During last night's presidential debate, Hillary Clinton bragged about her record during three decades in public life, but she neglected to mention what may be her most impressive accomplishment: She is mistrusted by more Americans than the legendary liar Donald Trump. Last night Clinton's handling of questions about her private email server and her private speeches showed how she managed that feat.
More than a year and a half after The New York Times broke the story of what FBI Director James Comey later called Clinton's "extremely careless" email practices as secretary of state, the Democratic presidential nominee has settled on a response that approximates what she should have been saying all along. "I made a mistake using a private email," Clinton said during her first debate with Donald Trump. "And if I had to do it over again, I would, obviously, do it differently. But I'm not going to make any excuses. It was a mistake, and I take responsibility for that." She said something very similar during last night's debate but then could not resist the urge to immediately minimize the significance of her mistake:
I think it's also important to point out where there are some misleading accusations from critics and others. After a year-long investigation, there is no evidence that anyone hacked the server I was using and there is no evidence that anyone can point to at all—anyone who says otherwise has no basis—that any classified material ended up in the wrong hands.
As Comey pointed out in July, the fact that the FBI did not find evidence of hacking does not mean it did not happen:
We did not find direct evidence that Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail domain, in its various configurations since 2009, was successfully hacked. But given the nature of the system and of the actors potentially involved, we assess that we would be unlikely to see such direct evidence. We do assess that hostile actors gained access to the private commercial e-mail accounts of people with whom Secretary Clinton was in regular contact from her personal account. We also assess that Secretary Clinton's use of a personal e-mail domain was both known by a large number of people and readily apparent. She also used her personal e-mail extensively while outside the United States, including sending and receiving work-related e-mails in the territory of sophisticated adversaries. Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton's personal e-mail account.
Whether or not classified material in Clinton's email (material she initially insisted was not there) actually "ended up in the wrong hands," she recklessly took that risk, violating State Department policy (and probably federal law) in the process. But as debate moderator Martha Raddatz pointed out to Clinton, "You disagreed with FBI Director James Comey, calling your handling of classified information, quote, 'extremely careless.'" If that's not the mistake Clinton is finally admitting, what is? As with Trump and his "locker room talk," it seems clear Clinton's only regret is that she got caught doing something that made her look bad.
The email scandal illustrates Clinton's tendency to pile lie upon lie instead of coming clean. She seems to be starting down that road with the excerpts from her closed-door speeches that Wikileaks revealed on Friday.
In a 2013 speech to the National Multifamily Housing Council, Clinton cited Secretary of State William Seward's backroom lobbying for the 13th Amendment, which included what historian Joshua Zeitz calls "the brazen use of patronage appointments to buy off the requisite number of lame duck Democratic congressmen." That episode was on Clinton's mind because she had recently seen the Steven Spielberg film Lincoln, and this is the lesson she drew from it:
Politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody's watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position.
Here is how Clinton described her remarks last night:
That was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called Lincoln. It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic.
And I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do, and you have to keep working at it. And, yes, President Lincoln was trying to convince some people, he used some arguments, convincing other people, he used other arguments. That was a great—I thought a great display of presidential leadership.
Assuming the Wikileaks excerpts are accurate (and Clinton is not claiming they're not), that is a serious distortion of what Clinton actually said in her speech. She was not talking about tailoring your arguments to your audience; she was talking about bribing legislators with promises of lucrative jobs, which she argued was justified by the importance of getting Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. More generally, she said such tactics, although "unsavory," are both necessary and appropriate, although it is best to conceal them from the public, since otherwise people might "get a little nervous."
It is understandable that Clinton would prefer not to admit endorsing this Machiavellian view, especially given the broader implications of saying one thing publicly and another privately. But by pretending she did not say what she said, she only compounds the impression that she is slippery, two-faced, and untrustworthy.
Clinton has steadfastly refused to reveal the contents of her closed-door speeches, for which she was generally paid $225,000 each. The excerpts published by Wikileaks are from a 2016 internal campaign memo listing "the flags from HRC's paid speeches," meaning passages her operatives assumed would cause her trouble if they came to light. Now that it's happened, Clinton still has a choice about how to respond. An honest person would either defend or renounce her controversial private statements. A dishonest person would do what Clinton is doing.