WASHINGTON—Hillary Rodham Clinton is facing fresh worries among congressional Democrats about her use of a private email account while serving as secretary of state, as new polls signal that the inquiry is taking a toll on her presidential campaign.
The Democratic front-runner’s campaign has taken steps to defend her against allegations she may have put classified information at risk by using a private email account and server, arguing she never sent or received material considered classified at the time.
But Democratic lawmakers said Clinton’s campaign has not adequately explained the complicated nature of the email review and panned some of her attempts to use humor to talk about the probe. Clinton joked at a Democratic dinner in Iowa last week that she liked the social media platform Snapchat because the messages disappear by themselves. And she shrugged off questions about her server being wiped clean, asking facetiously in Nevada, “Like a cloth or something?”
“I don’t think the campaign has handled it very well,” Florida Sen. Bill Nelson told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I think the advice to her of making a joke out of it — I think that was not good advice.”
Nelson said if Clinton had received information that should have been labeled classified or top secret, the person sending the email would bear the responsibility of making that clear on the email. “If she is receiving something on a private email account and it has no designation, then how would she know that it is classified?” he asked.
In Republican-leaning Kentucky, Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth warned in an interview with WHAS-TV in Louisville: “I still think there is a chance that this could upend her campaign.”
“I just never feel like I have a grasp of what the facts are,” Yarmuth said Wednesday. “Clearly she has handled it poorly from the first day. And there’s the appearance of dishonesty, if it’s not dishonest.”
The new concerns follow Clinton’s decision to turn over her server to federal investigators who are trying to determine if the data on it was secure.
Clinton holds a wide but narrowing lead in the Democratic field against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has picked up ground on her in New Hampshire and Iowa. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has pitched himself as a fresh face and has tried to gain traction.
While Clinton holds significant advantages in money and support among Democrats, polls released Thursday by Quinnipiac University in Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — three general election battleground states — found that only about one-third of respondents thought she was honest and trustworthy.
That has prompted Clinton’s campaign to defend her on cable television and distribute fact sheets to supporters about the inquiry.
On Friday, the campaign publicized a video of Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon sitting behind a laptop and reading off and then correcting what he called inaccurate tweets about the emails.
“Look, we fully expect that Republicans are going to continue to want to talk about Hillary Clinton’s emails,” Fallon says at the end of the video. “And the reason for that is because they can’t talk about their plan to grow the economy on behalf of the middle class.”
Clinton’s allies predict congressional Republicans will overplay their hand when Clinton testifies in October before a GOP-led panel investigating the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
“I’ve been around this block many times with supposed Clinton scandals. It just won’t work,” said David Brock, a Clinton loyalist and the founder of Democratic super PAC American Bridge.
Clinton told reporters in Nevada that they were the only ones bringing up the subject. Yet others are hearing about it.
Marc Lasry, a New York financier and top fundraiser for Clinton, said donors are asking him questions about the situation — which he said he sees as “a non-issue.”
“What I hear from people is, ‘Hey, can you explain this to me?'” Lasry said in an interview Friday. “I tell people that it was perfectly fine for her to have a personal server. They say, ‘Oh, that’s what I thought.’ And the next question is, ‘Why is this such a big deal?’ And I tell them that this is only an issue because Republicans and the media have made it into an issue.”
Watching from the sidelines is Vice President Joe Biden, who is considering entering the Democratic primaries. Biden has struggled in two previous presidential bids, but his entry could offer Democrats another alternative.
While those in the Democratic field have largely steered clear of the email review, O’Malley said Wednesday in Las Vegas that Clinton’s email practices had become a “huge distraction” from what Democrats should be talking about and said it showed the need for more televised debates.
“Until we do, our party’s label is going to be the latest news du jour about emails and email servers and what Secretary Clinton knew and when she knew it,” O’Malley said.
Republicans say they aren’t surprised that Democrats are growing nervous about continued focus on the situation.
“Clinton’s growing email scandal is a huge potential problem for Democrats because, at some point, this is going to become a drag on the whole ticket if she happens to be the nominee,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said on Friday.