I had vowed never to discuss Hillary Clinton’s emails again. Lord knows we’d all love to throw the bolt on that conversation and leave it to fester in the pantry. But by assigning a meaty chapter to the controversy in her new campaign tell-all, What Happened, Clinton has encouraged us to rethink the events that she insists helped sink her campaign.
“The further we get from the election, the stranger it seems that this controversy could swing a national election with such monumental consequences,” Clinton writes. “I picture future historians scratching their heads, trying to understand what happened. I’m still scratching mine, too.”
I’m no historian, and the future hasn’t quite arrived yet. But with Clinton having shown us where it itches, we’d be remiss if we didn’t drag our sharpened fingernails back and forth over her latest meditation on the emails, testing her latest interpretation of the campaign for consistency.
In What Happened, Clinton calls her decision to use personal email while serving as secretary of state “dumb.” It was a “boneheaded mistake,” she relates. She’s sorry she set up a private email server and apologizes for making that decision. “I own that,” she writes, claiming that she “takes responsibility” for her actions. She says, as she did during the campaign, that given a chance to do it all over again, she would do it differently.
But at the same time, she remains adamant in her retelling that she did nothing wrong. She broke no laws. She didn’t breach national security secrets. Other secretaries of state used private email (though not anywhere near in the volumes Clinton did). The uproar over the emails was “nonsense,” she maintains. And the ongoing scandal that it fueled? “Even dumber,” she writes, because it “got more coverage than any other issue in the whole race” and “ballooned into an election-tipping controversy.”
Clinton uses What Happened to replay the email apologies, non-apology apologies and the open defiance that typified her campaign. Her first email position, staked out in that March 10, 2015, presser at the United Nations, included no direct apology. She had “opted for convenience” by using one device for both personal and business communications, she said at the presser. “Looking back,” she hedged, “it would have been better if I’d simply used a second email account and carried a second phone.”
For the next five months, Clinton “either dismissed the controversy or joked about it,” as CNN reported, obviously hoping it would go away. “Everybody is acting like this is the first time this has ever happened. It happens all the time,” she said at an August 2015 Nevada campaign stop. “Nobody talks to me about it, other than you guys,” she said to a reporter. She praised the Snapchat messaging app, saying, “I love it. Those messages disappear all by themselves.” Asked by a reporter if she had wiped her email server, she joked, “What? Like with a cloth or something?”
When these tactics didn’t kill the email story, Clinton shifted her stance. At an Aug. 26, 2015, Iowa campaign event, Clinton said, “I should have used two emails—one personal, one for work—and I take responsibility for that decision,” Clinton said. “I know people have raised questions about my email use as secretary of state, and I understand why. I get it.”
One of the enduring beliefs in politics is that “taking responsibility” can douse a burning controversy. When “taking responsibility” results in an offender making amends, it sometimes works. But when it merely signals the offender’s exhaustion, as in the Clinton case, it backfires. I suspect that the email controversy remained so hot for so long because people heard little regret in Clinton’s apologies aside from her regret that she had gotten caught bending the rules and people wouldn’t stop talking about it.
Perhaps if Clinton hadn’t taken so long to get it or at least pretend to get it, the email fallout might have been contained. In What Happened, Clinton makes the excuse that she clammed up about emails after the story broke to “avoid ‘Gotcha!’ interviews at a time when I needed to be reintroducing myself to the country.” In other words, she wasn’t candid about the emails because candor wasn’t going to be good for her campaign—until she decided candor was the only way out.
The deeper I read into What Happened’s email chapter, the more convinced I became that the press was right to pressure Clinton on the story. She believes what she did was dumb. She believes she owns what she did. She takes responsibility. With all that being true, the press was right to make a racket about it.
Instead, Clinton uses the book to blame the press for not having accepted her apologies and for continuing to chase the story. She nods in agreement in her book when recounting the time Bernie Sanders called the email story nonsense. “If only the press had treated it that way,” she writes. Elsewhere in the book, she wishes that “fair-minded journalists” would have reconsidered the previous scandal reporting on her before “setting off on another scandal jamboree.” Instead, she writes, the “press was ravenous.”
But who fed the press corps’ appetite? Clinton. She stonewalled the press on the emails for five months, and that will make any reporter hungry. When she confessed that she now understood why people cared about the emails—after saying only the press did—she encouraged reporters to be suspicious about her new view.
From the moment the New York Times broke the email story in early March 2015, and then later when the State Department announced its release schedule, Clinton was put on notice that like a spring high tide, each new batch of emails would send uncomfortable news rising over her campaign seawall. According to a CNN timeline, the State Department released at least 14 batches of Clinton emails between May 22, 2015, and Feb. 29, 2016. (See CNN’s coverage on the other dumps here: June 30, 2015; July 31, 2015; Aug. 31, 2015; Sept. 30, 2015; Oct. 30, 2015; Nov. 30, 2015; Dec. 31, 2015; Jan. 7, 2016; Jan. 29, 2016; Feb. 13, 2016; Feb. 19, 2016; Feb. 26, 2016.) Did Clinton expect the press to ignore them? It’s her fault, not the press corps’, that she set up an independent server that made so much news. She’s the one who failed to manage the news crisis she knew would burn hotter with each new email release. And yet today, she disparages the coverage as an example of the press corps’ herd mentality: “The facts didn’t stop the hamster wheel of Washington scandal from spinning into rapid motion, as other media outlets sought to follow a story that must be important, because the New York Times had put it on the front page.”
No journalist should apologize for covering the emails as news—for both the way Clinton handled them and their contents. They contained valuable information. We learned from the Clinton emails, for example, that her justification for a personal email server—that it would give her the convenience of one device—was a lie. As this McClatchy article notes, she used both a BlackBerry and an iPad on her system. The releases also show her buffing her image. They reveal that her campaign recklessly and knowingly exposed her communication to hackers. They showcase her questionable relationship with Sidney Blumenthal. They demonstrate that the State Department IT office didn’t know about Clinton’s email. They catch her sending classified information, something she originally denied. As Vox’s Jeff Stein wrote, they also instruct us on Clinton’s efforts to avoid public records laws. And they give us a nonpareil view of a secretary of state doing her job and of a politician jockeying for a presidential run.
Clinton’s press critique would have you believe that the volume of coverage was not proportional to the news value contained in the stories, that the press turned the emails into a tempest in a thimble. The weakness in Clinton’s thinking, and that of her constituency, resides in the notion that news organizations operate (or should operate) Departments of Proportionality inside their walls. But the news doesn’t work that way, as I’ve previously written. The news, by its nature, is disproportional. Editors and reporters inevitably emphasize one set of events over another. Just because a newspaper reported a fire or car wreck yesterday doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t report on it today—especial if the arsonist and the driver are repeating their performances.
When the press started reporting on the emails, it had no way of knowing what ultimate shape they would take by the time the State Department released the last one. In this, the story shares a lot with other unfolding stories: Nobody knows for sure whether a story was “overcovered” or “undercovered” until the news spigot runs dry. (The same holds for our current saturation coverage of the Trump Tower scandal.) In giving saturation coverage to the emails of the presumptive next president of the United States, the press did the right thing for readers. And readers come before Clinton in my pecking order.
Clinton says she’s sorry for all the mistakes she made. Read the book, see who she blames, and then decide for yourself whether she’s sincere.
At the time the Clinton emails story was cresting, I predicted that Clinton would survive it all. This is why I should never predict anything. Send Clinton predictions to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts voted for Trump, my Twitter feed for Johnson, and my RSS feed for none of the above.