What Can Clinton Do About The Inevitable Debate Question About Her Emails?

To move beyond the past, she needs to make bold, accountable commitments for the future.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is going to be participating in three presidential debates over the next month, and the question is going to come up ― most likely in all three: “Something something private email server something something your judgment yada yada American people?” You can basically bank on it. Clinton should be prepared for it. And whether you’re tired of this question being asked or still unsatisfied by the answers Clinton has proffered so far, you probably don’t expect Clinton to say anything new about the matter.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I’ve written before, Clinton’s original decision to forego the use of any email account than the “state.gov” domain she was entitled to was her error from hell. Ever since its existence has become publicly known, it’s created a problem that she can’t solve ― there’s no magic number of emails that can be disclosed that can put the transparency issue to bed.

But this doesn’t preclude Clinton from doing more to settle the matter. Clinton has a chance to address this issue in a more satisfying way. And the path to doing so is for her to start thinking like a journalist, because ultimately, the issue of her private email server is a matter that hits them right where they live. This story has a unique salience to journalists ― it’s about hidden information and transparency. We have to expect journalists to want less of the former and more of the latter. Clinton has to address this matter in a way that acknowledges these values, and affirms their virtuousness ― even when they come as a personal cost to her.

Of her decision to use a private email server, Clinton has said, “That was a mistake.” Very well! Journalists also make mistakes. When journalists make factual errors in their pieces  ― and I’m sorry to say that I have firsthand knowledge of this ― there is a four-part response that’s considered to be the industry standard. First, you express regret. Second, you disclose to your readers the errors you made, so that it becomes apparent to everyone who failed to notice them. Third, you disclose to your readers how you came to make those mistakes.

In considering Clinton’s response to her email server woes, I’d say that she has made a public attempt to check these three boxes. There is obviously room to disagree as to how well she’s done so. I personally think her effort to check the third box ― I set up this email server because Colin Powell advised me to do so ― is a little wanting. Satisfying or not, however, I’ll acknowledge that an effort has been made.

But there is a fourth thing that should follow these disclosures ― you should publicly disclose the steps you are going to take to avoid the mistake in the future. For Clinton, that’s the box left unchecked. It’s also the only way she can possibly answer the same old question in a new ― and potentially satisfying ― way.

Obviously, one thing she could do to address this is to simply promise to never use a private email server while in the White House. That would, indeed, be a good start. But that doesn’t really address the issue. Clinton’s use of a private email server doesn’t rankle people because Clinton found an IT workaround to her email situation. The reason it inflames the passions is because it tells a story about transparency and accountability ― a story in which Clinton comes off very poorly.

So the essential thing that Clinton is obliged to do in this instance is to articulate how she will be more transparent and accountable as president. That’s how she completes her “I have made a mistake and learned from it” circle ― with new, specific commitments to make herself more publicly accountable and more open to the press. Absent that, her expressions of regret reads as, “I regret that everyone found out about this.” 

The good news is that there are a lot of substantial commitments she can make regarding transparency, and the upcoming debates are the perfect venue in which to make them.

1. Tear down Obama’s FOIA wall.

As the Associated Press reported in March, the Obama administration set new records for frustrating journalists seeking information through the Freedom Of Information Act:

In more than one in six cases, or 129,825 times, government searchers said they came up empty-handed last year. Such cases contributed to an alarming measurement: People who asked for records under the law received censored files or nothing in 77 percent of requests, also a record. In the first full year after President Barack Obama’s election, that figure was only 65 percent of cases.

Clinton should promise to do everything in her power to reverse this trend, up to and including fostering a cultural shift among her own close advisers. Sorry, Philippe Reines, it’s a sunshiny new attitude for you, or take it on the arches.

2. Back off whistle-blowers and the journalists with whom they work.

It’s understandable that any White House would want to keep a lid on some sensitive national security matters. But the Obama administration, after promising to provide whistle-blowers with certain protections for those who go through “proper channels,” has become best known for their feral crackdown on whistle-blowers who don’t blow that whistle just the way the White House likes. And what has it accomplished? A 2013 New York Times headline says it all: “Math Behind Leak Crackdown: 153 Cases, 4 Years, 0 Indictments.”

Meanwhile, as ProPublica reported, a by-product of this crackdown has been a toxic relationship with journalists:

The administration has also targeted journalists. In May, it was revealed that the Department of Justice had secretly seized AP reporters’ phone records while investigating a potential CIA leak, and targeted a Fox News reporter as part of a criminal leak case (outlined below). No journalist has been charged with a crime. But the news prompted an outcry that Obama’s hard line on leaks could have a “chilling effect” on investigative reporting that depends on inside sources. (In response, the Justice Department issued new guidelines limiting when journalists’ records can be sought.)

Clinton should pledge to provide a more open environment where whistle-blowers can serve taxpayer interests in partnership with a Clinton White House, and in which journalists don’t get the KGB treatment when they’re doing their job.

