White House Refusing to Release Obama-Clinton Emails

Because that's what White Houseses do.

White House View From Pennsylvania Avenue

The White House has issued a statement that it will not release emails between President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, citing longstanding precedent.

Mr. Obama’s direct correspondence with Mrs. Clinton was forwarded by the State Department to the White House, which has decided against release, a move likely to intensify the struggle between Mrs. Clinton and congressional Republicans, who have pressed for disclosure of her emails as part of an investigation into the administration’s handling of the Benghazi events.

The contents of the emails between Mrs. Clinton, who is running for president, and Mr. Obama have not been disclosed, but their presumed existence has not been a secret. The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, acknowledged in March that the two “did have the occasion to email one another” when Mrs. Clinton was secretary of state.


White House officials said Friday that their refusal to release the emails between the two officials is not based on their content, but rather is intended to defend the principle that presidents must be free to receive advice from their top aides without fear that the conversations will be made public during their time in office. They noted the emails between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton will eventually become public many years after the Obama presidency ends, under the terms of federal records laws.

“There is a long history of presidential records being kept confidential while the president is in office,” a White House official said. “It is a principle that previous White Houses have vigorously defended as it goes to the core of the president’s ability to receive unvarnished advice and counsel.”


But by refusing to release the emails, Mr. Obama is following a well-worn precedent that he and his predecessors have established. Mr. Obama has repeatedly resisted efforts by Congress to turn over the president’s private communications, which by law are exempt from Freedom of Information laws that are often used to pry information out of other parts of an administration.

Former presidents of both parties have done the same, often insisting that to do otherwise would open the president’s most sensitive deliberations to congressional and public inspection.

“Direct communications by the president and his senior advisers are really at the very center of what is trying to be protected by executive privilege and the separation of powers,” said William Burck, a deputy counsel for President George W. Bush. He called the decision by Mr. Obama’s administration “very reasonable” and praised the president for following Mr. Bush’s practice.

Absent strong suspicion of malfeasance on the part of the President—of which there is none here—it’s not only standard practice but quite reasonable to withhold the release of private communications. It’s absolutely critical that the President be able to communicate in an unvarnished manner with his cabinet and staff and the prospect of Congress demanding to comb through those communications would create a chilling effect.

The obvious counterpoint that comes to mind is the infamous Nixon tapes, which were successfully subpoenaed by the House Judiciary Committee after the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the White House must comply. But that came after direct testimony by White House Counsel John Dean about the criminal conspiracy. After other senior staffers contradicted Dean’s allegations, the tapes were needed as evidence to corroborate. But, again, there’s nothing remotely similar at stake here.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Generally agreed. Absent some independent evidence outside the emails that there is could be something relevant in the communications between Secretary of State and the President, no Court is going to break Executive Privilege.

  2. JohnMcC says:

    Have been reading biographies of the Founders the last year or so. George Washington defended Executive Privilege. Do I understand that this is going to become a controversy? Otherwise seems a waste of perfectly good electrons to put it up here today. (Or maybe I’m unusually grumpy this morning.)

  3. Jenos Idanian says:

    Who needs to know the contents of the e-mais? Was President Obama not smart enough to realize he was corresponding with Hillary via a “clintonemail.com” address, and not a “state.gov” address? Did none of his IT people notice that the Secretary of State was conducting official business through her own personal server?

    Their mere existence is sufficient. The contents? Irrelevant.

  4. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    the Secretary of State was conducting official business through her own personal server?

    So you have still not figured out that beyond people who have outsourced their thinking to Fox, no one really gives a crap?

  5. michael reynolds says:


    Obsessives lack the capacity to see what tedious bores they’ve become.

  6. John430 says:

    “…—it’s not only standard practice but quite reasonable to withhold the release of private communications…”

    But, but, but this is the most transparent administration evah! Isn’t it? No further questions, your honor.

  7. Gustopher says:

    The Republicans knew that the request would be refused, and know that similar requests have been routinely refused by administrations of both parties for decades (email, written documents, phone logs, etc). Republicans even agree with the rationale.

    But they ask anyway, knowing they can say “The Obama Administration is refusing to release emails containing who knows what…” Pure opportunism.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    @John430:..this is the most transparent administration evah!

