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Why Hillary's email issue won't go away

Hillary Clinton
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Hillary Clinton

So now we know the Hillary Clinton camp's approach to the email scandal: Pretend to be transparent and then hope everyone forgets about it.

It's a deeply cynical approach, and there is some reason to believe it won't work.

The defense began with a single tweet from Clinton late Wednesday responding to a New York Times bombshell that she only used a private email account—run through her own server—while at the State Department, thwarting Freedom of Information Act requests and congressional inquiries while circumventing requirements that all official business be done through a government email address that can be archived.

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Clinton said in her tweet: "I want the public to see my email. I asked State to release them. They said they will review them for release as soon as possible."

The cynicism at play here is breathtaking. The State Department only has the emails that Clinton's own loyalists decided to turn over after reviewing all the correspondence that came through her clintonemail.com address. Sure it's 55,000 pages of email. But that's a meaningless number. Clinton aides could easily have held back any email they felt might show the former secretary in a purely political light or otherwise embarrass her. For instance, they could have simply searched for "Benghazi" and deleted every email including that word. We will probably never know what was in the emails Clinton's team decided to hold back.

Asking State to vet and eventually release the emails they received from Clinton's staff offers a talking point for Clinton's vociferous defenders but it does not provide any real transparency or address the serious questions about whether Clinton violated existing federal records requirements at the time she was in office. It's very clear that she violated and repeatedly articulated Obama administration policy requiring that official business be conducted through a government email.

Clinton defenders say no one outside the political bubble cares at all about what kind of email address Clinton used. Paul Begala put it colorfully on CNN: "Voters do not give a s--- about what email Hillary used. They don't even give a fart."

That is certainly true of Democratic primary voters who are likely to give the nomination to Clinton unless she sets herself or someone else on fire. But that does not mean Clinton will be in the clear on the email story, even if a thwarted press corps moves on to something else in the coming weeks.

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Because at least two congressional committees are gearing up for probes of the email scandal, including by issuing subpoenas. These probes will generate months of hearings and headlines that will ensure the email story does not disappear. Veteran 1990s-era Clinton family antagonist Larry Klayman is also pushing for contempt proceedings, arguing that Clinton's exclusive use of a personal email account thwarted records requests in ongoing lawsuits. Klayman will produce another stream of headlines.

And while average general election voters may not care that much about the specifics of Clinton's email habits, the story could provide a strong attack line for the eventual GOP nominee to paint her as someone who has something to hide and considers herself above the law. Clinton already has issues on the left with voters who dislike her strong ties to Wall Street and pine for an Elizabeth Warren candidacy. The email scandal could further dent her appeal to the broader electorate who already view the former first lady with significant skepticism. Polls taken over the last year or so consistently show Clinton's favorability hovering below 50 percent. That's better than many of her possible GOP opponents but it's hardly the level of a beloved national figure likely to sweep into the White House.

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It's too early to say if the email scandal will push Clinton's favorability ratings down, but it's certainly not likely to help. And her relative silence on the issue—calculated to deprive the story of media oxygen—won't help her limit the near term political damage.

Clinton's political advisors and cheerleaders are probably right that the email story will fade somewhat from the headlines in the coming weeks. Most stories do. But they are probably wrong that it will go away entirely. Instead, it's likely to follow her all the way until November 2016.

—Ben White is Politico's chief economic correspondent and a CNBC contributor. He also authors the daily tip sheet Politico Morning Money [politico.com/morningmoney]. Follow him on Twitter @morningmoneyben.