I’m struggling with various somewhat contradictory reactions to Hillary Clinton’s spoken announcement today and subsequent nine-page document explaining her use of private email address when she was Secretary of State. On balance though, my sense is that Clinton has provided a reasonable, if not wholly satisfactory, explanation for her actions. I only wish she had provided it a week earlier. This post elaborates on the following:
1) In the past, the media has misreported Clinton’s words in such a way that after several days during which I criticized her harshly, I am loath to condemn her in the absence of specific objective evidence of wrongdoing. 2) Clinton’s announcement addresses most of the concerns raised about her email practices at the State Department. Nevertheless, she does attempt to finesse away the one rule violation that I have harped on from the beginning: she did not preserve the emails in the State Department’s record-keeping system. 3) Although her words did not satisfy me completely, she was far more effective than damage control specialists Lanny Davis and David Brock whose efforts amounted to pouring gasoline on a smoldering fire. Nevertheless, I am skeptical of her ability to win the Presidential election next year.
1) Reporters have misrepresented uncritical comments by Hillary Clinton as negative judgments about the Obama administration.
Over the past week on my radio show and in this post, published Saturday, I have been extremely critical – perhaps too critical – of Hillary Clinton’s failure to preserve her State Department emails at the agency. I have also chided her for failing to address legitimate concerns raised by this failure. Instead she relied on media flacks like David Brock and Lanny Davis who made a not-so-good situation look much worse.
Responding to commentary Tuesday morning, a listener sent me an email with the subject line “Treason is more important than Hillary”. He urged me to discuss the letter that 47 Republican senators sent to Iran warning them that any negotiated deal with President Obama probably wouldn’t survive into the next administration. I concurred that the Republicans were contravening our nation’s interests in attempting to undermine the peace process for purely political reasons.
I then argued that this was not dissimilar from what Hillary Clinton had done this past summer in an interview with the Atlantic Magazine. Quoting interviewer Jeffrey Goldberg’s description of Mrs. Clintons’ answers to him, I said “Clinton suggested that she finds [Obama’s] approach to foreign policy overly cautious, and she made the case that America needs a leader who believes that the country, despite its various missteps, is an indispensable force for good.”
Clinton, I contended, could have cribbed these remarks from wrong-headed if not downright dishonest neo-con pundits like Charles Krauthammer and Bill Kristol. Both of whom ceaselessly chide Obam for decreasing the number of American troops in the Middle East and for not promoting the noxious “American exceptionalism” theory. My sense was that Clinton was doing this to position herself to the right of the administration in advance of the 2016 Presidential election.
Coming right before the November midterms, I saw the remarks as undermining Democratic chances of retaining the Senate (which they lost) and making gains in the House (which they did not). I concluded that by knee-capping Obama, Clinton helped put Mitch McConnell and other Republican Senators in a position where they could credibly “warn” Iran that any peace treaty might be short-lived.
The problem with this theory is that Goldberg misrepresented Clinton’s actual words which were far more innocuous and measured than he stated. Clinton did not state or even imply that President Obama was overcautious. Consider this question and answer.
JG: Is there a chance that President Obama overlearned the lessons of the previous administration? In other words, if the story of the Bush administration is one of overreach, is the story of the Obama administration one of underreach?
HRC: You know, I don’t think you can draw that conclusion. It’s a very key question. How do you calibrate, that’s the key issue. I think we have learned a lot during this period, but then how to apply it going forward will still take a lot of calibration and balancing. But you know, we helped overthrow [Libyan leader Muammar] Qaddafi. (Emphasis supplied.)
Clinton does say that she supported military assistance to the Syrian rebels challenging Assad in 2011 but she does not suggest that President Obama’s contrary decision was driven by overcautiousness.
Goldberg’s more serious misrepresentation of Clinton’s comments relates to the following question and answer.
JG: There is an idea in some quarters that the administration shows signs of believing that we, the U.S., aren’t so great, so we shouldn’t be telling people what to do.
HRC: I know that that is an opinion held by a certain group of Americans, I get all that. It’s not where I’m at.
From this exchange, Goldberg apparently concluded that Clinton believes that the nation needs a leader who, unlike Obama, sees America as “a force for indispensable good.” But that is not a fair reading of Clinton’s response which most likely rejects the opinion “held by a certain group of Americans” that the administration believes “we, the U.S. aren’t so great”. In fact, Clinton is defending Obama from allegations that he isn’t sufficiently pro-America.
2) Clinton addressed the main concerns most commentators have raised but tried to finesse away the rules violation.
Clinton’s only rules violation and indeed, for me, the only impropriety surrounding her use of email at the State Department was her failure to maintain the emails on a State Department server as she was required to do under 36 CFR 1236.24 (Oct 2, 2009). Her explanation for lawfully continuing to use her private email address – it was easier to use just one email account and she didn’t want to have to notify all her correspondents of a new address – seems perfectly plausible. In fact, I suggested this may have been her reason onair Tuesday morning. She also responded to those raising security concerns by noting that the email server was maintained in her residence protected by secret service and she was unaware of any attempts to breach it.
Clinton doesn’t quite come out and acknowledge her failure to preserve all email records appropriately in the record-keeping at the State Department. But a perusal of her 9-page written release shows that she recognizes this concern and that the failure was likely insignificant. Clinton explains that she mostly emailed her subordinates via their state.gov addresses so such emails were in fact maintained on State Department servers.
She also notes that emails to and from other federal officials would be on federal servers unless of course her correspondent also was using a private address. She contends that when the State Department requested all of her work-related emails, a comprehensive search of her records revealed only 2,900 of over 30,000 emails that were not addressed to a federal email address. Of these, she says, hundreds included a courtesy copy to a state.gov address. It seems that Clinton did comply with the spirit of the rules although clearly not the letter.
Clinton says that she deleted 30,000 or so personal emails that were on her server. She had every right under federal rules to do so. Indeed, had she used a state.gov email address while Secretary of State, nobody except partisan Republicans would raise questions about them. The problem is that since she used the same email address for personal and government business, it is natural for people to question whether she deleted embarrassing or compromising correspondence that pertains to her work at the State Department.
3) Clinton’s failure to get in front of the story reflects a significant weakness as a candidate.
Hillary Clinton’s email practices at the State Department between 2009 and 2013 came to the public’s attention after the New York Times published a story on March 2 that asked whether she may have violated any rules. Clinton directly addressed these concerns more than a week later. From the 2nd until the 10th, Clinton relied on pitbulls Lanny Davis and David Brock to defend her. This was a big mistake.
They came across as dissembling spinmeisters rather than honest brokers. Had Clinton announced on March 3 that she would set forth her practices and answer questions the following day, she would likely have weathered this story well. She might have neutralized any Republican advantage and perhaps even garnered public sympathy.
Hillary’s challenge is she just doesn’t have her husband’s charm or charisma and is reluctant to expose herself in an uncontrolled setting without having determined in advance exactly what she will say. This causes her to exercise excessive caution.
Although her enunciated policy preferences are quite similar to Bill Clinton’s, she lacks his ability to persuade us that she feels empathy for struggling Americans. Bill was Bubba. He was one of the boys and he felt our pain. By contrast, Hillary’s attempts to be one of the girls so often seem forced. When she discusses issues, she appears to avoid commenting on the real impact various policy choices might have on the American people. Tragically, unless a Democratic successfully challenges for the nomination, this dynamic could hand the Presidency to a hard-right anti-labor climate change denier.