“Enough About the Damned Emails”

Thom Palmer, my collaborator on this piece, is a freelance political writer residing in Southern California. His work can be found on dailynewsbin.com or on his blog “Thom Palmer – Truth in Politics” A shorter version of this piece appears on The Huffington Post.

Just when we thought we were finally moving on to issues of substance, those damned emails (as Bernie Sanders, in one of the most spontaneous moments of the primaries, called them) are back in the news. Like Freddy Kruger, they just won’t die—because the media won’t let them.

This time, they were reincarnated by Washington Post, who gave Clinton 4 “Pinocchio’s” for trying to correct Chris Wallace in a Fox News Sunday interview on July 31. Wallace had said, inaccurately, that “FBI director James Comey said none of those things that you told the American public were true.” But Wallace was either uninformed or lying, for Comey had said nothing of the sort. Rather, he said (in the July 7 congressional hearing that followed his public announcement of the results of his investigation) that he wasn’t “qualified to answer” the question of whether Clinton had lied to the public.” What he did feel qualified to answer was whether her answers to the FBI were truthful, and on that issue he had replied that “we have no basis to conclude that she lied.”

What did Clinton reply that got her pantsuit put on fire? Instead of quoting Comey’s lawyerly “no basis to conclude that she lied” she answered in terms ordinary people use and said Comey had said “her answers were truthful.” She then went on to connect the dots between her FBI testimony and what she had said to the public, describing them as “consistent” with each other. Complicated, perhaps. Requiring a bit of thought on the part of listeners, yes. But a lie? Give us a break.

As Clinton later said, at a press conference in which the reporters pressed her yet again on the “email issue,” she and Wallace were “talking past each other.” A careful reading of the text of their exchange shows that this is indeed true (and rather generous to Wallace.) But explaining it is not so easy, and Clinton’s (admittedly tortured) answer has not satisfied the hungry press, which has been quick to predict that it wouldn’t “satisfy her critics” either (LA Times, August 8.)

And so the saga of “Lying Hillary” goes on and on. We hear it virtually every day, not only from her political enemies, but from news commentators on every channel, who simply cannot resist raising the issue of Hillary’s “untrustworthiness” no-matter how irrelevant it is to the main story they are reporting. We hear it in casual comments and jokes told by neighbors, as if it were an accepted scientific fact that needs no proof. We see its influence on her approval numbers in the polls. “Hillary the liar”—it’s become her media “brand”.

Believe it or not, it’s a relatively recent caricature. Despite a lifelong career of public service, scrutiny, and pseudo-scandals, “Hillary the liar” only began to exist after she announced her run for the 2016 presidency. Before that, “crooked”, “lying”, and “untrustworthy” were NOT among the adjectives used by her political enemies in describing Hillary Clinton. This woman who they now call “liar” was virtually uniformly trusted by colleagues on both sides of the aisle and considered one of the most admired women in the world. Just prior to running for the presidency, she had an approval rating of 66%

Even during the 2008 primary between Hillary and Obama—a contest that had some pretty sharp edges—“trust” was never raised as an issue. Yes, there was a brief media feeding frenzy when Hillary inaccurately reported “being under sniper fire” while landing in Bosnia in 1996. But it never rose to the level of scandal, partly because (as it was eventually disclosed) as the plane descended, the occupants had been warned by the secret service of sniper fire (Clinton, in preparation, wore body armor) and because, well, all politicians stretch the truth at one point or another. In fact, Clinton’s record for truth-telling is rated by Politifact as better than Bernie Sanders’, who the press has never called out for lying, even when he clearly was—for example, about the circumstances of his visit to Rome. As for Trump, fahget about it: “If deception were a sport,” writes Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, “Trump would be an Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”

Clinton’s most famous recent “lies” are in fact not lies at all, but attempts—admittedly, not always successful—to respond to complicated issues without inadvertently stepping into the muck that she knows continually awaits her in the press. On her use of a personal server, for example, there are no clear and simple answers to be given, because the system itself is messy and inconsistent: no clear-cut “rules” governing communication between and among persons and agencies, continual changes in procedure and operating systems, different determinations of what is classified and what is not, and so on. The system is complex, ever changing, and hard to keep up with.

When Clinton first claimed on television, defending the scrupulousness of her handling of emails, that she had neither received or sent any classified emails on her private server, it wasn’t clear whether she was referring to her own assessment or some official stamp. Shortly after, she clarified that she had meant “emails marked as classified.” In other words, an official stamp. The clarification is crucial, because it’s through a system of markings that the state department operates. This doesn’t mean the markings are incorrigible “proof” of anything, and it’s always possible for one person (or agency) to deem something “classified” and another person (or agency) to disagree. Indeed, that often happens, as documents travel from person to person and agency to agency and their content gets reinterpreted. Classification is a moving machine, which stopped at Clinton’s desk marked in a certain way. She relied on those markings; how else could she—or anyone else in her position—operate?W

FBI director James Comey, however, mentioned none of this when he claimed that Clinton, contrary to her statements to the public, had received 110 classified emails (out of 30,000 the FBI had recovered.) The emails he referred had no such “classified” headings when Clinton received them. Yet the GOP and the media jumped all over what they saw as confirmation that Clinton had lied. Without allowing themselves a moment to examine Comey’s words with care, Fox News, followed by MSNBC commentators Andrea Mitchell and Michael Steele, immediately began to weave his report into their favored narrative of Clintonian untrustworthiness. Clinton, they pointed out, said she didn’t send or receive any emails marked classified. But Comey said she did: 110 of them! Claiming that Comey had “completely disputed Hillary’s claims,” Mitchell predicted “grave political problems” for Clinton.

