The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The imperfect comparison between Hillary Clinton’s server and Donald Trump’s boxes

Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate on Oct. 9, 2016, at Washington University in St. Louis. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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I will now begin a fraught endeavor, using my platform as a member of a prominent media outlet to try to inject nuance into what has for years been a central point of critique of journalists: how we covered Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server for much of her work as secretary of state.

Doing so now is warranted because of the discovery that former president Donald Trump moved a significant number of documents — some of them marked classified — to his home in Florida after he left office. That report has drawn understandable comparisons to the coverage of Clinton, coverage that, in fact, likely did contribute to her loss. But those comparisons are also often overly neat, which is to say overly simple. Given the importance of understanding both situations, clarification seems useful.

If your instinct is to roll your eyes and dismiss this idea out of hand, I’d offer that you might be among those for whom this exercise is most illuminating. So I ask for the benefit of the doubt that, often, Clinton herself was not granted.

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It’s useful to begin by remembering the nature of American politics when it was first reported in March 2015 that Clinton had relied on that email server.

At the time, Clinton, while not yet officially a candidate, was the presumptive nominee for the Democratic presidential nomination the following year. Clinton led Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by more than 50 points in RealClearPolitics’s average of primary polling at that point, double the lead Donald Trump enjoyed in the most recent poll of the 2024 Republican nomination. As the election neared, her allies increasingly described her as the most qualified candidate ever to seek the presidency; her government experience, in other words, was a key selling point — particularly when contrasted with Trump, her eventual opponent.

She was also running as a Clinton, as the second member of a former president’s family to seek the Oval Office in less than two decades, and as a member of a family that had a rocky relationship with the news media.

Clinton was often not extended the presumption of inadvertency when questions arose in part due to her husband’s record and in part, certainly, out of overwrought animosity from the public and her critics. The result was that journalists looking to hold power to account often approached her with skepticism about her intent. In this case, that seemed warranted, given what was later learned about how the server was set up. It was natural to suspect that the situation was again one in which a Clinton was trying to hide something from the public.

Two things made the situation worse for Clinton than it needed to be. One was that Clinton’s team at first treated the story dismissively, in a way that often antagonized reporters whose job it is to challenge those in power. The other was the way in which the material turned over from Clinton to the State Department was handled. Nothing has emerged in the years since the story first broke to suggest that anything significant from Clinton’s private server that related to her work was not submitted to archivists. But the release of that material to the public in chunks meant that week after week there were new stories again bringing the issue to light. At times, those stories were not ones that merited elevating, but reporters, scrambling to be the first to find any document of significance, occasionally highlighted ones that had little.

For years, former president Donald Trump stressed safeguarding classified documents when talking about Hillary Clinton. Then he improperly took some to Florida. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

By August 2015, we learned that the FBI was investigating the server, including whether it involved transmission of classified material. Ultimately, it was determined that some messages had been. Remember, this was August 2015. This was before the Russia investigation and before we knew about the FBI’s consideration of possible links between Trump’s campaign and foreign actors.

The Clinton situation was relatively novel: a probe from Barack Obama’s Justice Department into a former Cabinet member’s communications, a top-level official who was almost certainly going to be a top contender for the presidency. Today’s “But her emails!” dismissal often fails to recognize the uniqueness of the situation then.

This does not necessarily mean that each and every story about the email server is defensible, though the number of those stories may be overstated in the public imagination. A search of the New York Times website finds that there were 19 front page stories that mentioned Clinton and the server in 2015. (I’m picking on them here mostly because they include indicators of where stories ran in their online articles.) That included obviously newsy stories, as when Clinton testified for most of a day before the committee investigating the terrorist attacks in Benghazi in 2012. (It was this Republican-led investigation that elevated the server’s existence in the first place.)

But in 2016, stories about Clinton’s emails often blended into another set of emails that were in the news: the emails stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and her senior adviser John Podesta. A lot of the coverage of “emails” related to Clinton in October 2016 — particularly outside the Times — focused on the material stolen from Podesta and released by WikiLeaks. That stolen material was published in clumps at the end of July and then over the course of October.

Of course, the original server story also earned coverage in 2016. Trump talked about Clinton’s server a lot during the campaign, keeping it prominent in the national conversation. In early July of that year, FBI Director James B. Comey announced that the government would not be recommending criminal charges be filed, infuriating Trump and his allies. (A group that now, the Times has reported, has been awfully quiet about Trump’s behavior.) In response to the new reporting, Trump this week himself contrasted his behavior with Clinton’s.

Then, of course, there was the discovery of emails from Clinton’s server on a device taken from the home of her aide Huma Abedin — whose husband Anthony Weiner was under investigation for sending explicit material to a minor. That led to an announcement only days before the election that the government was examining the newly discovered material. Comey would later admit that his announcement was likely driven in part by the assumption that Clinton would win: How would it look had she won and become his boss and it was discovered that he hadn’t made the material public?

On Nov. 6, 2016, two days before the election, it was reported that nothing new was learned. But the damage was done. The initial announcement probably contributed significantly to Clinton’s eventual loss.

This has been a lengthy exegesis, I admit, but it reiterates a few important points. First, that Clinton’s position in 2016 combined with the novelty of the question at issue were factors that don’t map cleanly onto the current scenario with Trump. Second, that the idea there was voluminous attention paid to Clinton-related emails in the last weeks of the campaign is inflated by the emails released by WikiLeaks, emails which were not ones from her server. And, third, that while the coverage of the server was probably broader than it needed to be in retrospect, it was often driven by news-related events. The media covered that late-October announcement about the investigation being reconsidered, often while emphasizing uncertainty about what it meant. Should it not have?

Consider, too, that the initial story told us something new about Clinton: that this candidate running a campaign predicated on her experience had worked around governmental rules and constraints. Learning this about Trump is … not new. This is also earlier in the presidential election cycle and, for Trump, represents not an apparent apex of his alleged misbehavior but something much lower on that pyramid.

What’s most important to remember when comparing the Trump and Clinton situations, though, is that we are comparing 20 months of reporting on Clinton with a week of reporting on Trump. We don’t know what the months between now and 2024 will bring. We can’t. The National Archives has asked the Justice Department to begin an investigation, so we’re not yet at the equivalent November 2016, merely August 2015. We will see what happens.

For many people, the comparison being drawn in the moment derives less from a thorough comparison of now and then than from the idea that a Clinton presidency was submarined by outside forces empowered by the media. “But her emails!” is a phrasing that is centered on assigning blame to the media for Clinton’s loss. Members of the media, myself included, might certainly be expected to disagree with that assessment. Hopefully, though, the context above does at least support the case for some hesitance in maligning the media’s approach: Perhaps the Clinton coverage wasn’t quite as unacceptable as you remembered — and perhaps it’s useful to see what happens next with the coverage of Trump.