Clinton Is Making Her Trust Problem Worse
Hillary Clinton enjoys about a five-point polling lead over Donald Trump. One way to look at this is that it's a margin, at this stage of a presidential race, that is rarely reversed.
Here's another way. The Democrats had a successful convention, the Republicans didn't. Clinton's campaign has been smooth; Trump's has careened between disasters. She has reached out to independents and Republicans; he has insulted the family of a soldier killed in Iraq, along with people with disabilities, Latinos and women. Clinton has outspent him 3 to 1.
And she's only ahead by five percentage points.
Most political experts are confident she'll win -- FiveThirtyEight's election forecast, for example, pegs the probability at 77 percent or 85 percent, depending which measures are included. But the comparative closeness of the race underscores her problems.
Some of it reflects the polarization of American politics. But there also have been self-inflicted wounds that accentuate her struggle to win voters' trust: the continuing controversy over her use of private e-mail while secretary of state and potential conflicts involving the Clinton Foundation.
On most metrics she outperforms Trump: Polls show that voters consider her superior on competence, experience, truthfulness on the campaign trail and, yes, integrity. But on the latter issue she looks good mainly by comparison to her opponent.
In this month's Bloomberg Politics poll, 58 percent of voters said they were bothered "a lot" by potential conflicts involving the Clinton Foundation. And 53 percent felt that way about the e-mails.
She has exacerbated these problems in recent weeks. Last month, FBI Director James Comey said there were no grounds to prosecute Clinton for using private e-mail, but called her "extremely careless" about handling sensitive information.
Yet Clintonland continues to rationalize. Clinton implied that Comey had declared that her response to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other public statements had been truthful. He didn't; indeed he noted that while her testimony to the FBI was truthful, some of her public comments were not.
Politifact, the nonpartisan fact checker, assessed her claim to be totally false.
Some Clinton supporters have criticized Comey, saying that the FBI director's role is to bring a case or drop it, not to comment on matters of judgment. There are former Justice Department officials who say it was unusual for the FBI director to be so expansive and judgmental.
Yet these same officials say that Comey might not have gone so far if Bill Clinton hadn't foolishly paid a social call at an airport on Comey's boss, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, before the investigation was complete. (Lynch then said she would accept Comey's recommendation, which she later did.)
The latest flap is the Clintons' contention that using the private e-mail was suggested by a predecessor, Colin Powell. There may have been a Powell suggestion -- he says he doesn't recall -- but she decided to use the private system much more extensively and exclusively than Powell did. She didn't do it for convenience; she did it for reasons of secrecy. Annoying Powell, who may well endorse her, was unnecessary.
As Comey noted, no reputable prosecutor would have brought a case against the former secretary of state on this issue.
But since being cleared of legal liability, she has fudged and shuffled. She says she made a mistake and regrets it, but then equivocates or rationalizes. It's counterproductive. She should cut her losses, turn over anything to appropriate authorities and move on.
On the Clinton Foundation, there are several realities. It has done fine work, saving lives. But by accepting contributions from foreign governments and wealthy interests at home, it creates the impression that favors are being traded. If she is elected, it will cast a shadow over the credibility of her presidency unless all family ties are severed.
Last week, Bill Clinton announced that if his wife wins, he will step aside from the foundation and it no longer will take foreign or corporate money. That still leaves open the possibility that their daughter, Chelsea, could run it and wealthy influence-seekers could donate.
"Her inadequate response to the conflicts of interest inherent in the Clinton Foundation," the influential liberal columnist Jonathan Chait wrote last week in New York magazine, shows she "has not fully grasped the severity of her reputational problem." He added, "If the Clinton Foundation is not leveraging the Clinton name, it has no purpose."
At the same time, I spoke with a prominent Clinton insider, a person of integrity and high ethical standards. He said shutting the Clinton Foundation would hurt millions of people around the world and would be giving in to right-wing critics who will find something else to seize on.
I agree that right-wingers like Representative Jason Chaffetz, Senator Tom Cotton or former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani -- who seemed to grant himself a medical degree last week when he ludicrously diagnosed Clinton with health problems -- will find something. Much of it will be phony.
That is no reason to give them ammunition. Politifact and Jonathan Chait are not part of what Clinton once famously called the "vast right wing conspiracy."
If severing family connections would hurt beneficiaries of the foundation's philanthropy, here's a solution worth considering: Turn it over to the Carter Center, former President Jimmy Carter's group, which also has done remarkable work.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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