The Slatest

Hillary Finally Gave a Press Conference. It Was a Master Class in Obfuscation.

Hillary Clinton addresses the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists August 5, 2016 in Washington, DC. 

Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Friday, Hillary Clinton took questions from the press for the first time in 260 days. A number of her answers revealed why she doesn’t hold press conferences more: Her answers to both difficult and easy questions were often evasive, excessively legalistic, and frustrating to watch.

Clinton spoke at a joint convention being held by the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Her previous press conference was December of last year and she has faced heavy criticism from both the media and the Trump campaign for not being more accessible.

In Friday’s press questioning, the trouble began when she was asked her first question about her private email server and recent statements about that server which independent fact checkers have labeled as categorically untrue. Clinton’s responses here—and her previous responses to questions about the truthfulness of past statements—are so overly legalistic and convoluted that they are difficult to even explain. But here’s a shot.

Last month, Fox News’ Chris Wallace asserted to Clinton that FBI Director James Comey said her public statements about which documents on her private email server were classified and which were not were untrue. In actuality, Comey declined to address the truthfulness or lack of truthfulness of those statements in Congressional testimony on the matter. But in announcing his investigation into her server—which cleared Clinton of any wrongdoing—Comey implied that she had either misled the American public about her poor handling of material she should have known was classified information, or been incompetent in doing so. “Even if information is not marked ‘classified’ in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it,” he said. Clinton had previously claimed: “I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time. I had not sent classified material nor received anything marked classified.”

In response to Wallace’s question claiming that Comey had said she was not telling the truth, Clinton said this: “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.”

This is the claim that fact checkers have destroyed. Clinton’s defenders might claim that she was talking about two separate things in two separate clauses in this sentence: That Comey said her answers to the FBI were truthful and separately that her answers to the FBI were consistent with her public statements. This would have made the statement incredibly misleading, though, given that she was asked directly about what Comey’s views. Also making that answer seem disingenuous at best, and a lie at worst, is that she repeated a similar version of it in an interview earlier this week, telling a local CBS affiliate: “It was all personal stuff [that was deleted on the email server], and we’ve said that consistently. And as the FBI said, everything that I’ve said publicly has been consistent and truthful with what I’ve told them.” It’s really hard to argue that this is two separate points, with the “and as the FBI said” part referring to the earlier point, but I guess a really eager Clinton apologist could make that claim.

All of this leads us to the press conference, where Clinton was asked this:

Are you mischaracterizing Director Comey’s testimony and is this not undercutting your efforts to rebuild trust with the American people?

Clinton’s answer, which you can watch here, is an awkward journey of disassembling and lawyerly quibbling:

I was pointing out in both of those instances, that director Comey had said that my answers in my FBI interview were truthful. That’s really the bottom line here and I have said during the interview and other occasions over the past months, that what I told the FBI, which he said was truthful, is consistent with what I have said publicly. So I may have short circuited and for that, I, you know, will try to clarify because I think, you know, Chris Wallace and I were probably talking past each other because of course, he could only talk to what I had told the FBI and I appreciated that.

Yikes. Anyways, what she said here is not only difficult to parse, it also is misleading at best and false at worst. As described, in those interviews she seemed to be directly offering that Comey had put her in the clear in regards to her public statements, not her answers to the FBI.

Her next answer was not much better. The questioner asked Clinton if the fact that Comey’s investigation found three emails that were marked as classified at the time demonstrated that her statements to the public were “inconsistent.”

Clinton gave this answer:

Here’s what—here are the facts behind that as well. You know that I preside—I sent over 30,000 e-mails to the State Department that were work-related e-mails. Director Comey said that only three out of 30,000 had anything resembling classified markers. What does that mean? Well, usually, if any of you have ever served in the government, a classified document has a big heading on the top. Which, makes very clear what the classification is. And in questioning, director Comey made the point that the three e-mails out of the 30,000 did not have the appropriate markings. And it was therefore reasonable to conclude that anyone, including myself, would have not suspected that they were classified.

Comey did tell Congress that it was possible that Clinton was not “technically sophisticated” enough to recognize the classified markings on the emails in question, but government officials should pay attention to such markings.

When asked why her polling numbers on trustworthiness were so low, Clinton also blamed conservative critics. “It doesn’t make me feel good when people say those things, and I recognize that I have work to do,” she said. She then cited her high approval ratings as Senator in New York and Secretary of State, and claimed that the numbers only came down whenever she was running for high office. “Maybe, just maybe, when I’m actually running for a job, there is a real benefit to those on the other side in trying to stir up as much concern as possible,” she said.

Finally, Clinton refused to answer a softball of a softball question when she was asked “what is the most meaningful conversation you’ve had with an African American friend?”

“Oh my gosh. Well, could I tell you that I am blessed to have a crew of great friends,” she said before listing the names of several black colleagues and employees and a nameless black best friend from college. “I can’t really pick one conversation out of, you know, 50 years of conversations,” she said. “I’m going to respect the cone of friendship silence, but please know I’ve got a lot of great friends who have given me so much more.”

Ultimately, that she didn’t even try to come up with a single anecdote from 50 years of friendship to act as a representative example of a meaningful conversation with a black friend—if not the most meaningful conversation—is almost as much of an indictment of Clinton’s forthrightness with the press and public as her email answers.

Read more of Slate’s election coverage.