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Clinton attacked over possible new Benghazi emails as poll numbers slip

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the American Legion's 98th Annual Convention at the Duke Energy Convention Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

“It’s in-your-face government corruption,” the head of a conservative watchdog group said Wednesday after learning that emails possibly related to the 2012 Benghazi attacks sent to or received by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been uncovered but may not be released for weeks.

“We’re seeing it in real time,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the group whose lawsuit led to the discovery of the documents.

“It’s pretty clear the Clinton email scandal is now an Obama scandal because of their complicit or co-conspirator relationship in keeping the records away from the American people,” Fitton said.

The State Department revealed at a hearing Tuesday that it may have found approximately 30 emails related to the Benghazi attacks. Department lawyers said they needed 30 days to review the messages and determine if anything needed to be redacted before their release.

According to ABC News, Judge Amit Mehta rejected that schedule saying the department should be able to get through 30 emails faster than that. Mehta ordered the State Department to submit a status report by September 6 indicating exactly how many of the emails are responsive to the Judicial Watch records request and how many have not been previously disclosed.

These emails were among 14,900 documents that the FBI recovered from Clinton’s private server during its year-long investigation of her handling of classified information when she was secretary of state. Those documents have been turned over to the State Department for review.

FBI Director James Comey announced in July that no criminal charges would be recommended in the case, although he lambasted Clinton and her staff for being “extremely careless” with classified material.

It is unknown how many of the nearly 15,000 recovered documents are work-related or how many are duplicates of the 30,000 messages Clinton did preserve that have already been released by the State Department. Comey said agents recovered thousands of work-related emails that had been deleted, but investigators did not conclude that any messages were willfully deleted to cover up information.

“Using broad search terms, we have identified approximately 30 documents potentially responsive to a Benghazi-related request. At this time, we have not confirmed that the documents are, in fact, responsive, or whether they are duplicates of materials already provided to the Department by former Secretary Clinton in December 2014,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby in a statement.

This news ties together Benghazi, the email controversy, and potential dishonesty, highlighting three of Clinton’s biggest political liabilities, said Tobe Berkovitz, a former political media consultant.

“Regardless of what’s in these emails, the bad news is the story keeps going,” Berkovitz, a professor of advertising at Boston University, said.

The fact that the stories of the emails and the Benghazi attacks have been going on for so long blunts the impact of these latest developments unless the content turns out to be “explosive,” according to Richard Immerman, a former assistant deputy director for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

“People are just going to, to some extent, roll their eyes and say, ‘Here we go again,’” said Immerman, director of the Center for the Study of Force and Diplomacy at Temple University.

But Republicans say the existence of these emails alone reinforces doubts about how upfront Clinton has been with the public.

"It is outrageous that these emails were just discovered and it's even more outrageous that officials say it will take a month to review them before their release,” said Brian Fraley, owner of Republican consulting firm Edge Messaging. “This slow-walking of information has moved beyond incompetence to cover-up territory.”

Judges have questioned the State Department’s speed and efficiency in releasing Clinton’s email records before. The State Department Inspector General has also criticized the department for slow and incomplete responses to FOIA requests in the past.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s campaign pounced on the latest revelations as evidence that Clinton cannot be trusted.

“Hillary Clinton swore before a federal court and told the American people she handed over all of her work-related emails,” Trump spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement. “If Clinton did not consider emails about something as important as Benghazi to be work-related, one has to wonder what is contained in the other emails she attempted to wipe from her server."

Clinton’s campaign emphasized that these emails may not be new at all.

“Some, or even all, of 30 emails in question may have in fact been turned over already,” Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon tweeted Wednesday. “We actually expect a large number of the 15k emails to be duplicates of ones she already provided. Large number likely to be personal too.”

Still, Democrats expect the attacks from Republicans to continue.

