After months of shielding herself from the press via staged events and rope lines, Hillary Clinton finally sat down to talk with a member of the national media yesterday. But anyone thinking that a new more open, honest or humble Hillary would be unveiled in the interview with CNN’s Briana Keilar was bound to be disappointed. Much like her stilted performance back in March when she had a press conference to deal with questions about her email scandal, Clinton’s appearance did nothing to silence questions about either her trustworthiness or her political instincts. Her responses to even the softball questions lobbed into her by Keilar were not merely high-handed and clueless. They were also brazenly false and presented a portrait of an arrogant Hillary Clinton to the country that shows she believes herself to be entitled not only to the presidency but to be treated as if the normal rules of law and conduct don’t apply to her. While this shaky performance may not cause most members of her party to question her inevitable coronation as their presidential nominee in 2016, it should embolden both her Democratic challengers and potential Republican opponents to think she remains deeply vulnerable.
The first thing to be understood about this interview is that it was as favorable a setting as she could have hoped for. Rather than press Clinton to answer tough questions about her emails or the conflicts of interest that investigations of her family foundation have brought out into the open, Keilar largely let the former First Lady get away with murder. At no point did she follow up with pointed rejoinders seeking details or ask about Sidney Blumenthal’s involvement in both her family foundation and Libya policy. Nor did she challenge Clinton on her numerous false assertions, especially where it concerned the emails. Even on policy questions, Clinton was allowed to merely voice generalities rather than specifics and given free rein to take gratuitous pot shots at her potential rivals.
But Keilar did do the country one service when she asked Clinton whether she understood why polls show that a large majority of Americans didn’t trust her and whether she took any responsibility for this. Her answers to these queries told us more about her character and her view of her place in the world than any policy speech or personality profile could possibly do:
KEILAR: I’m wondering if you can address a vulnerability that we’ve seen you dealing with recently. We see in our recent poll that nearly six in 10 Americans say they don’t believe that you’re honest and trustworthy.
Do you understand why they feel that way?
CLINTON: Well, I think when you are subjected to the kind of constant barrage of attacks that are largely fomented by and coming from the Right and –
KEILAR: But do you bear any responsibility for that?
CLINTON: – well, I – you know, I can only tell you that I was elected twice in New York against the same kind of onslaught. I was confirmed and served as secretary of state and I think it’s understandable that when questions are raised people maybe are thinking about them and wondering about them. But I have every confidence that during the course of this campaign people are going to know who will fight for them, who will be there when they need them and that’s the kind of person I am. And that’s what I will do, not only in a campaign but as president.
KEILAR: Trusting someone to fight for them and trusting someone, these are two different things.
Do you see any role that you’ve had in the sentiment that we’ve seen, where people are questioning whether you’re trustworthy?
CLINTON: I can only tell you, Brianna, that this has been a theme that has been used against me and my husband for many, many years. And at the end of the day, I think voters sort it all out. I have great confidence. I trust the American voter. So I trust the American voter 100 percent because I think the American voter will weight these kinds of accusations.
I mean, people write books filled with unsubstantiated attacks against us. And even admit they have no evidence. But of course, it’s your job to cover it. So of course that’s going to raise questions in people’s minds.
But during the course of this campaign, just as in my two prior campaigns and in my other years of service, I have a lot of confidence that the American people can sort it all out.
KEILAR: Would you vote for someone that you don’t trust?
CLINTON: Well, they – people should and do trust me. And I have every confidence that that will be the outcome of this election.
Boiled down to its bare essentials, these answer show that Clinton appears to have learned nothing since her time in the White House when she attributed the national dismay about her husband’s personal conduct to the workings of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
In point of fact, liberal outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post, not conservative publications, have largely carried out the investigations of the Clinton Foundation. Nor was the Clinton Cash book by Peter Schweizer unsubstantiated. To the contrary, it was dense with disturbing questions about the Clinton’s conduct and the way their raising of funds from foreign sources seemed to hinge on those donors expectations about the Clintons doing them favors. But rather than address ethical questions head on, she simply dismisses all the charges as political. In Clintonworld, personal responsibility is something for other people, never for Bill and Hillary.
A better politician like her husband could have disarmed these questions with humility and an admission of mistakes.
That was especially true when she was asked about her bizarre use of a private email and home server while serving as secretary of state and the fact that she withheld these communications from the government and then deleted tens of thousands of emails and wiped the server clean when asked by a House committee for the documents.
Everything I did was permitted by law and regulation. I had one device. When I mailed anybody in the government, it would go into the government system.
Now I didn’t have to turn over anything. I chose to turn over 55,000 pages because I wanted to go above and beyond what was expected of me because I knew the vast majority of everything that was official already was in the State Department system.
These are all blatant falsehoods. The administration she served set up such a regulation in 2009 that would have mandated her handing all of her communications over to the government. Her withholding of documents and then their destruction did violate the rules. As did her home server. As did her choice of which to give to the government and which to withhold and then destroy. But in Clintonworld, it is apparently okay to lie brazenly and then blame the controversy on critics.
The point here isn’t just that she behaved wrongly and won’t own up to it. It’s that she still seems to consider the very act of answering questions about her conduct to be beneath her dignity. The defensive and surly tone with which she made these statements not only reeks with arrogance, it shows that the first months on the campaign trail haven’t done much to improve her political skills. Though she was never much of a natural politician, the rust that seems to have accumulated during her time as secretary of state not only remains but also appears to have grown thicker.
She has lived the last 22 years at the pinnacle of American public life lived inside the cocoon of Secret Service protection along with the trappings of the vast wealth she and her husband have accumulated through a supposed charity that operates more like a political slush fund. All this seems to have stripped her of both the common touch but also of any notion of public accountability. From her current frame of reference, the American people are simply not allowed to distrust her or even to question her ethics. She owes them no explanations or apologies even when caught in misbehavior. They must simply accept all criticisms of her as illegitimate.
Given Clinton’s enormous advantages in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, it’s not clear that even several more months of similarly dismal performances would be enough to allow a clearly implausible challenger like Bernie Sanders to beat her. But even her most ardent supporters must today be wondering why she is unable to bend even a little bit when it comes to showing a trace of humility or willingness to admit fault. They must know it all stems from a sense of entitlement that a better politician would be at pains to hide. For all of her natural gifts, Clinton’s demeanor and defensiveness screams vulnerability against a tough opponent. It remains to be seen whether someone so bereft of basic political skills can be elected president.