Pants on fire?

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

In Clinton We Trust. Or Maybe Not.

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Hillary Clinton has a trust problem.

Her polls in head-to-head matchups with Republicans have fallen, and in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, only 37 percent of Americans considered her honest and trustworthy, compared with 52 percent for Jeb Bush. To be sure, other candidates in both parties have similar trust ratings, but the difference is that many people simply don't have an opinion about the trustworthiness of Scott Walker or Bernie Sanders. Only 6 percent of Americans are unsure about Clinton; the remaining 57 percent say they don't trust her. These numbers have held basically steady since April, but CNN suggests that she had good trustworthiness ratings before the scandal broke about the security of her e-mail when she was secretary of state. I cited the e-mail mess in April as evidence for my belief that the Clinton campaign was going to dredge up everything we hated about the Clintons when Bill was in office: the cavalier belief that rules are for other, smaller people; the aggressive image management; the financial scandals. Subsequent polling seems to have borne this out.

Now Clinton has agreed to turn over her e-mail server to the Justice Department in the wake of disclosures that some of her e-mails apparently contained classified material. She had previously claimed that no classified material went through that e-mail account. Like many other things she has said about that e-mail server, this was false, and to complicate matters, she deleted e-mails from it. At the Washington Post, Chris Cillizza suggests that she's turning over the server because the Justice Department is forcing her to and writes, "It's impossible to see this as anything but a bad thing for her presidential prospects." 

Once Justice Department officials have the server, they should be able to recover the deleted e-mails -- or else establish that strenuous efforts were made to make those e-mails unrecoverable. At that point, one of three things will happen:

1) The deleted e-mails will turn out to be full of top-secret recipes for barbecued tofu, yoga poses and pictures of possible flower arrangements for Chelsea's wedding. This would probably not give a big boost to the Clinton campaign, but by confirming her claims that she deleted only personal e-mails, it would at least lift the suspicion that she fed a lot of shady stuff through the electronic version of a shredder. That might help her trustworthiness ratings recover, at least a little.

2) The e-mail server, or the deleted e-mails, will turn out to have been fed through the electronic version of a shredder. It's relatively easy to make files unrecoverable. It's relatively difficult, however, to conceal that you have done so. This would be very bad for Clinton's image -- possibly worse than actually finding shady stuff on the server. Remember Nixon and the missing 18 minutes of tape? Probably whatever he said was bad. But the gap could be filled with all sorts of imagined offenses that were even worse than what he actually said. Even loyal Democrats would have to strain to explain why she needed to take extreme actions to conceal the details of her mother's funeral arrangements from government officials.

3) The deleted e-mails will turn out to contain a number of work-related e-mails. Presumably, they will be the stuff they didn't want Republicans to see, for reasons ranging from mildly embarrassing (intemperate comments about colleagues, the president or foreign leaders) to moderately problematic (stupid but not immoral stuff like, er, sending classified material through a not-very-secure server) to potentially campaign-ending (say, if there were some less-than-savory communications with Clinton Foundation donors). This certainly wouldn't help anything.

How likely is the first scenario? To put it another way, how likely is it that Hillary Clinton adamantly refused to turn over the server to authorities because she feared Republicans might discover the secret ingredient in her grandmother's pound cake recipe? If insignificant personal matters were all that was on that server, why did she cling to it like a barnacle rather than just give it up?

I think that's actually more likely than it sounds. My e-mails with my family are full of insignificant details of my life, bickering about petty questions of no possible interest to anyone else and similar ephemera. You would still have to pry the password to my Gmail account out of my cold, dead hands with a crowbar, or at least a subpoena. And I'm just talking about a neutral third party. If handing it over meant that those e-mails might end up in the hands of someone who said nasty things about me in public and clearly wished to end my career? Better bring the extra-large crowbar.

On the other hand, I wouldn't say it's unlikely that the Justice Department will find stuff on the server that shouldn't have been there -- possibly along with stuff that should have been in the pile of documents that Clinton has already turned over to the government. Or we could learn the server has been assiduously scrubbed of its old contents, and those missing e-mails are now goner than the passenger pigeon. And if either of those things turn out to be true, then Hillary Clinton's trust problem is about to get worse.

  1. Full disclosure: The linked article was written by the Official Blog Spouse.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net