For starters, he’s a liar:
And this is but the tip of the iceberg. Of 319 statements by Trump assessed by PolitiFact, 224 (70%) were found to be false or mostly false—including 56 (18%) in the “pants on fire” category (the most egregious cases). In other words, for any substantive factual claim expressed by Trump, the chances are that it is false or, at best, misleading. The mere fact that Trump makes a statement is prima facie evidence that the statement is false. He has lied about his net worth (he claims he’s worth over $10 billion; Forbes estimates it at $4.5 billion, while others find evidence of no more hundreds of millions) and his reasons for not releasing his tax returns (he claimed it’s because he’s being audited—nope). He suggested that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. He said “We don’t know anything about Hilary Clinton in terms of religion” (she’s a lifelong Christian Methodist who, when asked, will talk extensively about her faith and how it shaped her politics). He said that Hillary Clinton “has even deleted this record of total support (for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement) from her book” (nope; it’s still there). And in what is surely among the most cowardly displays of an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions ever exhibited by a U.S. politician, he claimed that Hillary Clinton started the birther nonsense in 2008. This is like a child on a playground who trips a playmate in full view of an adult, then points to another child and says “she did it.”
One of the strangest aspects of Trump’s lying is that he repeats his lies. Normally, when politicians are caught in untruths, they apologize, explain that they “misspoke,” or rationalize their statements as “true” in some narrow sense. But they normally don’t repeat them. When Trump is caught in a lie, not only does he never acknowledge that he was lying, he repeats the lie, often multiple times. Does he think that saying something again and again will cause people to believe it? Does he simply not care whether a claim is true or false? Has he figured out that however egregiously he lies, the media will reliably continue the narrative that the two sides are equally egregious? He has so flooded the discourse with lies that when he lies, it’s simply not news. And the trouble with listing Trump’s lies is that the list goes on and on and on. As Ezra Klein observes, “He lies easily, fluently, shamelessly, constantly.”
And what about Hillary? Isn’t she at least as dishonest as Trump? After all, a CNN/ORC poll found that 50% of registered voters view Trump as “more honest and trustworthy,” compared with 35% for Clinton. But it’s not close. Of 289 statements by Hillary Clinton assessed by Politifact, 70 (26%, to be compared with Trump’s 70%) were found to be false or mostly false, with 7 (2%, to be compared with Trump’s 18%) in the “pants on fire” category. A graph constructed by blogger Michael Sandberg, using Politifact data, reveals Clinton not only to be vastly more honest than Trump but one of the most honest politicians to have sought the presidency in recent years:
One might ask, why lie at all? Isn’t any lie a negative mark on one’s character, a fundamental indicator of untrustworthiness? Well, it’s actually more complicated than that. Deception is morally ambiguous. The speaker may have deliberately obfuscated but may also have misspoken, reflecting a biased view of facts—a trait to which humans are prone. People lie much more than we’d like to believe. A 2002 study found that 60 percent of people lie at least once during 10 minutes of conversation and on average two or three times. The lies tend to be minor and geared toward making oneself look better or not hurting another’s feelings. One finding: many of the subjects didn’t think that they lied nearly as much as they later acknowledged they did when watching videotape of themselves. In other words, people lie automatically, often unaware that they’re lying. “Lying,” indeed, may not be the right word here, since the dictionary defines “lying” as “to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.”
Politicians are in a tough spot vis-à-vis the truth. Of course, they have an incentive to avoid being caught in an untruth, lest they be thought untrustworthy. But they also have incentives to please their audiences and try to make themselves look good, which no doubt compel them at times to exaggerate, fabricate, etc. Moreover, the sheer volume of a politician’s recorded statements virtually guarantees that some portion of those statements will be false. Whether the purported “lies” meet the dictionary definition of “lying” (“to utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive”) is another matter.
Clinton’s big “lie” on the email issue, according to PolitiFact (which rated this statement “pants on fire”), occurred on July 31st, 2016 on “Fox News Sunday.” After watching a video of Clinton saying, “I am confident that I never sent nor received any information that was classified at the time,” Chris Wallace remarked, “After a long investigation, FBI director James Comey said none of those things that you told the American public were true.” Clinton’s response:
“Comey said my answers were truthful, and what I've said is consistent with what I have told the American people, that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.”
