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With flap over private emails continuing, Clinton needs to level with the public

If she is thinking this through, Hillary Clinton may be starting to understand why it was such a bad idea as secretary of state to bypass government email systems in favor of using her own server.

After a bout of misinformation from the New York Times, the bottom line is this: Classified emails have been found among the thousands on her personal server, which she turned over to the federal government. Such classified information can be more or less sensitive, and, at this point, there is no way to know how serious this breach was. But at minimum, Clinton took a foolish risk. It gives her opponents ammunition to use against her and should also give her supporters pause.

And – not to forget – it could have hurt the country.

None of the classified information had been identified as such, which may mean that no formal rules were broken about the handling of the emails. But her political opponents are suggesting the classified emails were purposely misidentified to give her cover.

She could have predicted that those who want to undermine her presidential campaign would beat her over the head with the suggestion. And because it springs from damaging facts – her unwise decision to use her own email server and the discovery of classified information – it clings to fertile soil.

It’s like getting into a car after too many drinks. Even if you’re legally sober, the presence of alcohol creates a fact that gives credence to questions about any subsequent collision.

It’s a losing proposition. If just doing the right thing – that is, using the government’s email servers – wasn’t enough, then at least politically, anyone with her ambitions should have known better, especially understanding that there is a big target painted on her back.

There never has been any good explanation for why she didn’t use the government email system as secretary of state during President Obama’s first term. But common sense suggests that it was so that she could keep secrets from people in and out of the government.

Some of the impetus for this story arose from incorrect reporting by the New York Times that a criminal investigation into Clinton was being sought by two inspectors general. It wasn’t true. What has happened is that the inspectors general made a security referral, which is legally required when classified information may have been compromised. And, further, Clinton wasn’t specifically the target. The Times quickly corrected the story, but what remains is troubling enough.

Clinton will have her chance to explain this matter. She has agreed to answer questions about her email use before congressional investigators. It’s possible, though not certain, that she can smooth the most damaging edges of this continuing matter.

But what she really has to do is to offer a compelling and credible explanation – beyond her claim of “convenience” – for why she bypassed the government servers in the first place. That’s the foundation of this matter, and it goes to the heart of the suspicions that many Americans hold about the former secretary of state, senator and first lady.

And, if she has no good explanation, she should at least apologize and assure Americans that she has learned an important lesson about the need to follow the rules. It’s the least that the likely Democratic nominee for president should do.