The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Hillary Clinton’s Abraham Lincoln defense of her leaked Wall Street comments falls flat

Donald Trump said that Abraham Lincoln "never lied," and said that's a "big difference" between Lincoln and Hillary Clinton. (Video: The Washington Post)

Hillary Clinton defended some of her closed-door comments to the business community in Sunday night's debate by invoking Abraham Lincoln. Donald Trump's retort was one of his better lines of the night: "Now she's blaming the lie on the late, great Abraham Lincoln. Now that one, I haven't ...  Okay? Honest Abe."

It was such a good line, in fact, that the Republican presidential nominee was still using it Monday while campaigning in Pennsylvania.

It was a good move on Trump's part for two reasons. First, the story about Clinton's paid speeches was buried underneath Trump's lewd video on Friday afternoon, as I wrote Sunday. Second, Clinton's defense ... isn't great.

Here's the exchange from the debate:

MARTHA RADDATZ: This question involves WikiLeaks' release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton's paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it okay for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes.
CLINTON: Well, right. As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called "Lincoln." It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic. And I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do and you have to keep working at it. And, yes, President Lincoln was trying to convince some people, he used some arguments; convincing other people, he used other arguments. That was a great -- I thought a great display of presidential leadership.

And here's what was contained in the leaked email, which was from a Clinton staff member summarizing a 2013 Clinton speech to the National Multifamily Housing Council, a trade association that represents apartment owners, managers, developers and lenders (the campaign at the time was evaluating the possible damage that would come with releasing her Wall Street speeches) (emphasis added):

*Clinton: “But If Everybody's Watching, You Know, All Of The Back Room Discussions And The Deals, You Know, Then People Get A Little Nervous, To Say The Least. So, You Need Both A Public And A Private Position."*
CLINTON: You just have to sort of figure out how to -- getting back to that word, "balance" -- how to balance the public and the private efforts that are necessary to be successful, politically, and that's not just a comment about today. That, I think, has probably been true for all of our history, and if you saw the Spielberg movie, Lincoln, and how he was maneuvering and working to get the 13th Amendment passed, and he called one of my favorite predecessors, Secretary Seward, who had been the governor and senator from New York, ran against Lincoln for president, and he told Seward, I need your help to get this done. And Seward called some of his lobbyist friends who knew how to make a deal, and they just kept going at it. I mean, politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody's watching, you know, all of the back room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position. And finally, I think -- I believe in evidence-based decision making. I want to know what the facts are. I mean, it's like when you guys go into some kind of a deal, you know, are you going to do that development or not, are you going to do that renovation or not, you know, you look at the numbers. You try to figure out what's going to work and what's not going to work.

As the movie "Lincoln" showed, Abraham Lincoln did engage in the kind of backroom dealing that has become easy to attack in today's political climate. In this case, Lincoln was doing it to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery. And Clinton's speech clearly made reference to all of that before she made the comment about needing "both a public and a private position." Everything Clinton said at the debate about her speech was true.

But it's one thing to use that kind of gamesmanship to pass an amendment outlawing slavery; it's another to use it when describing policies that affect big business. Clinton has already stood accused of being too cozy with Wall Street -- a characterization she disputes -- and she's now on-record telling the business community that, in order to get things done, sometimes you need to have a public position and a private position. It's easy to see why she invoked Lincoln in the private speech; it's certainly not an argument she would want to make publicly about Wall Street issues if she wasn't forced to.

Also, while Lincoln certainly engaged in backroom dealing, his public position on whether slavery should be outlawed was clear and unmistakable. He used different methods of cajoling members to vote for the 13th Amendment, but it was clear what he was pushing for.

If Clinton's comment was more about using different tactics to get individual lawmakers on board, that's one thing. But she suggested it's sometimes best for politicians to obscure their true positions. That may be true, but it's ripe for attack, given who was in the audience that day.

And now that Trump is trying to climb out from underneath his video controversy, you can bet we'll be hearing plenty more about it.