The evening commentators followed their lead. “It’s a complete political indictment of her conduct,” declared Kristen Welker. “A direct disputation of the stories she’s been telling.”(Chris Cillizza.) Demonstrates that “trust and honesty continue to dog the Clinton campaign” (Chuck Todd). By the time Joe, Mika, and Nicole Wallace got in on it in the morning, it had become, predictably, a tale of bald-faced deception on Clinton’s part. “We can only assume,” said Wallace, “that it was a lie” when Clinton said the emails were unclassified. And so on.

Having branded Clinton a liar, the commentators seemed to miss the part in the subsequent hearing where Elijah Cummings, pressing Comey, got him to admit that only three of those 110 emails had any kind of markings on them at all. Those three, moreover, were marked (mistakenly, as it later turned out) only “internally,” with tiny letter symbols pertaining to specific sentences within the emails. So: None of the 30,000 was clearly designated in a subject line as “classified” or “confidential.” NONE. Just as Clinton had said.

Where, then, was Clinton’s “lie”? In fact, Clinton didn’t lie; Comey did. Or perhaps we might say, as is often claimed about Clinton, that he sidestepped the truth. In his earlier statements, Comey (a Republican) had dismissed the importance of the lack of markings, claiming that the emails contained “subject matter” that “any reasonable person should have known…had no place in an unclassified system.” This gave conservatives their red meat, but short of an indictment, they would not be satisfied. So, they launched yet another Congressional hearing, which backfired on them. It was in this congressional hearing that Comey, questioned by Congressman Matt Cartwright, was forced to admit that markings were precisely at issue, exonerating Hillary not only from any crime but also from the charge of lying:

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “You were asked about markings on a few documents, I have the manual here, marking national classified security information. And I don’t think you were given a full chance to talk about those three documents with the little c’s on them. Were they properly documented? Were they properly marked according to the manual?”


MATT CARTWRIGHT: “According to the manual, and I ask unanimous consent to enter this into the record Mr. Chairman”

CHAIRMAN: “Without objection so ordered”.

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “According to the manual, if you’re going to classify something, there has to be a header on the document? Right?”

JAMES COMEY: “Correct”.

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “Was there a header on the three documents that we’ve discussed today that had the little c in the text someplace?”

JAMES COMEY: “No. There were three e-mails, the c was in the body, in the text, but there was no header on the email or in the text.”

MATT CARTWRIGHT: “So if Secretary Clinton really were an expert about what’s classified and what’s not classified and we’re following the manual, the absence of a header would tell her immediately that those three documents were not classified. Am I correct in that?”

JAMES COMEY: “That would be a reasonable inference.”

There is nothing better than an actual transcript to correct the record. Comey’s working definition of “reasonable” seems to change as the wind blows—as does his interpretation of the “rules” governing the use of emails. The appropriate “header,” far from being insignificant, turns out to be required of all classified documents. Which of course makes sense. How could any system of classification operate without such headings? Would it not be chaos? Chuck Todd, who as far as we know has never worked in the State Department, called the marking issue “a technicality.” But Ellen Tauscher, who served as an Under Secretary in the State Department until 2012, objected strongly to Todd’s characterization, and insisted that the separation of emails into classified and unclassified piles and marked accordingly was taken with utmost seriousness and done very rigorously. Of course, mistakes may have been made. But perhaps, as Comey finally admitted, it was “reasonable” for Clinton to assume that they had done their job correctly? There is no other valid means of identifying a classified document.

It’s amazing to us that none of this has made it into any of the various media reports that continue to insist that Clinton is lying about her emails. But then, we know the press doesn’t like Hillary, largely because she avoids talking to them, having been burned badly from the early days of Bill’s presidency, when her spontaneity and forthrightness was rewarded by misogynist gasps over her ambition to actually contribute to the work of government. And then, too, “Hillary the liar” has kept alive everything the media needs to keep viewers watching: the sense that there is a genuine “horse race” to breathlessly follow, the possibility that more news about her deceptions could break at any time, and an easily digestible, scandalous capsule of characters—“the most unpopular, least trusted candidates in history”– to refer to in their ongoing soap opera/reality show version of the election. At the same time, “Lying Hillary” reassures them that they are offering “balanced” coverage between Trump and Clinton—a paradigm that’s becoming more absurd all the time.

We expect Trump to serve up whatever foul dish he can concoct. But every time we hear a commentator refer to Hillary’s statements about her emails as “lies” we wonder if they’ve heard the same English sentences that we have, or viewed the same hearings. Maybe, like Trump, they get their information from other reporters’ headlines. Maybe, like teenage gossips, they simply seize on what’s hot and never question whether it’s true. This is the difference between simply reporting and “investigative journalism.” Perhaps investigative journalism is a thing of the past, and what’s left in its place is “breaking news, tabloid style.” The longer the “Lying Hillary” narrative lasts… the closer the race. The closer the race…the higher the ratings. The higher the ratings…the higher the advertising dollars.

We give mainstream media a “Pants on Fire” rating on the claims that Hillary lied about her emails.