Rarely does a candidate for so high an office undermine her own cause as surely as Hillary Clinton has. The former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state has a compulsion for secrecy that is self-destructive and that feeds the belief that she is untrustworthy.
As much as anything, that is the tale of the emails that continue to undercut Clinton’s candidacy for the presidency. A critical report by the inspector general of the State Department concluded this week that she had not sought authority to use a private email server while she was secretary of state and that if she had, she wouldn’t have received it.
That contradicts her claims that the department allowed the arrangement. Nor did she honor what the inspector general said was her “obligation” to discuss plans to use a private server for official State Department business.
In addition, the report clearly suggests an effort to keep her use of the private server secret. And it damages her defense that previous secretaries of state, including Colin Powell, had used a private server. That was true, but by the time Clinton became secretary, the practice was not allowed.
It seems clear that Clinton is among those, in and out of public life, who subscribe to the theory that it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. The animating idea seems to be that you’ll likely get away with it. If so, Clinton is giving it a severe test.
According to a new Bloomberg Politics Poll, released Thursday but conducted before the inspector general’s report, only 29 percent of voters believe Clinton is trustworthy. That issue has been her Achilles’ heel for almost the entirety of her nearly quarter-century on the national political stage. It is only a fluke that her likely opponent, Donald Trump, is rated even lower on trustworthiness.
But here’s the thing that is especially troubling regarding Clinton as presidential candidate – more troubling, even, than the matter of the emails, themselves: Either she couldn’t figure out that the issue would become public and dog her presidential campaign or she didn’t care. Neither speaks well of her judgment and her ability to weigh the consequences of actions. Both qualities are important in a president.
What is more, the report undermined some of her defenses for using the private email server and handed Trump a ready-made issue. And for what reason, other than an unhealthy compulsion for secrecy?
In fairness, that compulsion has been well earned. For virtually all of that quarter-century, she has been a target of the far right, which has made an industry of hurling false accusations, including that she murdered a former Clinton ally, Vince Foster, and that she refused to send help to diplomats under attack at Benghazi. Anyone might feel a need to hoard information and grasp for control under such circumstances.
But an explanation is not the same as an excuse and, in the end, it doesn’t matter. She chose to run for president in 2008 and to do it again this year. Having been to that dance twice before in the 1990s, she knew the rules and knew – or should have known – that her decision to use a private email server would almost certainly become public and undermine the campaign she was sure to undertake.
And the matter drags other issues behind it, including the fact that she, alone, determined which emails on her server were public and had to be surrendered to the government. Some 30,000 others that she deemed to be personal were wiped away at her direction. And, of course, the FBI investigation continues. Even if it ends with no accusations, it will still bring the whole sorry matter up once again. It’s water torture, self-inflicted.
How Clinton deals with this issue in the coming months may say a lot about what kind of president she would be. She acknowledges that using the private server was a bad decision, and while she will never convince those who despise her that she has learned a lesson, she will have to do more than she has to win the trust of millions of undecided voters.