Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are fighting about Clinton's assertion that videos of Trump are being used to recruit Islamic State terrorists. Trump wants an apology for what Clinton said during Saturday’s Democratic debate; Clinton’s campaign says “Hell, no.” And that’s an actual quote.
But there’s also a wrestling match in the media over whether Clinton’s claim is completely false, just slightly off-base, or even right on the money.
Many fact-checkers, including ours, have taken Clinton to task for saying that the Islamic State is “going to people, showing videos of Donald Trump insulting Islam and Muslims in order to recruit more radical jihadists.” So far, there is no evidence that Islamic State recruiters are using video of Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks — a finding conservative media outlets have trumpeted as proof that Clinton lied. Some have gleefully cited a recruiting video that features images not of Trump but of presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
But Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors social media activities of Islamic terrorist groups, told The Washington Post Fact Checker that, through social media, “ISIS supporters and recruiters have used Trump’s rhetoric to promote ISIS’s ideas and agenda.”
That’s close enough for the liberal watchdog Media Matters, which wagged its finger at much of the press for having “fixated on Clinton’s specific statement that the terrorists use Trump’s comments in recruitment ‘videos.’” Her broader point — that Trump is an Islamic State recruiting tool — still stands, the site argued. The Huffington Post also downplayed Clinton’s imprecision, reporting that she merely “stretched the truth a bit,” while suggesting that Trump might very well show up in Islamic State videos in the future. (My take: That would make Clinton a clairvoyant, not a liar, which seems a little too generous.) And Mediaite went so far as to claim total vindication for Clinton, based on Katz’s social media analysis, asserting that journalists who called her statement false “all owe her an apology, especially Politifact.”
I don’t think anybody is going to be apologizing to anybody over this. Not Clinton, and not the media. The fact-checkers were right to point out the problem with Clinton’s assertion — that’s why her spokeswoman, Jen Palmieri, conceded Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that Clinton “didn’t have a particular video in mind.”
She ought to be more precise, especially when contrasting herself against the fact-challenged Trump. It's possible that she simply misspoke, but the other two explanations are highly unflattering. She either didn't know that Trump has not been used in recruiting videos (which is the sort of thing a former secretary of state with extensive foreign policy expertise should know, isn't it?) or she deliberately embellished for dramatic effect — not unlike the man she sought to impugn.
So why is Clinton avoiding the same kind of treatment as Trump, whose frequent misstatements earned him Politifact's "Lie of the Year" this week?
One is the sheer number of Trump's false statements. But the other key difference is that Clinton’s general idea — the Islamic State is exploiting Trump’s divisive rhetoric — does hold up; she just got the medium wrong. Many of Trump's exaggerations have been wrong not only in the strict sense but also the broad sense. When he said last month that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims took to the streets of New Jersey to cheer on 9/11 as the Twin Towers imploded, for instance, he might have deserved some slack — even if the real numbers were not in the thousands — if there had indeed been evidence of widespread, public celebrations. Instead, the best that he and his supporters have been able to produce are a few isolated reports of cheering, some of which have been discredited.
Thus, Clinton deserved her slap on the wrist, but she isn't likely to feel the sting for very long.
But Trump and Clinton are hardly the first to confront these shades of gray. Recall Politico’s report last month that accused Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson of “fabricating” his account of turning down a scholarship to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. It looked at first like a major blow to Carson’s candidacy, and he has certainly given the impression over the years that he was offered a full ride to West Point (as every cadet receives) when, in fact, he never actually applied. Like Clinton, Carson was rightly called out for misleading statements.
But also like Clinton, Carson could stand by the broad strokes of his story (while Politico ultimately softened its account) that he was a standout member of his high school ROTC program and was encouraged by a general to consider West Point, but he decided to pursue a career in medicine, instead. Carson weathered the report just fine — even using it to raise money — though he has since faded, with foreign policy now a central issue following terrorist attacks on Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.
In similar fashion, expect Clinton to emerge from this media brush fire unsinged. There's enough truth here -- and supportive mediate outlets -- for her supporters to be happy and enough untruth for people who already despise her to continue to do so.
But it's also completely fair to point out that, should she face Trump in the general election, being sloppy with the facts is about the worst thing she could do. Doing so risks blurring the lines between her and her opponent when it comes to one of Trump's biggest vulnerabilities: telling the truth.