The trouble with rating this statement “pants on fire,” as PolitiFact does, is that Clinton’s statement, strictly speaking, is true. The first part of the statement (“Comey said my answers were truthful”) is a reference to Comey’s July 7th congressional testimony, in which he said, “We have no basis to conclude she lied to the FBI.” So this part of her statement is true. The second part of the statement (“what I've said [presumably to the FBI] is consistent with what I have told the American people”) is what causes PolitiFact to characterize the full statement as “pants on fire.” It’s true that, taken in isolation, the clause suggests that Comey endorsed Clinton’s oft-repeated claim that she never emailed information that was classified at the time she sent it, whereas Comey testified the opposite before Congress. (And more generally, the FBI found that of 30,000 emails examined, 113 contained classified information, and of these, three were marked as classified—110 were not—but in an unconventional way that may not have been understood by the senders and recipients of the email.) The trouble with rating Clinton’s entire statement as false, however, is that English enables a speaker to use a subsequent clause of a sentence to narrow the range of application of a previous clause. And this is what Clinton does in the final clause of the sentence: “that there were decisions discussed and made to classify retroactively certain of the emails.” Thus, murky semantics aside, all she is literally saying is that Comey said that she was correct in previous statements that certain information, originally unclassified, may later become classified—a true statement.
Is Clinton’s statement misleading? Perhaps. But two points: (1) At best, she’s guilty of a non-response, i.e., answering a question by changing the subject, which occurs frequently in politics. (2) How exactly does Clinton’s possibly misleading statement compare with Trump’s many repeated falsehoods—his tendency to make a statement, which is shown conclusively to be false, and then repeat the statement multiple times? Clinton didn’t, a la Trump, repeatedly state that Comey endorsed her claim that she emailed nothing that contained classified information. Instead, she acknowledged her error and apologized—actions that are nearly inconceivable for Trump.
The email “scandal”
The email scandal is, as Matthew Yglesias has convincingly shown, a “bullshit scandal.” When Clinton arrived at the State Department, in 2009, she discovered that the Department’s IT wasn’t set up to enable her to access her State Department email account from her personal Smartphone. Because it’s inconvenient to carry around two Smartphones, she asked—following the advice of Colin Powel, who did the same thing—that colleagues simply email her at her private email account. This is a violation of a 2005 directive in the Foreign Affairs manual that states that, while it’s occasionally okay to use one’s private email account for work-related business, day-to-day work-related correspondence should be conducted on State Department equipment.
One difference between Clinton’s and Powell’s use of their private email accounts for day-to-day work-related correspondence is that Clinton not only used a personal email account but a private server. And indeed, it is unusual for someone to have a private server, a fact that has aroused suspicion that Clinton may have been seeking to shield some of her correspondence from future Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. In Clinton’s case, however, there is in fact nothing suspicious about the use of a private server. This is because Hillary has a husband, Bill Clinton, who, when he left the presidency in 2001, engaged in fairly extensive activities (launching the Clinton Foundation, establishing the Clinton library, giving well-remunerated speeches) that required a support staff and an IT infrastructure. He hired a tech consultant, who set up an email server in the Clinton’s Chappaqua, N.Y., home. His wife, Hillary, opened an account on that server. As Yglesias says, “This is a bit unusual, but a lot about being married to a former president is unusual. What it’s not is suspicious.”
Clinton’s use of a private email account to conduct day-to-day work-related correspondence gave rise to two charges: (1) that she used it as a transparency dodge, to shield her correspondence from future disclosure; (2) that by using a private account, she may have compromised U.S. security. Let’s take each in turn.
The argument that Clinton used her personal email account as a transparency dodge is silly for three reasons:
(1) The time-line makes no sense. The House Select Committee on Benghazi requested Clinton’s emails in the summer of 2014. Realizing it lacked the emails because Clinton had used a personal email account, the State Department requested them from Clinton. Clinton then tasked a legal team to sort through the 63,000 emails and delete those that were of a personal nature, and the 30,000 emails that were work-related were given to the State Department in late 2014. Only in March of 2015 did the New York Times break the story of Clinton’s personal email account, noting that that the emails had been turned over to the State Department “two months ago.” If Clinton’s use of a private email account had been an attempt to hide information from the public, why would Clinton have complied with the State Department request and provided the emails several months before Clinton’s use of a private email account was known? Could she have had an elaborate plan to hide information by using a personal email account and then, for some reason, changed her mind, deciding to turn over her work-related emails before she was accused of anything?
(2) Most of her work-related correspondence would have been with other government officials, who presumably would have used government email accounts. Any such correspondence would thus exist on government servers and could easily be discovered, if not among Clinton’s emails, then among those of her government interlocutors. Says Yglesias, “This means [any message] would be fully accessible via FOIA and also means that if Clinton’s copy were found to not be in the pile of emails she turned over, she’d be caught red handed.” Much has been made of the 33,000 emails deleted by Clinton’s legal team. But if any of these were work-related, they are likely to be found among the emails of other government officials, making Clinton’s attempt to hide such emails rather pathetic. There are in fact other, much more effective ways for a Secretary of State to hide her email correspondence, but they don’t hinge on whether she uses a personal email account (see point 3 below). Additionally, as Yglesias points out, “Generally speaking, in life we assume it would be moderately difficult to hire a well-known law firm to destroy evidence for you without someone deciding to do the right thing and squeal.”
