Whatever your thoughts on Hillary Clinton, she does not rack up a lot of “Pants on Fire” reprimands from PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning website that rates the veracity of politicians’ and pundits’ statements. In fact, when it comes to “pants on fire,” the lyingest lies of them all, she’s only gotten five in her entire political career, ranging back to 2008. Donald Trump, by contrast, has racked up 22 this year alone.
But yesterday, the site made a rare exception: Clinton’s pants are on fire over an interview she gave to Chris Wallace on Sunday, in which Wallace asked her about her use of a private, non-secure email server when she was secretary of State. In the segment, Wallace rolled footage of Clinton repeatedly saying things like “I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time.” Wallace pointed out that “After a long investigation, FBI director James Comey said none of those things that you told the American public were true.” Clinton responded: “Director Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I’ve said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails,” she said.
This is false, and it represents a mistake her and her aides seem to be making over and over — and an area where her campaign desperately needs some new, honest, clear talking points.
As the author of the PolitiFact piece, Lauren Carroll, writes, it appears that when Clinton was claiming to have given truthful answers, she was referencing “a comment Comey made in a July 7 congressional hearing regarding Clinton’s closed-door interview with the FBI as part of their investigation. Comey said, ‘We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.’” But whether she lied to the FBI is obviously different from whether she lied to the American people. By any reasonable standard, she did lie to the American people — she repeatedly sent classified emails in a nonsecure way, and repeatedly said that she didn’t.
As Carroll writes, according to Comey, “of the tens of thousands of emails investigators reviewed, 113 individual emails contained classified information, and three of them bore markings signifying their classification status. (Information can still be classified even if it does not have a label.) Eight email threads contained top-secret information, the highest level of classification, 36 contained secret information, and the remaining eight contained confidential information.” So there’s no dispute about what she did wrong, and there’s no dispute that she claimed, repeatedly, not to have done anything wrong. Either she intentionally wasn’t telling the truth in public statements on this issue, or she didn’t understand the categories in question well enough to realize that what she was saying wasn’t true. Either way, it is not a good position for a former secretary of State to be in.
The GOP has obviously politicized this issue and made every effort to use it to embarrass Clinton, above and beyond legitimate concerns about national security. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t sloppy. When Comey announced last month that Clinton wouldn’t be charged with anything, he issued a rather searing indictment of her judgment: “There is evidence to support a conclusion that any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position, or in the position of those government employees with whom she was corresponding about these matters, should have known that an unclassified system was no place for that conversation.”
And yet while Clinton did technically apologize for the private email system last year, she and her campaign are still spinning on this issue. As Reason notes today, both Clinton’s campaign manager Robby Mook and her press secretary, Brian Fallon, tried to emphasize the “She didn’t lie to the FBI” line during appearances on MSNBC yesterday, downplaying the actual critiques of Clinton’s practices and her subsequent claims about those practices.
Let’s be realistic: The number of voters who will switch from Trump to Clinton, or from one or the other to not voting, on this single issue is likely small. And there are a lot of bad-faith actors who, no matter what Clinton says or does, will paint her as irreparably corrupt. But it’s still a bit confusing that the campaign’s talking points on this issue are so garbled, more than a year after the FBI first opened its inquiry. For a campaign with as tight and professional a reputation as Clinton’s to be called out for dishonesty on what is arguably the single biggest, most legitimate question about her qualification for office is a terrible look.
There’s no easy answer for what a more honest, effective message would look like, of course. The fact that only three of the emails were marked classified gives her a bit of an out, though anyone in her position should have known that the concept extends beyond explicitly marked materials. But as long as the Clinton campaign continues to dissemble on this issue, it will get hammered — and rightly so — by Republicans and fact-checkers alike.