    The only thing more transparent than the current administration John Boy, is your motivation to make such vacuous statements.

  9. PJ says:

    In XX years when the correspondence between Obama and Clinton is finally released the world will finally find out how they planned the Benghazi attack together!

  10. DrDaveT says:


    But, but, but this is the most transparent administration evah! Isn’t it?

    No, it isn’t. You are absolutely right that Obama’s failure to follow through on his transparency rhetoric is one of the things that most disappoints many of his supporters — even those of us who think that, overall, his Presidency has been almost as successful as anyone could have hoped for under the circumstances.

  11. Jenos Idanian #13 says:

    @anjin-san: But I thought that “THE LAW IS THE LAW” around here.

    I bet those e-maile were trying to figure out when it was safe to drop their opposition to gay marriage…

  12. MM2 says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: So why don’t the emails fall under executive privilege law?

  13. al-Ameda says:

    Those email exchanges between Hillary and the President are extremely banal. Hillary was offering to put the costs of both their annual ISIS memberships on her personal credit card, rather than on the Official State Department Visa Card. I don’t see the problem, do you?

  14. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13:

    But I thought that “THE LAW IS THE LAW” around here.

    What law did Clinton or Obama break? Be specific.


  15. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: I’d say that about half of your comments boil down to saying “Be specific,” and the other half are you refusing to actually getting specific.

    I’m just guessing on the percentages, but they seem about right.

  16. Jenos Idanian says:

    @MM2: I didn’t say they don’t fall under Executive Privilege, and I am inclined to think the contents of those e-mails would be covered.

    But as I said, their mere existence says a hell of a lot.

    Hillary exclusively used her private e-mail server; she didn’t use government servers. So her correspondence with Obama was through her clintonemail.com account. Which means that Obama either knew that Hillary was using a private account, or wasn’t paying enough attention to notice the address.

    It also means that the White House IT people had to know that Hillary was using that private server for her official business.

    All information readily derived from the mere existence of the e-mails, without having to access the contents of the e-mails.

    Yes, I’m curious about the contents of those e-mails. But if Obama chooses to exercise Executive Privilege and protect them, and at this point I am inclined to think that the e-mails would be covered, then so be it.

  17. anjin-san says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Shorter Jenos – “I’ve got nothing”

    Which of course, is pretty much every comment you have ever made, once you boil away the blather.

  18. Jenos Idanian says:

    @anjin-san: Even shorter annie — ” “.

    Everyone knows you’re allergic to saying anything of substance, annie. Do you really feel the need to demonstrate it over and over again?

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @John430: Once again rhetoric runs into reality. Stop the presses! Stop the presses! Politician breaks campaign promise!

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    But as I said, their mere existence says a hell of a lot.

    The only thing it says is what anyone with half a brain already knew. Was Obama lying when he said he did not know about her private server? I can only say that I did not buy it. Is this a sign of some nefarious conspiracy?

    No. It’s a sign that Obama, like every other politician since the beginning of time, told a lie, in this case in order to not get bogged down in some nothing burger, made to order conspiracy theory put forth by his political opponents.

    ps; kinda nice to be able to comment again instead of getting caught in the spam filter like I have been for the last month or more. We’ll see how long it lasts.

  21. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Jenos Idanian:

    Hillary exclusively used her private e-mail server [which the law allowed her to do] ; she didn’t use government servers [which the law didn’t require her to do].

    Ethically, sure, it’s a tad smelly, but legally, she’s in the clear. There is nothing Congress or anyone else can do to her besides what they’ve been doing all along – try to attach stink to her campaign.

    The people who buy it were never going to vote for her to begin with. The rest of generally just don’t care at this point and will vote for despite this email server thing.

    How much longer do you plan to keep beating this dead horse?

  22. An Interested Party says:

    How much longer do you plan to keep beating this dead horse?

    Through and past January 20, 2017 when the first female is inaugurated as president of the United States…

  23. gVOR08 says:

    Absent strong suspicion of malfeasance on the part of the President—of which there is none here

    Misquoting Bugs Bunny, you don’t know the R base very good. Take Jenos. Please.

    Don’t you understand that everything Obama does is an outrage? And that pointing out that every president back to and including George Washington did the same thing is no defense? It must stop NOW. And when will he stop blaming Bush?