI recommends charges and federal prosecutors decide not to move forward as occurs in many cases. No question, that could create an explosive and politicized showdown. But based on what we do know from what has been made public, there doesn’t seem to be a legitimate basis for any sort of criminal charge against her. I fear many commentators are allowing their analysis to become clouded by a long standing distrust, or even hatred of Hillary Clinton.

In fact, I recently expressed my view of this investigation to a friend who retorted “I didn’t know you are a Hillary guy?” I guess there is almost no way to analyze this case without being accused of partisanship but then please also mischaracterize me in this context as a Dennis Hastert guy, a George Zimmerman guy, a Brendan Dassey guy, a gun control guy and an anti-Obama guy (just to name a few).

Hillary bashing is good clean political sport but a federal criminal indictment is serious business, saved for serious crimes and hopefully based on serious evidence, which as of yet, has not materialized.

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

Top Stories

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events