Jane Pauley asked Hillary Clinton a simple question during a sitdown on CBS’ “Sunday Morning”: Were there mistakes she made that led to her loss in the 2016 presidential race? Clinton’s response was telling.
“I think the – the most important of the mistakes I made was using personal email,” Clinton acknowledged. “I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, that was my responsibility. It was presented in such a really negative way, and I never could get out from under it. And it never stopped.”
She’s (sort of) right. There’s no question that the decision – during Clinton’s early days at the State Department – to exclusively use a private email address/server was a massive mistake.
Not only was she the first secretary of state to exclusively use a private email address (others, like Colin Powell, had used both a private email and an official state.gov address) but the decision to use her own private server reinforced many of the negative perceptions people had about Clinton.
Clinton already carried loads of baggage into the race from her husband’s two terms as President. Among the pieces of baggage:
- People thought the Clintons thought the rules didn’t apply to them.
- People thought the Clintons were paranoid (“vast right-wing conspiracy”),
- People thought the Clintons surrounded themselves with “yes” men and women and lackeys who did and said whatever they thought Bill and Hillary wanted,
- People thought the Clintons didn’t always (or often) tell the truth and were always willing to lie to keep themselves out of trouble,
The email server story affirmed for people that everything, or at least lots of what they thought about the Clintons was true. It reminded them that for all of the depth of Hillary Clinton’s resume, she was going to be carrying all of that baggage from the 1990s that lots of people wanted to be done with.
(Side note: This wasn’t just people who hated the Clintons. That was already baked into her electoral calculus before the email server story broke. I am talking about people who were truly undecided about Hillary Clinton for president; they liked her smarts and her experience but just weren’t sure whether they wanted to go back to the scandals and controversies of the 1990s.)
To my mind, however, Clinton’s greatest mistake in the race wasn’t setting up the email server. It was her total inability to recognize – and recognize quickly – the reasons why the server story was so dangerous for her campaign.
If you look back at Clinton’s reactions in the aftermath of Michael Schmidt’s story revealing her email address and subsequent reporting from AP about her email server, it’s clear she doesn’t get why it could be a problem.
Clinton stayed silent for a week after Schmidt broke the news. But then in a press conference at the United Nations on March 10, 2015, Clinton first revealed her absolute contempt for the story.
“I went above and beyond what I was requested to do,” she responded to one question about the setup. “The laws and regulations in effect when I was secretary of state allowed me to use my email for work,” she said at another point. “That is undisputed.”
That not-getting-it-ness (as well as her overly legalistic responses about what she did and didn’t do in regards the email server) continued for months and months.
At an August 2015 press availability that produced this famous GIF, Clinton repeatedly sounded defensive and lawyerly. “What I did was legally permitted, number one, first and foremost, okay?,” she said at one point. At another, asked why she had wiped her server before turning it over to the Justice Department, Clinton responded sarcastically: “Like with a cloth or something?”
The best evidence that Clinton never really understood the damage the server story could – and was – doing was when she insisted to reporters at that Las Vegas event that “nobody talks to me about it other than you guys.”
Poll after poll taken around that time suggested lots of people had questions about the emails – and that Clinton hadn’t adequately answered them. Two thirds of people in the 2016 exit poll said Clinton’s use of a private email server bothered them; seven in 10 who said that voted for Trump.
The simple fact is that whether or not Clinton thought the email story was a legitimate one (she didn’t), she should have been able to understand that voters she needed did think it was a real story and did have questions about why she did what she did.
Clinton then – and now – viewed the story as an entirely media-created narrative that regular people didn’t care about. She was wrong then and she’s wrong now.
People might not have cared about the email story in a vacuum. But, they cared deeply about it as a window into how Hillary Clinton conducted her business. And Clinton never – not really – gave them an answer that put those doubts to rest.
Clinton’s attorney reached out after publication of this column to object to the characterization of Powell’s use of his state.gov email address.
“In the large number of e-mails and documents identified and evaluated in the (Office of Inspector General’s) investigation, there has been discovered, to my knowledge, not a single Colin Powell e-mail using a state.gov address,” David Kendall wrote to CNN. “One of the reasons former Secretary Clinton felt comfortable in using her personal e-mail for official business at the State Department (as she had done in the Senate) was her awareness that former Secretary Powell had used his private e-mail exclusively for official business. … Her decision may have been, as she has acknowledged, a mistake, but she was by no means the first Secretary of State to exclusively use a private e-mail address.”
CNN subsequently reconfirmed with Powell’s office that Powell had a state.gov email account which he used for classified information.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that The New York Times first reported on Clinton’s private email address and the Associated Press first reported on her private email server.
Update: This story has been updated with comments from David Kendall and reaction from Colin Powell’s office.
This story was originally published on September 11, 2017.