Hillary Clinton's Truth Problem

The presumptive Democratic nominee learned long ago that public trust is a precious resource. Has she forgotten?

Julie Jacobsom / AP

The day after she sealed the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton took a victory lap of the nation’s top newsrooms and delivered the most predictable and practiced comments. She honored her mother. She trashed Donald Trump. She wooed Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

It was a Trumpian triumph of message management. She fielded a few softball questions (“Did you actually end up choking up?” one reporter asked with regard to Clinton’s Tuesday night speech, adding later: “With your permission we’ll pivot to, back to hard politics”) and the headlines broke her way (“Hillary Clinton Hits Donald Trump on Economics” and “Hillary Clinton on Winning, and Why Her Mother Would Be Nervous”).

Reading through the interview transcripts and stories, I found nuggets buried deep in the coverage that offer a less flattering portrait of Clinton—that would suggest her presidency might lack transparency, candor, and accountability.

The CNN interview suggests how tone deaf Clinton has become about ethics, specifically concerning how she and her husband blurred the line between her work as secretary of state and their family foundation:

The former secretary of state also defended her family's Clinton Foundation, saying she is "proud of the work it has done" and arguing that foreign countries' contributions to the foundation do nothing to influence her political actions.

"Money that has been given to the foundation goes to support humanitarian work. And if people want to influence anybody in office, I think they would choose the political work. And indeed, the work of the foundation really speaks for itself," Clinton said.

As for whether her husband, Bill Clinton, would cut his ties to the foundation, she said that "we will cross that bridge if and when we get there."

When I covered the Clintons in Arkansas, they understood how the public’s trust could be squandered by the mere whiff of wrongdoing. They were champions of state ethics reform. I suspect they would have objected had the president at the time, George H.W. Bush, allowed his family foundation to solicit money from corporations and foreign governments hoping to influence him.

Just as maddening, Clinton doesn’t seem to understand the outrage over her Wall Street speeches. From The New York Times:

Mrs. Clinton offered a vigorous defense of a decision which has haunted her primary campaign—her acceptance of large amounts of money for giving speeches to Wall Street banks, a practice that even her most ardent supporters have viewed as puzzlingly self-defeating.

Mrs. Clinton called such speeches that garner six-figure fees “the norm” for previous secretaries of state. “I actually think it makes sense,” she added.

When pressed on why, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy Wall Street movement, she chose to give such speeches, Mrs. Clinton reiterated that she had put forth “the most specific plan” of any candidate to regulate the financial industry.

“A lot of people know you have a front-row seat in what is going on in the world, so maybe you have some interesting observations about political or economic concerns,” Mrs. Clinton explained. “That to me is how it came about, and that’s what I talked about when I was making speeches.”

For a liberal Democrat with ambitions to be president at a time of surging populism, working for Wall Street is not “the norm.” Even if past secretaries of state cashed in on their service, that doesn’t make it right—especially for Clinton, who had reason to believe she might run for president.

Her lack of accountability shines through in the interview with Washington Post reporter Anne Gearan. Clinton takes no responsibility for her low approval and credibility ratings.

AG: What does it say about the country at this moment that both you and Donald Trump have the highest negatives of any major party nominees in probably our lifetimes, if not more? And specifically, what does that say about you as you start this head-to-head contest with him?

HC: [Sighs or draws a breath] Well, Anne, I think what it says about me is that when I serve in jobs, like senator or secretary of state, I have, you know, high approval ratings. I think when I was serving as secretary of state, and you covered a lot of that, I had an approval rating of 66 percent. But I’m also the, you know, very favorite target of Republicans, and others who disagree with my positions. And they’ve been running many millions of dollars of ads against me ever since this campaign started.

With CBS, Clinton briefly acknowledges her personal responsibility, but only as a pivot to Republicans.

However, it's possible that Clinton's biggest obstacle is not her opponent but herself. Fifty-two percent of the American people who participated in a CBS news poll have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton—the highest negative impression of anyone ever nominated by the Democratic Party since the poll began in 1984. Does she bear any responsibility for that?

"Oh, I'm sure I do, but I think—When I was secretary of state and serving our country, I had an approval rating of 66 percent, and I think it's fair to ask, 'Well, what's happened?'" Clinton responded. "And what's happened is tens of millions of dollars of negative advertising and coverage that has been sent my way."

What has most undermined Clinton’s credibility in this election is her decision to place her State Department email on a secret private server and, once discovered, her misleading statements about the email system. Inexplicably, most interviewers ignored the issue or gave it short thrift. Not Bret Baier of FOX News.

Clinton reaffirmed a statement she made to a radio station on Friday that there is "absolutely no possibility of an indictment."

"There is no basis for it, and I'm looking forward to this being wrapped up as soon as possible," Clinton said.

Unless she has been given a back-channel briefing on the investigation, which would be highly unusual and unethical, Clinton does not know for certain what the FBI has uncovered or what the Department of Justice might do.

Baier pressed her on why neither she nor her aides talked to the State Department inspector general about her email use, after saying that she would talk to "anybody anytime."

She said that she has "talked endlessly" about the emails, including for 11 hours before a House committee.

"What they wanted to ask, we'd already talked about. Talked about in the public arena," Clinton said.

That’s a dodge. She cannot know what the inspector general wants to talk about because she has refused to meet with him, despite promising to do so.

She told Baier that she did not recall signing a non-disclosure agreement in 2009 about the handling of classified materials, but regardless, nothing she sent or received was marked classified at the time.

"What you are seeing acted out is the desire of the different parts of the government to retroactively classify material so that it is not made public, since I did ask that all my e-mails be made public, and this is not an uncommon process."

Surely, Clinton knows that answer is misleading: It doesn’t matter whether the material was marked classified or not. Much of the nation’s deepest secrets are not marked. People have been prosecuted for mishandling unmarked material.

Finally, Baier asked Clinton straightforwardly: "The Clinton Foundation investigation, the FBI investigation, the e-mail, you're saying zero chance that this is a problem for you in this election?"

Clinton responded: "Absolutely. That's what I'm saying.  That happens to be the truth."

For as much as she need voters to believe her declarations of innocence, most Americans don’t trust her. That happens to be the truth.