When Barack Obama was on his rise to the White House, it was often said that he was one of the luckiest politicians in the country. The same could now be said about Hillary Clinton.
This was a week in which any number of developments could have put Clinton on the defensive. Instead, days of turmoil inside Donald Trump’s campaign made the Republican nominee the big story — and the coverage of his campaign was anything but flattering.
Trump’s advisers think that on balance the week was positive, the best of the month. They now hope they can begin to shift the focus to Clinton and, if they’re successful, the polls that show her leading will narrow. That assumes two things: that Trump won’t create more controversy in the days and weeks ahead; and that voters will ultimately see her vulnerabilities as more disqualifying than the many liabilities that Trump has revealed during the campaign.
Clinton’s assets are well-known but so, too, are her vulnerabilities. The polls have showed that many voters see her as a politician who plays by a different set of rules or is prepared to bend the rules in her favor. She has been criticized as overly defensive when challenged, slow to acknowledge errors and legalistic in explaining herself. She prefers to shield herself from more questioning from the reporters who regularly cover her campaign, having not held a full-fledged news conference for more than 260 days.
Clinton’s friends say that her penchant for defensiveness and secrecy is the product of a quarter-century of attacks from her critics, what she long ago called a vast right-wing conspiracy. By now, it is baked in. Even some of the people who have the highest admiration for her intelligence, her work ethic and her commitment to finding good policies to address major problems see this as a genuine liability that could hamper her if she becomes president.
Her allies say that as president, Clinton would be committed to finding some common ground with Republicans. But what happens if Republican attacks continue? A recent story in The Washington Post, based on the files of Diane Blair, one of Clinton’s closest friends from Arkansas, described the then-first lady as constantly frustrated during her husband’s administration that, when under attack, others in the White House were not sufficiently strong in going after the critics.
The story said that it was Clinton who was “urging hardball” in those situations. “Month after month, Clinton was ‘in despair,’ her friend [Blair] wrote, that nobody in the White House was ‘tough and mean enough,’ ” according to the article.
Clinton’s image deteriorated during her nomination contest with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. She emerged as one of the two least-liked presidential candidates in the modern history of presidential politics. It is her good fortune that the least liked is Trump. However much she is distrusted, Trump is distrusted more. Although a majority of voters do not believe she is honest, when asked which of the two major party nominees is more honest, she rates ahead of her Republican opponent.
Her recent characterization of FBI Director James B. Comey’s comments about her use of a private email server as secretary of state earned negative ratings from media fact checkers. Only after it was apparent that her version of what Comey had said was no longer defensible did she pull back, saying she had “short-circuited” her explanation during an interview with Chris Wallace of Fox News, which she said led to a misunderstanding of what she meant.
The email issue isn’t going away. The FBI director said his agency’s review found no grounds for prosecution. But he was sharply critical of her for being “extremely careless” with classified information. The FBI has sent to Capitol Hill the records of her interview with the agency. Clinton campaign officials now worry that her opponents will leak selected portions of those findings.
Meanwhile, as part of an ongoing public records lawsuit, a federal judge ruled Friday that Clinton must answer under oath written questions from the conservative organization Judicial Watch about the use of the email server. The Clinton campaign sees the lawsuit as right-wing harassment, but the judge’s decision means the email controversy will continue, no doubt through the end of the campaign.
More than questions about emails have swirled around Clinton throughout the campaign. The same holds for the role of the Clinton Foundation, which became a source of a controversy again after Judicial Watch released emails that it had received through its lawsuit.
The emails revealed a request from a foundation official and longtime adviser to Bill Clinton seeking a State Department meeting on behalf of Gilbert Chagoury, a wealthy Nigerian businessman of Lebanese descent, who had given a substantial amount of money to the foundation. Clinton officials note that nothing ever came of the request. Trump and Republicans nonetheless have called it a sign of a “pay to play” operation.
The foundation is seen as a source of good works, but it has long been a magnet for such criticism, characterized by critics as a conduit for wealthy individuals and foreign and U.S. entities seeking to curry favor with a past and, more important, a possible future president. Clinton campaign officials have said Clinton never took any action as secretary of state on behalf of foundation donors.
Late last week, officials at the Clinton Foundation announced that if she becomes president, the foundation would no longer accept contributions from foreign governments or corporations. The decision, which would be a major blow to the foundation’s finances, is designed to prevent questions about conflicts of interest if she is in the White House. But the announcement raised obvious questions: Why now and not when she was secretary of state, and why not immediately?
The explanation offered for the new, more restrictive policy if Clinton becomes president is that it would not be possible to have the same kind of review and appeals process that existed when she was at the State Department, which included possible White House involvement, because there is no executive-branch entity above the White House. Clinton officials argue that the past and newly proposed safeguards go beyond anything required by law. That has not satisfied critics.
Trump’s week of problems also overshadowed two other developments affecting the Obama administration. One was the acknowledgment of a direct connection between the release of American hostages from Iran last winter and the payment of $400 million to the Iranian government. Administration officials said the payment was held back until the hostages were clearly being released and said that although the money was used as leverage, it was not a ransom payment.
Then there was the announcement by Aetna that it would pull out of the Affordable Care Act exchanges in 11 of the 15 states where it has been operating. Aetna joined other insurance companies that had previously scaled back their participation in the new health-care system. The decision represented another blow to the signature domestic policy initiative of the Obama presidency, which Clinton has championed.
If Trump were a more disciplined candidate, it’s likely these other issues would have been much more the focus of the past week. Clinton should send her rival a note of thanks.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Hillary Clinton appeared on Fox News when she said she “short-circuited.”