“She [Hillary Clinton] has been saying lately that she thinks that I am, quote unquote, not qualified to be president.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), at a rally at Temple University, Philadelphia, April 6, 2016

Many readers have asked about these remarks by Bernie Sanders, which led him to list the ways that he thought the former secretary of state was “not qualified” to become president. Did Clinton really say Sanders was unqualified?

The Facts

Warren Gunnels, a senior adviser to Sanders, justified the phrasing by pointing to two items: a Washington Post headline and a quote in a CNN article.

The Washington Post article had this headline: “Clinton questions whether Sanders is qualified to be president.” 

The CNN report included this sentence: “The campaign’s deputy communications director, Christina Reynolds, argued that Sanders is unqualified.” The sentence appeared before a description of a campaign missive that Reynolds had written, drawing attention to a problematic interview that Sanders had with the editorial board of the Daily News.

“Senator Sanders believes there are serious differences in this race that show who is best qualified to be president,” Gunnels said. “It’s remarkable that Secretary Clinton could suggest Senator Sanders isn’t qualified to be president in the morning and then fake outrage at her own statements that same evening.”

Gunnels also expressed outrage at an email Reynolds sent to supporters drawing attention to Sanders’s “not qualified” comments. “This is exactly why so many Americans do not trust Hillary Clinton or her campaign,” he said.

Headline writing is an imperfect art. The editor often has to summarize the meaning of a complex and nuanced article in just a few words. Many Washington-based reporters have experienced the frustration of having an accurate article denied by an agency spokesman because of a headline that went a little far off the mark.

In this case, however, the Post headline did not quote Clinton as saying Sanders was unqualified, and neither did the article. Instead, it drew attention to an interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in which Clinton sidestepped questions about whether Sanders was qualified.

Here is the full transcript:

JOE SCARBOROUGH: We’ve been talking about Bernie Sanders’s New York Daily News interview. I want to start with that and ask you, in light of the interview, in light of the questions he had problems with, do you believe this morning that Bernie Sanders is qualified and ready to be president of the United States?
CLINTON: Well, I think the interview raised a lot of really serious questions and I look at it this way. The core of his campaign has been break up the banks and it didn’t seem in reading his answers that he understood exactly how that would work under Dodd-Frank, exactly who would be responsible, what the criteria were. And you know, that means you can’t really help people if you don’t know how to do what you are campaigning on saying you want to do.
SCARBOROUGH: So is he — so is he …
CLINTON: And then there were other very …
SCARBOROUGH: Is he — I know there are a lot of examples of where he came up short and the interviewers were having to repeat questions. So the question, and I’m serious, if you weren’t running today and you looked at Bernie Sanders, would you say this guy is ready to be president of the United States?
CLINTON: Well, I think he hadn’t done his homework, and he’d been talking for more than a year about doing things that he obviously hadn’t really studied or understood, and that does raise a lot of questions. And really what it goes to is for voters to ask themselves can he deliver what he’s talking about, can he really help people …
SCARBOROUGH: What do you think?
CLINTON: Can he help our economy? Can he keep our country strong? Well obviously, I think I’m by far the better choice and …
SCARBOROUGH: But do you think he is qualified? And do you think he is able to deliver on the things he is promising to all these Democratic voters?
CLINTON: Well, let me put it this way, Joe. I think that what he has been saying about the core issue in his whole campaign doesn’t seem to be rooted in an understanding of either the law or the practical ways you get something done. And I will leave it to voters to decide who of us can do the job that the country needs, who can do all aspects of the job, both on the economic domestic issues and on national security and foreign policy.

Note that Scarborough three times asks her whether Sanders is qualified, and she refuses to answer or offers nonresponsive rhetoric that his Daily News interview “raises lots of questions.”

Those kinds of answers certainly give license to reporters to offer an interpretation that Clinton is raising questions about her rival’s qualifications. Clinton, after all, is a former secretary of state and is adept at signaling messages without actually saying the words out loud. But it’s not the same as “quote unquote” saying Sanders is unqualified.

The CNN example is even less relevant. This is not Clinton herself, but a campaign aide. The letter draws attention to the Daily News interview, but “unqualified” is a reporter’s interpretation of the letter, not the aide’s own words.

The Pinocchio Test

Sanders is putting words in Clinton’s mouth. She never said “quote unquote” that he was not qualified to be president. In fact, she diplomatically went out of her way to avoid saying that, without at the same time saying he was qualified. The Washington Post article appropriately noted that she raised questions about his qualifications, but certainly never said or suggested she said Sanders was unqualified.

Sanders would have been on safer ground if he had said Clinton is raising questions about his qualifications and now he would like to raise questions about her qualifications. But he can’t slam her for words she did not say.

Three Pinocchios

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