“Trump and his sniffling, servile running dogs will say the same thing regardless of whatever may or may not be in any of Hillary Clinton’s emails,” said strategist Craig Varoga. “He blew his credibility a long time ago and whatever he says, which will be predictably negative and demagogic, will rile up his base and not change anybody’s mind.”

The new questions about Benghazi emails come as the FBI prepares to release its report detailing why no criminal charges were recommended in the investigation. The FBI also plans to release agents’ notes from their three-hour interview with Clinton.

CNN reported those documents could be made public as early as Wednesday.

Clinton said in an interview with MSNBC last week that she is sure no more damaging emails would be coming. That promise could come back to haunt her, but there is not much else she could have said.

“She’s certainly not going to answer that I’m really worried there’s going to be something damaging,” Immerman said. He also doubts there are many voters left who can be persuaded one way or the other on this issue.

“The overwhelming majority of the electorate have made up their minds at this point,” he said.

Clinton got her side of the story out there for a news cycle, even if it is later refuted.

“Hillary has to defend herself aggressively, concretely, and then hope that if and when bad news comes, that’s just going to be one more old soundbite that’s a problem,” Berkovitz said.

Clinton’s own emails are not the only ones she must worry about now. Emails released by Judicial Watch and others over the last two weeks from top aide Huma Abedin’s account have sparked fresh allegations of corruption surrounding the relationship between the State Department and the Clinton Foundation.

Amid a renewed media focus on her emails and her family’s foundation, Clinton’s popularity seems to be stumbling. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows her with her highest unfavorable rating of her campaign, rivaling Trump’s numbers. Among registered voters, 59 percent now view Clinton unfavorably and 60 percent view Trump that way.

According to the poll, Clinton’s support has dipped among constituencies that have often been seen as her strengths, including women, highly educated voters, and Hispanics. For the first time in a year, she is viewed unfavorably by a majority of women.

Two new polls of Wisconsin voters released Wednesday show numbers tightening there as well. Although Clinton remains in the lead, her trustworthiness and voters’ level of comfort with her as president have fallen since previous surveys.

“It’s people who never trusted her but sort of gave her a bye because Trump seemed worse,” Berkovitz said. With the glow of the Democratic National Convention fading, they may be reconsidering that assessment and remembering why they doubted her.

“What’s happening now is the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Numerous lawsuits by Judicial Watch, other conservative groups, and the Republican National Committee are pending, so more emails will be released between now and the election, a process over which Clinton has no control.

She must be prepared for further revelations and additional questions about her sending and receiving classified information, her aides communicating with Clinton Foundation staff, and facts that contradict her past public statements.

She may also have to answer questions about the emails herself under oath before voters head to the polls. Judicial Watch submitted a list of 25 questions Tuesday that she must respond to. A judge denied the group’s request to conduct a full deposition.

According to Judicial Watch, Clinton is required to respond by September 29. The language of Judge Emmet Sullivan’s order is unclear about exactly when her response is due.

However, Trump may be his own biggest obstacle in capitalizing on Clinton’s woes.

The news about the Benghazi emails and the impending release of details on the FBI investigation has largely been smothered by Trump’s announcement late Tuesday night that he would travel to Mexico prior to his immigration speech Wednesday.

"Instead of focusing on this continuing scandal, Trump continues to step on every damaging stories about Clinton,” Fraley said. “It's a sign of an inexperienced and undisciplined candidate who either doesn't understand or doesn't actually want to win.”

Immerman doubts the Mexico trip will help Trump improve his image.

“What it is going to do is sort of drown out anything about the Benghazi emails,” he said.

Berkovitz argued that Trump needed to take steps to address his past bashing of Mexico and Mexicans when he had the opportunity.

“He’s better off trying to generate something positive about his campaign,” he said.

The email stories will continue to float around in the media, with more bad headlines for Clinton pretty much inevitable, so he can hit her for it another time.

“Go to Wikipedia and look up sword of Damocles,” Berkovitz said, “because there’s a big one hanging over her.”

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