A Trove of 33,000 Pages of Records From the Clinton White House Still Aren't Public

Bill and Hillary Clinton
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and his wife, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, attend New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's inauguration at City Hall in New York on January 1, 2014. Carlo Allegri/Reutesr

She's not even running for president yet — but already Hillary Clinton's past is coming back to haunt her.

If the former secretary of state decides to make a run for the White House in 2016, she can be sure her decades in public service will be scrutinized all over again. And again. And again.

But worse than what we know — think 1990s scandals like Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater — is what we don't know.

Right now, a lot of mystery surrounds about 33,000 pages of records from the Clinton White House, including confidential advice given to and sought by President Bill Clinton during his time in office. As Politico reported Tuesday, those papers can only be kept confidential for up to 12 years. Which means they should be public by now — and yet for some reason they are not.

Depending on what's in those documents, it's possible that keeping the documents hidden is worse for Clinton than if they were out in the open.

"Every day that goes by with this question in the air, it will make it worse than just coming out with whatever's in there," said Republican strategist Jeff Roe. "By this delay, they are making their own controversy… it makes people wonder if there's something to hide."

"It's just like Mitt Romney. You know if you're running for president you have to put your taxes out. Once you do put your taxes out, it's over," said Roe, who doubts there's a bombshell hidden in the papers. "That's what this is. Just get it over with."

The Politico report came on the same day Bill Clinton dived back into politics, making his first campaign appearance for the 2014 midterms in support of a Kentucky Democrat.

There's another reason to just get the papers published and done with: avoid the slow drip drip of new revelations over time. That's exactly what Republicans want and what Clinton needs to avoid.

"Assuming they dribbled out over time, it would affect Hillary Clinton's narrative for 2016 — not the one she is telling, but the one the press and her opponents would tell," said political scientist Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia.

"The goal is simple: Regenerate Clinton fatigue, which was a major malady for a while in the 1990s and even as Bill Clinton left office in the midst of controversial pardons. This reminds voters of the numerous scrapes and controversies that have accompanied her (and his) 40-year odyssey in politics."

There is not much sign of Clinton fatigue so far, at least among Democrats. A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Wednesday reported that more than 8 in 10 Democrats say they want Hillary Clinton to run for president in 2016.

If the secret documents are made public in enough time to scrutinize them before a potential Clinton run begins in earnest, that might be the best outcome for the former first lady.

The release of the documents is controlled by the federal government through the National Archives, which runs the Clinton Library in Little Rock where the documents are held. According to Politico, a good number of these records have been approved for release -- they just haven't been released.

"Those are the really juicy records, those are the records people are going to have a great interest in," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, the right-leaning group that has turned to the courts to seek the release of multiple batches of documents related to the Clintons. "In my view, the public information about the lawlessness of the Clinton Administration is already pretty harmful...certainly details of that aren't going to be helpful."

But without a court interfering, Fitton thinks it may take a while before the documents actually become public -- and the courts are not prone to interfere. Part of the problem is with the National Archives and Records Administration, which takes a "We're just going to get to it when we get to it" approach, Fitton said. "They make Obamacare seem timely in terms of their willingness to follow statutory deadlines."

President Barack Obama, as well as other past administrations, may also erect roadblocks to releasing the documents through executive rules, according to Fitton, who said it took his group seven years to access documents on the Clintons' healthcare push in the early 1990s even after they should have been made public. Judicial Watch also has multiple suits related to Clinton's presidency and Hillary Clinton's tenure as secretary of state.

"You have the club of presidents who are uninterested in making the documents available -- every delay that happens in the Obama administration, they kind of expect the same from the next administration," Fitton explained. "So they take care of each other. We got stalled through the entire Bush administration on Clinton records and I suspect the Bush administration would be happy for a similar stall when it comes up for their time."

But if the strategists are right, this might be one time in which the Clintons may want to use their membership in the Presidents’ Club to speed up the release and get the whole thing over with.

Unless, of course, there really is a bombshell revelation hiding in the papers. That would be another ballgame altogether.

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