Doing so now is warranted due to the discovery that former President Donald Trump moved a significant number of documents – some of them marked classified – to his home in Florida after leaving office. This report drew understandable comparisons to Clinton’s coverage, which, in fact, likely contributed to his downfall. But these comparisons are also often too straightforward, that is to say too simple. Given the importance of understanding both situations, a clarification seems useful.
If your instinct is to roll your eyes and dismiss that idea out of hand, I’d say you might be among those for whom this exercise is most enlightening. So I ask for the benefit of the doubt that often Clinton herself was not granted.
It’s helpful to start by remembering the nature of American politics when it was first reported in March 2015 that Clinton relied on this email server.
At the time, Clinton, although not yet officially a candidate, was the presumed candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination the following year. Clinton edged Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by more than 50 points in RealClearPolitics’ primary polling average at the time, double the lead Donald Trump enjoyed in the nomination’s last poll. Republican of 2024. As the election approached, her allies increasingly portrayed her as the most qualified candidate to run for president; his government experience, in other words, was a key selling point – especially compared to Trump, his eventual challenger.
She was also running as Clinton, as the second family member of a former president to run for the Oval Office in less than two decades, and as a member of a family that had a difficult relationship with the media. .
Clinton was often not extended to the presumption of oversight when questions arose partly because of her husband’s record and partly, certainly, because of overblown animosity from the public and his critics. The result was that journalists seeking to hold power to account often approached her with skepticism about her intentions. In this case, it seemed justified, given what was later learned about server configuration. It was natural to suspect that this was again a situation in which a Clinton was trying to hide something from the public.
Two things made things worse for Clinton than they needed to be. The first was that Clinton’s team initially treated the story with disdain, in a way that has often upset reporters whose job it is to challenge those in power. The other was how material Clinton turned over 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 related to his work has not been submitted to archivists. But releasing this material to the public in chunks meant that week after week new stories brought the issue to light again. Sometimes these stories weren’t the ones worth telling, but reporters, striving to be the first to find an important document, sometimes highlighted those that had little.
In August 2015, we learned that the FBI was investigating the server, including whether it involved the 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 the FBI was considering possible links between the Trump campaign and foreign actors.
Clinton’s situation was relatively new: an investigation by Barack Obama’s Justice Department into the communications of a former cabinet minister, a senior official who would almost certainly be a leading presidential candidate. Today “But his e-mails!” dismissal often does not take into account the uniqueness of the situation.
This does not necessarily mean that every story on the mail server is defensible, although the number of such stories may be overstated in the public imagination. A search of the New York Times website reveals that there were 19 front-page stories that mentioned Clinton and the server in 2015. obviously news stories, such 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 brought up the server’s existence in the first place.)
But in 2016, stories about Clinton’s emails often got mixed up with another one set of emails that made headlines: the emails stolen by Russian hackers from the Democratic National Committee and its senior adviser John Podesta. Much of the Clinton-related “email” coverage in October 2016 – especially outside of The Times – focused on material stolen from Podesta and released by WikiLeaks. This stolen material was released in blocks at the end of July and then throughout October.
Of course, the server’s original story was also covered in 2016. Trump talked a lot about Clinton’s server during the campaign, keeping him front and center in the national conversation. In early July of that year, FBI Director James B. Comey announced that the government would not recommend the filing of criminal charges, infuriating Trump and his allies. (A group that now, according to the Times, has been awfully quiet about Trump’s behavior.) In response to the new report, Trump himself this week contrasted his behavior with that of Clinton.
Then, of course, there was the discovery of emails from Clinton’s server on a device taken from the home of his aide Huma Abedin – whose husband Anthony Weiner was being investigated for sending material explicit to a minor. This led to an announcement just days before the election that the government was reviewing the newly discovered material. Comey would later admit that his announcement was probably driven in part by the assumption that Clinton would win: what would it be like if she had won and become his boss and it was discovered that he did not have made the material public?
On November 6, 2016, two days before the election, it was reported that nothing new had been learned. But the damage was done. The initial announcement likely contributed significantly to Clinton’s eventual loss.
It was a long exegesis, I admit, but it recalls a few important points. First, Clinton’s position in 2016 combined with the novelty of the issue at hand were factors that do not clearly align with the current scenario with Trump. Second, the idea that there was voluminous attention given to Clinton-related emails in the final weeks of the campaign is inflated by emails released by WikiLeaks, emails that were not the ones from his server. And, third, while server coverage was probably wider than necessary in retrospect, it was often driven by news-related events. The media covered this late October announcement about the reexamination of the investigation, often while highlighting the uncertainty about its meaning. Shouldn’t he have?
Consider also that the initial story told us something new about Clinton: that this candidate running a campaign based on her experience had circumvented government rules and constraints. Learning this about Trump is…not new. It’s also earlier in the presidential election cycle, and for Trump, it doesn’t represent an apparent peak of his alleged misbehavior, but something much lower on that pyramid.
What’s most important to remember when comparing the Trump and Clinton situations, however, is that we’re comparing 20 months of reporting on Clinton with one week of reporting on Trump. We don’t know what the months to 2024 will bring. We can not. The National Archives have asked the Department of Justice to open an investigation, so we are not yet at the equivalent of November 2016, but simply August 2015. We will see what happens.
For many people, the in-the-moment comparison stems less from a thorough comparison of now and then than from the idea that a Clinton presidency was submerged by outside forces empowered by the media. “But his emails!” is a formulation centered on assigning blame to the media for Clinton’s loss. One would certainly expect that members of the media, myself included, would disagree with this assessment. Hopefully, however, the above context warrants at least some hesitation in slandering the media’s approach: perhaps Clinton’s coverage wasn’t as objectionable as you remembered – and perhaps Is it worth seeing what happens next with Trump’s coverage.