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Clinton's fate will be decided in court of public opinion

The FBI’s recommendation that no criminal charges be filed against Hillary Clinton for using a private email server as secretary of state is the only good news for the presumptive Democratic nominee. FBI director James Comey left no doubt Clinton was “extremely careless” handling sensitive information and should have known better, and his frank assessment undermines her credibility. Now it will be up to voters to decide whether her serious lack of judgment and candor in this case makes her unfit to be president.

It comes as no surprise that the FBI did not recommend criminal charges against Clinton; many nonpartisan legal experts predicted that for months. It is surprising that Comey chose to make an unusual public announcement Tuesday, three days after the FBI interviewed Clinton for more than three hours. But this has been a messy situation throughout, from Bill Clinton’s foolish private chat with Attorney General Loretta Lynch to the optics of the former secretary of state campaigning with President Barack Obama hours after the FBI director announced no criminal charges would be pursued.

If the FBI’s bottom line is good news for Clinton, nearly everything else Comey revealed reinforces the perception she too often acts as though she is above the rules and fails to level with the American people. For example, Comey said 110 emails in 52 email chains on Clinton’s private server were classified at the time they were sent or received. Yet Clinton insisted she did not send or receive classified emails, although she more recently adjusted that defense to say she never “knowingly” sent or received them. If she didn’t know, it’s obvious she certainly should have known.

That wasn’t the only revelation. Comey said Clinton used multiple private email servers and email devices as secretary of state, which she had not revealed. He also said “it is possible that hostile actors gained access” to her personal email account, although no evidence was found that it had been hacked. But that statement makes it harder for Clinton to continue to definitively declare her emails were secure and that her actions did not jeopardize national security.

Predictably, Republicans pounced on the FBI’s recommendation and attacked Clinton as they will until November. Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump outlined a vast conspiracy by the Obama administration to clear Clinton. He compared Clinton to former CIA director David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for sharing classified information with the biographer with whom he was having an affair.

But there is no evidence Clinton shared classified information with anyone outside government. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the FBI’s decision not to recommend charges “defies explanation” and that “it appears damage is being done to the rule of law.” But Comey described a very thorough investigation. His explanation that “no reasonable prosecutor” would charge Clinton with a crime for intentionally mishandling classified information or being “grossly negligent” is a defensible conclusion.

Determining whether Clinton should face criminal charges for using a private email server as secretary of state is one thing. There is no question she used terrible judgment reflecting a familiar sense of entitlement — and that she failed to be candid about it when she was exposed. Americans expect better judgment and more respect from their president, and Clinton has four months to convince voters the email server debacle is an aberration rather than an indication of how she would conduct herself in the Oval Office.