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Clinton's Email Server Back In Spotlight After WikiLeaks Release

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

In recent weeks, WikiLeaks has been publishing private emails between Hillary Clinton's advisers, and one notable batch dates from March 2015. They show that even before Clinton's campaign officially existed, her team was trying to manage what would become her biggest controversy - her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state. NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: In one email chain, John Podesta, now Clinton's campaign chairman, and Neera Tanden, a longtime Clinton ally, complain about the email story coming out so late in the game. Podesta writes that those in Clinton's inner circle, quote, "sure weren't forthcoming on the facts here." Tanden asks, why didn't they get this stuff out, like, 18 months ago - so crazy - and in a later email answers her own question, saying, quote, "they wanted to get away with it."

But of course they didn't get away with it, and the story seemed to get worse for Clinton by the day. And that's around the time President Obama sat down for an interview with Bill Plante of CBS News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL PLANTE: Mr. President, when did you first learn that Hillary Clinton used an email system outside the U.S. government for official business while she was secretary of state?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The same time everybody else learned it through news reports.

KEITH: That prompted another email chain within Clinton's shadow campaign with lawyer and aide Cheryl Mills weighing in to say, quote, "we need to clean this up." He - referring to President Obama - has emails from her. They do not say state.gov. Two days later, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest did venture to clean it up in the daily press briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH EARNEST: The point that the president was making is not that he didn't know Secretary Clinton's email address. He did. But he was not aware of the details of how that email address and that server had been set up.

KEITH: Clinton's close aides knew they had a problem on their hands. In one email released by WikiLeaks, her longtime spokesman Philippe Reines responds to the suggestion that Clinton needs to get out there and explain the email arrangement herself by saying, quote, "there is just no good answer. We need to gut through the process phase, get them all out there and let the content do the talking." Ultimately Clinton and her team did decide she needed to talk publicly about her email arrangement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: All set - good afternoon.

KEITH: It was March 10, a full month before Clinton would announce she was running for president. But there she was, facing a wall of reporters with questions about her emails.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLINTON: Looking back, it would have been better if I'd simply used a second email account and carried a second phone. But at the time, this didn't seem like an issue.

KEITH: And to this day, it continues to be an issue dogging her campaign. And now the WikiLeaks release is giving new ammunition to her opponent Donald Trump. Clinton campaign spokesman Glen Caplin says the campaign won't weigh in on the content or authenticity of any individual emails released by WikiLeaks, which the campaign blames on Russia.

GLEN CAPLIN: It strains the imagination to think that the Russians could not or would not have information on Donald Trump. Yet all we're seeing through this weaponizing of WikiLeaks is information that's designed to hurt Hillary Clinton's campaign.

KEITH: And the slow drip of these internal emails, he says, is all part of that effort. Tamara Keith, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.