Opinion writer

(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Aides to Hillary Clinton are acknowledging that the campaign botched its release of the diagnosis that she is afflicted with pneumonia, a conclusion reached by her doctor on Friday but only divulged two days later, under relentless scrutiny amid her short-term disappearance after growing ill at a 9/11 ceremony yesterday.

Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon told MSNBC today that the campaign would be “releasing additional medical information” on Clinton, and admitted that in the 90 minutes that elapsed after she left the ceremony, with no news shared of her whereabouts, “we could have gotten more information out more quickly.” Meanwhile, Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri tweeted today: “We could have done better yesterday, but it is a fact that the public knows more about HRC than any nominee in history.”

That is true. But it’s not clear to me that the Clinton campaign grasps how colossal a screw-up the overall handling of this information really was. Not only did the campaign delay its release for many hours yesterday, but it also kept it under wraps for the two days that transpired since the diagnosis occurred — all of which looks worse in retrospect than it did as we were learning about it yesterday.

Admittedly, it’s very easy to pile on in such situations. But senior Democrats I spoke with today are angered by the mess this has made, and are worried that it could create still more problems in the days ahead, as her condition comes under more scrutiny.

Basically, the problem is this: Given that the campaign only revealed her true condition after seemingly having no other choice, when evidence of her falling ill was rocketing all around the internet, won’t voters be tempted to disbelieve whatever else the campaign says about her health going forward? The issue isn’t necessarily that voters will accept Trump’s ongoing arguments that she is physically unfit for the job, but rather that here is another case where they may wonder whether they are being told the full truth.

Video of Clinton's departure seemed to show her buckling and stumbling as she got into her van. (Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

“I honestly don’t think health is an issue of big vulnerability, despite the rantings of her opponents,” David Axelrod emailed me today. “The questions she needs to avoid exacerbating are ones of stealth, not health, and that’s why the way this was handled was ill-considered.”

“Could this have been dealt with quicker? Yes,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman tells me. “Does it feed into a perception that they play things too close to the vest in a way that borders on dishonest? Yes.”

“Trump has been vastly more dishonest than she has been,” Mellman continued. “But there is a view in people’s minds that neither of these candidates is a truth teller. That’s a problem for both of them. By rights it shouldn’t be a problem for her. But episodes like this help create a problem where none should be apparent.”

This week’s Post poll underscores the problem. While Clinton has a small 46-41 edge on who is seen as more honest and trustworthy, a full 69 percent of Americans say she is “too willing to bend the rules,” 62 percent disapprove of her handling of her emails, and 57 percent say they’re concerned about possible conflicts involving her presidency and the Clinton Foundation. The question of how much this will ultimately matter aside, it’s obvious that majorities are inclined to believe she is prone to cutting ethical corners with frequency and abandon.

It should be noted that the Clinton campaign may well have been preparing to release the diagnosis today, after the 9/11 anniversary had passed. But the problem is that, because events caught the campaign flat-footed, now no one can be sure what the campaign’s intended treatment of the information was. “It’s possible they were planning to release it,” Mellman said. “But the unpredictable happened, and now it doesn’t look that smart.”

It also needs to be stated once again, as Paul Waldman spelled out today, that there is simply no comparison between Clinton and Trump when it comes to transparency and honesty. Trump has lied far more regularly and audaciously than Clinton has, on matters great, small, and in between. Trump has not released his tax returns, making the ludicrous excuse that he’s being audited; she has. Many of Trump’s policy proposals are so lacking in detail that they have crossed over into pure fraudulence; Clinton has real, detailed plans and proposals. And on health in particular, Clinton has actually disclosed more than Trump has. While the letter from her doctor that she released last year did contain some information, though not enough by a long shot, Trump has not only refused to disclose any medical records; on top of that, the letter dashed off in five minutes by his doctor attesting to Trump’s miraculously strong and powerful constitution was the stuff of low comedy.

“Long before she got pneumonia she disclosed more medical information than Trump — and got no credit for it,” Democratic strategist Paul Begala, a senior adviser to the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA, tells me.

True. But this makes it doubly galling that Clinton now risks getting outflanked by Trump when it comes to medical disclosure. Trump said this morning that he will be releasing “very, very specific” information about his health in coming days. Obviously, given his past history of making such promises and failing to honor them, this should be treated as little more than a laugh line until he actually does it. And he very well may not do it.

But even so, now that the Clinton campaign has promised new medical records, which is good, it’s time to err on the side of maximum transparency, say, by making extensive records available for viewing to select journalists. And again, no false equivalence is meant here: Meanwhile, the press should redouble the pressure on Trump for more transparency on his medical records and everything else.

“Put out a lot of information,” Mellman counseled the Clinton campaign. “It’s got to be true and accurate. It’s got to come from credible sources. It’s got to be played straight and honest.”

“One would like to think that you have a lot of room to screw up against Donald Trump,” Mellman said. “But you don’t.”