WASHINGTON — The controversy over Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account while secretary of state has accelerated an inevitability about her presidential candidacy — a spotlight on whether Americans trust her.
Clinton has lived in the public eye for nearly a quarter century, and over that time, her political opponents have found that issues of trust can serve as powerful weapons against her.
As far back as 1996, when she was first lady, a survey by the non-partisan Pew Research Center asked people to offer one-word descriptions of Clinton. The labels most often used by admirers were “strong” and “intelligent,” while the ones most raised by opponents were “dishonest” and what Pew decorously described as “a derogatory term for women that rhymes with rich.”
The accusation that Clinton can’t be trusted or isn’t honest has served as a rallying cry for opponents ever since. They’ve been helped at times by Clinton’s own actions. Her penchant for control and secrecy — or as she has put it, a desire to preserve some privacy while leading a public career — repeatedly has led Clinton into situations where many Americans believed she was, at best, skirting rules that others were expected to follow.
The intense partisanship that has divided opinions about Clinton through most of her public career has focused on that part of her personality. A year ago, for example, when she was still perceived by many Americans more as an admired former secretary of state than as a presidential candidate, another Pew survey found widespread agreement among Americans that Clinton was “tough.”
But asked whether she was “honest,” Democrats and Republicans differed sharply, with more than 80 percent of Democrats saying yes, while only 30 percent of Republicans agreed. As partisan gaps have widened among American voters, views about Clinton have remained highly polarized.
Given that history, it was only a matter of time before the trust issue came to the fore in the presidential campaign.
Many Democrats say they were resigned to that. “I think this is just the warm-up to everything the Republicans plan to do for the next year. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner not only for the Democratic nomination but in head-to-head races against Republicans,” said Jim Demers, a longtime Democratic activist and prominent Clinton supporter in New Hampshire, the first primary state. “They’re aiming their artillery at her early.”
But the fact that the trust issue has surfaced already, and that Clinton and her aides responded slowly, has dismayed many Democrats.
“It hasn’t been an encouraging pre-game,” said a former official in Bill Clinton’s administration who supports Hillary Clinton and who, like most high-level Democrats, would criticize her performance only anonymously.
“It’s obviously problematic,” the former official said. “People don’t really trust the Clintons. They may like them, but they don’t trust them. I think she should be in a period of ‘show me’ rather than ‘trust me.’”
The debate over Clinton’s emails has increased worries among Democrats about the lack of a campaign organization on their side months after Republicans began setting up their operations, and it appears to have accelerated the schedule for Clinton to formally announce her candidacy, likely next month.
In her news conference Tuesday, Clinton said she had decided when she became secretary of state that she would use a private email account as a matter of “convenience” because it meant she could use one account for both personal and work emails and carry only a single phone.
Last year, when State Department officials asked her and her three immediate predecessors to turn over copies of any work-related emails they had on private accounts, Clinton said, she had her lawyers review the roughly 60,000 emails she sent during her tenure — which works out to about 40 per day — and separate messages related to official business from those which were private.
The review turned up 30,490 work emails, which were printed out and given to the State Department, and 31,830 “private, personal” messages, which were deleted, her aides said in a statement.
Clinton defended her deleting of the personal messages on grounds of privacy, couching her argument in terms that seemed aimed at connecting with the voters who likely will be judging her next year.
“No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy,” she said. The personal messages touched on matters such as her daughter Chelsea’s wedding, the funeral of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and even her yoga classes, she said. She did not say why deleting the emails was necessary to keep them private.
Critics immediately fired back, saying Clinton and her aides could have used the opportunity to delete emails that were politically embarrassing or could have provided evidence of wrongdoing.
“We don’t get to grade our own papers in life,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chair of the special House committee investigating the attack in 2012 on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.
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“She doesn’t get to determine what’s a public record and what’s a personal record. Someone else needs to do that,” Gowdy said Wednesday on MSNBC. He repeated a call for Clinton to allow an outside party to examine the email server kept at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
So far, most Democrats have defended Clinton. The lack of criticism within the party eases the way for her nascent campaign to chalk up criticism to Republican partisanship. Polls since the controversy began have shown no erosion in the strong support that likely Democratic primary voters give Clinton, who holds huge leads over potential rivals both nationally and in early primary states.
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Among the few Democrats willing to openly criticize her is Richard Harpootlian, the former South Carolina Democratic chairman, who has long been a harsh judge of the former secretary of state.
“The big question now is what did she delete and why did she delete it?” Harpootlian said.
“Given the history, she should be more sensitive than any other American to make sure she is transparent. ‘Trust me’ isn’t enough. It’s amazing to me she calls a press conference 10 days after this break and says, ‘Trust me,’” he added. “I’m sorry, tell me why. Why should we trust you?”
But, said veteran pollster Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Survey, “‘trust me’ may be sufficient.” Unless more damaging facts emerge, the email issue is not “likely to evoke a great deal of public reaction,” he said.
And, particularly in the case of a figure as well-known as Clinton, voters may have decided they can live with something less than perfection.
“Trust still matters,” Kohut said. “But people will look at a candidate and say on a certain dimension we may not trust them, but they are doing well.”
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