Federal judge opens the door to Clinton deposition in email case

A federal judge on Wednesday opened the door to interviewing Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGillibrand announces exploratory committee to run for president on Colbert Former PepsiCo CEO being considered for World Bank chief post: report Live coverage: Trump AG pick grilled on Mueller probe at confirmation hearing MORE as part of a review into her use of a private email server while secretary of State.

Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia laid out the ground rules for interviewing multiple State Department officials about the emails, with an eye toward finishing the depositions in the weeks before the party nominating conventions.

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Clinton herself may be forced to answer questions under oath, Sullivan said, though she is not yet being forced to take that step.

“Based on information learned during discovery, the deposition of Mrs. Clinton may be necessary,” Sullivan said in an order on Wednesday. [READ THE ORDER BELOW] Discovery is the formal name for the evidence-gathering process, which includes depositions.

“If plaintiff believes Mrs. Clinton’s testimony is required, it will request permission from the Court at the appropriate time.”

The order, which came in the course of a lawsuit from conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, leaves open the possibility that Clinton will be forced to answer detailed questions on the eve of her formal selection as the Democratic presidential nominee about her creation of the server.

Any deposition would surely roil the presidential race and force her campaign to confront the issue, which has dogged her for a year.

“Her legal team is really going to fight that really hard,” predicted Matthew Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney who has raised questions about Clinton’s email setup.

“You have to take her deposition in this case to fully understand how it was designed and the whys and the what-fors.”

While leaving the door open to Clinton’s eventual deposition, Sullivan on Wednesday ordered at least six current and former State Department employees to answer questions from Judicial Watch, which has filed multiple lawsuits over the Clinton email case.

That list includes longtime Clinton aide Huma Abedin, former chief of staff Cheryl Mills, under secretary for management Patrick Kennedy, former executive secretary Stephen Mull and Bryan Pagliano, the IT official believed to be responsible for setting up and maintaining the server.

The judge also ordered the State Department to prepare a formal answer about Clinton’s emails. Donald Reid, a senior security official, may also be asked to answer questions, if Judicial Watch so decides.

That process is scheduled to be wrapped up within eight weeks, putting the deadline in the final week of June.

Judicial Watch brought suit against the State Department under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in an effort to bring Abedin’s emails to light. The lawsuit has since evolved into a battleground over Clinton’s use of the private server.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton called Wednesday’s order “a significant victory for transparency and accountability,” and promised that it would shine a light on Clinton’s email practices.

“Judicial Watch will use this discovery to get all of the facts behind Hillary Clinton’s and the Obama State Department’s thwarting of FOIA so that the public can be sure that all of the emails from her illicit email system are reviewed and released to the public as the law requires,” he said in a statement.

Clinton’s Republican critics have repeatedly accused her of setting up the private server and then deleting roughly half its contents to evade public scrutiny. In the process, her critics say, Clinton may have made government secrets vulnerable to hackers.

The FBI and government inspectors general are conducting separate investigations related to the server, and the prospect that classified information might have been mishandled.

Clinton has said that she has yet to be contacted by the FBI to set up an interview as part of its investigation, despite long speculation that she will be. 

But any deposition in the Judicial Watch case could frustrate that process for Clinton’s camp.

“You only want your client to tell their story once if at all,” said Whitaker, the executive director of a separate watchdog group called the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust. “If you’re going to stake out some ground in a deposition which is under oath, that’s really a dangerous opportunity to lay out a story that you say is true under penalty of perjury and then it might be used against you, ultimately, if you have to take the stand again.”

In his order, Sullivan pointed to revelations from the emails appearing to show officials trying to evade demands of FOIA.

In one email, for instance, Mull told Abedin that Clinton’s emails “would be subject to FOIA requests” if she used a department-issued BlackBerry, even though her identity would remain secret.

Abedin responded that the idea “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

In February, Sullivan ruled that the evidence-gathering process could proceed, and the two sides have been haggling since then.

Sullivan had previously suggested that Clinton could be forced to respond to questions, but his order on Wednesday offered the clearest indication that it remains a real possibility.

In his order on Wednesday, Sullivan denied the organization’s efforts to combine his granting of depositions and a similar decision by another judge in a separate case.

--This report was updated at 5:13 p.m.

Judicial Watch v Dept of State by Julian Hattem