Hillary Clinton’s press conference could not have felt more Clinton. Those hoping this well-known accomplished woman would emerge as a new kind of candidate were disappointed on Tuesday. Instead, this was vintage Clinton from the 1990s: late, grudging, and incomplete.
Do you trust Hillary Clinton? That’s the political question at the heart of this entire episode about her choice to use a private email account while secretary of state. The question isn’t just whether voters trust her on the particulars of this incident, but whether she can convince the public that she is a trustworthy person.
Voters are unlikely to elect a president they don’t trust, but they’re also likely to grade on a curve. Some are willing to give Clinton their trust because other things they care about are much more important. Clinton will fight for their issues. Her Tuesday press conference was held at the United Nations because she was there to receive recognition for the work she has done in the last 20 years elevating women’s rights across the globe. They’ll trust her enough to give her power to do those things.
For others, she will never be able to win back their trust.
Are there any voters left who don’t fall into those camps? If there are, Clinton has a message for them: Trust me. After more than a week of unanswered questions about her emailing habits as America’s chief diplomat, that was the message she was able to muster at a press conference intended to put those questions to bed.
This was not a let-it-all-hang-out press conference like the two-hour one New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie held the day after revelations surfaced that one of his staffers shut down lanes on the George Washington Bridge to punish a political enemy. In that press conference, Christie tried to show through his speech, demeanor, and mannerisms that he had nothing to hide. He tried to employ his apparent candor as a way to retake command of the moment.
Clinton chose a different route. Her press conference ran about 20 minutes, and she chose not to answer questions that were directly posed to her. She relied on a stiff reading of the laws governing the treatment of private email and made unverifiable assertions. Clinton explained that she didn’t follow the State Department rules because she didn’t want to carry around two phones. She said she deleted more than half of the emails on her server (roughly 31,000) because they were all personal (messages about Chelsea’s wedding and yoga and whatnot). She said that whenever there was a matter regarding official business, she emailed it to someone with a .gov address so that it was captured by archivists.
How do we know all of this is true? The emails have been deleted, and she’s not going to allow anyone to look at the server. She asks people to trust her.
Clinton’s central appeal was to common reason: She didn’t want to lug around two phones. So she claims she limited herself to one and put in place her own procedures to collect the emails that were official. That’s fine, if that turns out to be true. Other Cabinet officials had two addresses on a single phone. Why didn’t she? Also, Clinton didn’t just use a single phone—she set up her own server. That suggests a more considered effort than simply acting out of convenience. (Is it really easier to set up your own server and email protocols than to carry two phones?) She said it was her existing system, but records suggest the account was set up the day of her State Department confirmation hearing.
Plus, two weeks ago, the former secretary of state said that she carries around two phones now. There’s footage of her doing so, and in a social media age, the apparent contradiction about convenience can be passed around rather quickly.
Adversity can give candidates a chance to forge new connections with voters, or it can redouble existing doubts. Some voters will make those judgments now, while others will wait. Between now and Election Day, there will be other moments where the same instincts Clinton showed today will be tested again. She’s going to need to seem less like the person we expect next time.