WASHINGTON — It is the topic that the nation just can’t delete from its political conversation: Hillary Clinton’s emails.
In the days since Donald Trump became the first former U.S. president to face federal charges, Republicans across the ideological spectrum — including not only Trump and his allies but also his critics and those who see prosecutors’ evidence as damaging — have insistently brought up the 8-year-old controversy.
They have peppered speeches, social media posts and television appearances with fiery condemnations of the fact that Clinton, a figure who continues to evoke visceral reactions among the Republican base, was never charged.
The two episodes are vastly different legal matters, and Clinton was never found to have systematically or deliberately mishandled classified information. Still, Republicans have returned to the well with striking speed, mindful that little more than the word “emails” can muddy the waters, broadcast their loyalties and rile up their base.
“Lock her up,” chanted a woman at last weekend’s Georgia Republican Party state convention, where Trump sought to revive the issue of Clinton’s email use. “Hillary wasn’t indicted,” he said in a speech at the event. “She should have been. But she wasn’t indicted.”
Campaigning in North Carolina, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis bashed Clinton’s email practices while being far more circumspect in alluding to Trump, his top rival for the Republican nomination.
Even former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has made criticizing Trump a central theme of his presidential campaign, said on CNN recently that the Justice Department “is at fault for not charging Hillary Clinton,” while casting the facts laid out against Trump as “damning.”
“The perception is that she was treated differently,” Asa Hutchinson, a former Arkansas governor, a 2024 presidential candidate and a Trump critic, said in an interview Monday. “Perception can become a reality very quickly.”
Hutchinson, once a chief Clinton antagonist from former President Bill Clinton’s home state — he helped guide impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton — said he saw distinctions between Hillary Clinton’s email episode and the charges Trump faced. But, he added, “If the voters say it’s relevant, it becomes relevant politically.”
Taken together, the moment offers a vivid reminder of the ways the ghosts of the 2016 campaign continue to shape and scar American politics.
“There are few politicians on the Democratic side of the aisle that raise the ire of Republicans more than Hillary Clinton,” said Neil Newhouse, a veteran Republican pollster.
Clinton and her supporters, of course, have not forgotten the email saga. After Trump’s indictment, the episode to many of them serves as a symbol of a political system and a mainstream news media often focused on the superficial at the expense of the substantive.
Clinton backers now make light of what they view as comparatively flimsy and unproven accusations she faced about her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state. And some relish the fact that the man who crowed about “Crooked Hillary” finds himself facing a range of serious charges and the prospect of prison if he is convicted.
Speaking Monday with the hosts of the “Pod Save America” podcast at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Clinton laughed when a host noted the tendency of some Republicans to make parallels to her emails.
“When in doubt, right?” she said. “I do think it’s odd, let’s just say, to the point of being absurd, how that is their only response. You know, they refuse to read the indictment, they refuse to engage with the facts.”
On Friday, Clinton posted an edited photo of herself on Instagram wearing a black baseball hat that reads, in pink letters, “BUT HER EMAILS.” That three-word phrase has become something of a shorthand among Democrats for frustration at the grief she received for how she handled classified correspondence compared with the blowback Trump confronted for all the legal and ethical norms he busted while in office.
She included a link to buy the hat for $32 on the website of her political group. (Asked about that decision, Nick Merrill, who served as a longtime spokesperson for Clinton and remains an adviser, replied, “We’re seven years past what was widely viewed as, at worst, a stupid mistake. And reminding people that a piece of merchandise exists in order to raise money to preserve our democracy is something I’m very comfortable with.”)
Substantively, there are many clear differences between the episodes.
A yearslong inquiry by the State Department into Clinton’s use of a private email server found that although it increased the risk of compromising classified information, “there was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information.”
The indictment against Trump, by contrast, accuses him of not only mishandling sensitive national security documents found at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida but also willfully obstructing the government’s efforts to retrieve them. He has been charged with 37 criminal counts related to issues including withholding national defense information and concealing possession of classified documents.
Robert Kelner, a Republican lawyer and Trump critic who is a partner in the white-collar defense and investigations practice group at Covington & Burling, said Trump most likely would not have been indicted had he cooperated with the government’s requests to return classified documents he took from the White House.
“There were lots of things to criticize about the way the Hillary Clinton investigation was handled — none of which, however, in any way to my mind, suggests that the case against Donald Trump is unfounded,” Kelner said.
Jack Smith, the special counsel who indicted Trump, seemed to anticipate efforts to bring up Clinton’s emails. The indictment cited five statements Trump made during his 2016 campaign about the importance of protecting classified information.
For veterans of Clinton’s campaign, the Republican attempt to resurface their old boss’s email server to defend Trump’s storage of boxes of classified documents in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom and other places would be comical had their 2016 defeat not been so painful.
“The best evidence that Trump’s actions are completely indefensible is the Republican Party’s non-attempt to defend it and instead rehash 7-year-old debunked attacks on somebody who is no longer even in politics,” said Josh Schwerin, a former Clinton campaign spokesperson who for years after the 2016 election had a recording of Trump saying his name as his voicemail greeting.
Merrill said that if there was a single word for “particularly acute hypocrisy,” it would apply to Republicans now.
For Republicans, “whether you believe she was cavalier or you believe that she should be tried for treason for the risky position she put Americans in by sending correspondence about yoga or whatever,” he said, “Donald Trump has done the most severe possible thing. It’s not a close call with him.”
Trump acolytes are now delighting at the prospect of reviving one of their favorite boogeywomen.
“Republicans believe there’s been an unequal application of justice,” said former Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who as chair of the House Oversight Committee investigated myriad Clinton episodes leading up to the 2016 election. He added, “What is it that Donald Trump did that was worse than Hillary Clinton? Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Timothy Parlatore, a criminal defense lawyer who quit the Trump legal team last month, said he did not believe that Clinton, Trump or President Joe Biden — who has cooperated with a special counsel’s investigation into his own handling of classified documents after his tenure as vice president — should have been charged for their handling of classified information.
Trump’s Justice Department had four years to prosecute Clinton and did not. Parlatore said Trump no longer saw her as a threat — and instead called for an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter.
“Here is a big difference,” Parlatore said. “The Trump administration wasn’t looking at Hillary as being a presidential candidate. The Biden administration is looking at Trump in a different way.”
For now, the most devoted Clinton supporters are following her lead and wearing “BUT HER EMAILS” hats as a badge of honor. They appeared in recent days at dog parks, soccer tournaments and Pride events as a sort of celebration of Trump’s comeuppance.
In Boston, Rebecca Kaiser, a political consultant, has worn her “BUT HER EMAILS” hat regularly since she received it as a gift the day before Trump was indicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records in the New York City borough of Manhattan in April.
Since then, at Little League and soccer games, the supermarket, the beach and during dates with her wife, Kaiser has sported the hat, which she said served as a conversation starter about an election that many other Democrats would rather forget.
“There are definitely people who notice the hat and very quickly avert their eyes,” Kaiser said. “There are other people who look at the hat and just roll their eyes. And honestly, I think there are a good amount of people who have no idea what it’s referencing.”