While serving as secretary of State, Hillary Clinton disregarded an instruction from the Foreign Affairs Manual directing her to use State Department equipment for day-to-day operations. Clinton almost certainly did this for convenience — since she could not connect her smartphone to the State Department server, the directive made it harder for her to check her email on a mobile device — but the issue somehow became a first-tier national scandal. The bizarre prominence this story took on is worth revisiting given Monday night’s revelation that Donald Trump is doing essentially the same thing.
Politico reports that President Trump uses at least two mobile phones that lack the necessary security features to conceal his communications. The president “has rebuffed staff efforts to strengthen security around his phone use,” the article explains, and while President Obama swapped out his phone every month for security staffers to see whether it had been hacked, Trump has refused to do the same because it would be “too inconvenient.” In other words, the offense is identical to Clinton’s, except that the president is a far more inviting target for foreign hackers than the secretary of State, and Trump in particular is especially vulnerable to espionage and blackmail due to his concealed business interests and habitual adultery.
Notably, Politico’s solid report landed as a second-tier revelation, at best a distant second-place contender for most-damaging Trump news story of the day. Clinton’s sloppy info-sec story blossomed into a narrative that overwhelmed every other aspect of her campaign. In 2016, Gallup surveyed voters and found the email story crowding out every other thing they had heard about Clinton:
Clinton apologized her for email breach, and almost everybody agreed she had done something wrong. The email story coincidentally helped weaponize the Russian email hack. The stolen emails contained nothing damning, but they did produce more news chyrons juxtaposing “Clinton” and “emails,” which had become a shorthand for wrongdoing on her part, especially among low-information voters.
There is no chance that Trump’s parallel sloppiness could play remotely as large a role in shaping public perception. There would be no reason for it. Trump has done so many consequential things, both in terms of his policy agenda and in his degradation of governing norms, that a myopic focus on his unsecured phone would serve no public interest. It does not rank as one of the 100 worst things Trump has done so far.
That is to say, nobody wants to live in a world where Donald Trump is held to the same standard as Hillary Clinton. Nor can anybody imagine what such a world would look like. It already feels like we are numb from the sensory overload of endless sirens directing us to the latest unprecedented outrage. No human could generate the mental space to process Trump’s firehose stream of offenses calibrated at Clinton levels. The political system couldn’t function at such a standard. He would have been impeached his first week in office.
At some level, this double standard reflects a difficult and possibly irresolvable paradox of campaign coverage. The media assigns one set of reporters to cover the Democratic candidates and another to cover the Republicans. The Democrats’ shortcomings certainly qualify as legitimate news at some level, albeit not at the level they were assigned. You could change the way reporters cover Democrats but you could never resolve the problem, because reporters are still going to find angles for critical coverage. Their job is not to compare the candidate with the alternative. When it reports on a Clinton gaffe, the New York Times isn’t going to attach a caveat to every sentence informing readers that Trump said 50 crazier things before lunch.
Still, we need to think more critically about the structural disparities that produce this double standard. The conservative movement has the capacity to magnify small scandals and to concoct imagined ones out of thin air, which then generate pressure on other parts of the system. Why did James Comey announce he was reopening his investigation of Clinton in the waning days of the campaign? Because he wanted to retroactively secure the legitimacy of the election, which meant placating Republican claims that Clinton was a felon who should be denied security clearance, as Paul Ryan requested, or simply imprisoned. And why did the mainstream media report so obsessively about the emails? Because neutral actors like Comey were conscripted, via weaponized bad-faith partisanship, into elevating the second-tier email scandal into a federal case that was ipso facto newsworthy.
Maintaining one’s intellectual and moral standards is difficult in a political system in which one party operates without either. America elected a president in large part on a platform of demanding adherence to Executive branch information security so rigorous that a violator ought to be locked up. What do we do when we obtain retroactive proof that that entire claim, endorsed without reservation even by Republicans who blanched at other aspects of his platform, was a lie? Just walk away?