3. Close the loopholes in the “open meetings law.”

As the Washington Post’s Jason Ross Arnold noted in March 2015, the Obama administration has only offered “checkered support” for something called the Federal Advisory Committee Act, “widely known as the open meetings law.” Per Arnold:

The administration did not try to sidestep FACA as frequently as some of its predecessors, but officials have played word games, such as calling private-sector participants on the post-Newtown, Conn., gun control task force “consultants” instead of “members.” That helped the administration conceal meeting records and member names.

The administration also has deployed other evasive tactics, including simply ignoring FACA. Officials have liberally utilized FACA’s court-validated loopholes, FOIA exemptions and the classification stamp to close more than 60 percent of committee meetings to the public — about the same number as under the Bush administration.

This should be an easy fix and an obvious promise to make.

4. Get the Cabinet agencies in compliance with the Open Government Directive.

As the Sunlight Foundation’s Alex Howard reported last week, “2,473 days after President Barack Obama issued an Open Government Directive, half of the 15 Cabinet agencies of the United States have not complied with the most basic aspect of the executive order: publishing an open government plan on their open website.”

Per Howard: 

While the guidance that the White House provided asked the right questions, the lack of answers from the agencies not only calls into question the Obama administration’s commitment to open government but the extent to which its legacy will be baked into the next administration. When the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative has an empty/open page, with no plan, contact information, FOIA data or progress report of any kind, it leaves the public with an understandable impression that the executive order by the President of the United States has no teeth.

Clinton should make it clear to her own agency heads that executive orders governing their transparency practices will have teeth.

5. Make a real commitment to the White House Press Corps.

Obviously, it’s only natural for any presidential administration to have a semi-adversarial relationship with the dedicated watchdogs who ply their trade in the White House Press Room. Clinton’s future press secretary will appear behind the lectern, parrying questions, offering the best possible spin, and getting into arguments. The press will push and probe right back. It won’t always be friendly, and it’s not supposed to be.

Nevertheless, a future Clinton administration can provide more openness, and help these reporters do their jobs better. Clinton should pledge to meet with the top brass at the White House Correspondents’ Association in her first week in office and ask them for a letter-grade evaluation on the current state of their relationship with the White House. She should solicit their opinions on what could be done differently, and promise to implement enough changes to raise that evaluation by a full letter grade in her first year in office.

One thing she could offer right off the bat is to make sure the administration never impedes the important work of reporters who provide the White House pool report. Believe it or not, there have been instances in the recent past in which White House press aides “have demanded ― and received ― changes in press-pool reports before the reports have been disseminated to other journalists.” This should never happen. In fact, the White House should give the (unredacted) pool report a prominent place in the “Briefing Room” section of their own website. 

If you want to know other ways a Clinton administration could improve their relationship with the press, the Society of Professional Journalists has recently highlighted a number of ways that the Obama White House is impeding transparency, including:

• Officials blocking reporters’ requests to talk to specific staff people;
• Excessive delays in answering interview requests that stretch past reporters’ deadlines;
• Officials conveying information “on background,” refusing to give reporters what should be public information unless they agree not to say who is speaking;
• Federal agencies blackballing reporters who write critically of them;
• A continued lack of meaningful visual access to the President by an independent press pool

I daresay that ending, or even rolling back, some of these practices, will leave the White House Press Corps feeling better.

I am sympathetic to the argument that the president of the United States is entitled to certain amount of private space to conduct business. I’m not suggesting that Clinton preside from a panopticon. But these are some concrete commitments and keepable promises, ranging from “on day one” decisions to beneficial cultural changes. Any or all of these goals can be distilled into a debate answer.

And there’s no better time to undertake this mission. One of the reasons that many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters have not taken to Clinton is because the Vermont senator successfully presented himself as the better avatar of good governance. He offered his young, liberal base something they’d never known in life ― a seemingly incorruptible choice for president. Clinton took on water during the primary because he depicted her as a politician who could be compromised and who benefitted from a rigged system. By offering to hold herself to a higher standard, she’ll go a long way to reducing their skepticism.

And let’s face it, another reason it is an apt time to start making these pledges is because her current opponent, Donald Trump, can’t possibly match them ― and no one would believe him if he claimed to. 

Moreover, making these pledges helps to communicate to journalists: “I acknowledge your concern over the email matter. You have the right to inquire, and the right to expect me to provide you with real assurances.” This is a good way to change the entire conversation, and if multiple debate moderators want to keep asking multiple questions about her past email practices, she can keep on re-affirming these commitments.

Make no mistake, these promises paint a real target on Clinton’s back, and it assures that any future sins against transparency will be doubly remembered.

But that’s sort of the point. Clinton’s detractors point to her email scandal and suggest it bespeaks a greater potential for deception. Clinton’s defenders point to Politifact’s testimony to her quantifiable honesty. But all of this is just talking. In the end, only Hillary Clinton can choose to be one or the other, and demonstrate her character through her future actions. A good first step is to enter into a bold covenant right now, raise the stakes and the standards, and offer a little bit of genuine surprise.

Like it or not, Clinton’s fateful decision to have a private email server now shades the entire enterprise of her candidacy, infecting the public’s perceptions of her. But they say that sunlight is the best disinfectant. She can be the one to start spreading a little sunshine, from the debate stage. 


Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.