(3) If a government employee wants to shield one’s correspondence from public scrutiny, there are simple work-arounds available to anyone regardless of whether one uses a private email account or a government email account for work-related correspondence. For example, even if one uses a .gov account for most work-related email, one could easily evade future disclosure of a communication simply by sending an email from one’s private email account (which nearly everyone has) to another government employee’s private email account—and no one would be the wiser. Additionally, even if Clinton used her state.gov account, she could have hidden some of her correspondence by invoking her classification privileges as Secretary of State. If you read through various of Clinton’s emails, accessible here, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that much of their content is redacted. Given that Clinton herself could have classified, and thus hidden from public view, the content of any email at any time, one might wonder why we are even talking about the possibility that Clinton used a private email account as a transparency dodge. She could have shielded from public scrutiny any email whatsoever, even if she had used her state.gov email account.
Indeed, once the silliness of the argument that Clinton may have used a private email account to hide work-related correspondence from public view became manifest, her antagonists turned to a different line of attack: the notion that she mishandled classified information and thus may have compromised national security. But this argument, as Yglesias notes, is a red herring. The relevant point is that it would have made no difference if she had used her state.gov account rather than her private account, since exactly the same issues about potential mishandling of classified materials would have arisen. State Department employees are not allowed to use email at all when discussing classified matters (such communications are instead routed through dedicated, ostensibly secure channels). It thus would also have been a violation of State Department directives to have used her state.gov account to correspond about classified matters.
Moreover, given what we know about hacking of governmental communications, it is difficult to argue that any classified matters discussed by Clinton would have been more secure had she used her state.gov account rather than her personal account. The FBI found no evidence that Clinton’s private server was hacked. And while it’s possible that Clinton’s server was hacked by parties sufficiently sophisticated to evade detection, it turns out that in 2014, the State Department’s unclassified email system was, in fact, hacked quite extensively. According to CNN, “Federal law enforcement, intelligence and congressional officials briefed on the investigation say the hack of the State email system is the ‘worst ever’ cyberattack intrusion against a federal agency.” The insecurity of the State Department system even prompted some State Department employees to switch, at least temporarily, to personal email accounts to conduct work-related correspondence.
(It should also be noted that the use of private email accounts for work-related business by public officials is quite common. For example, an online survey conducted by the Government Business Council in mid-February of 2016 found that 33 percent of 412 respondents acknowledged that individuals in their agencies used personal email for government business at least sometimes, 15 percent said their colleagues used it always or often, and 48 percent said personnel used it rarely or never. Civilian employees in the Defense Department said that 41 percent of their colleagues used personal email for work-related communication at least sometimes, a higher percentage than was found in other agencies.)
As Secretary of State, Clinton would have frequently handled classified information. And since the volume of such information dwarfs the minuscule amount of it found on her server, it is clear that she generally handled classified information appropriately. To prosecute individuals on charges related to mishandling of classified information, most relevant statutes require “intent” to turn information over to outside parties. Because Clinton clearly did not have intent, most legal experts consider her use of a private email server un-prosecutable. Indeed, that was the reasoning of FBI director, James Comey, who stated in his July 5th press conference announcing the results of his investigation:
All the cases prosecuted involved some combination of clearly intentional and willful mishandling of classified information, or vast quantities of materials exposed in such a way as to support an inference of intentional misconduct, or indications of disloyalty to the United States… We do not see those things here.
Comey’s use of the expression “extremely careless” to describe Clinton’s use of a private email account, however, has been analogized by some to “gross negligence,” a lower standard found in section 793(f) of the Espionage Act. The statute reads:
Whoever, being entrusted with or having lawful possession or control of any document, writing, code book, signal book, sketch, photograph, photographic negative, blueprint, plan, map, model, instrument, appliance, note, or information, relating to the national defense, (1) through gross negligence permits the same to be removed from its proper place of custody or delivered to anyone in violation of his trust, or to be lost, stolen, abstracted, or destroyed,…
Note, however, that in addition to the expression, “gross negligence,” the section also includes the phrase, “relating to the national defense.” In 1939, a civilian Navy intelligence employee, Hafis Salich, was charged with selling information to the Soviet Union “relating to the national defense,” a phrase the defendant argued was so vague that it deprived him of the ability to determine beforehand whether his actions were criminal. In Gorin v. United States (1941), the Supreme Court disagreed but only on the grounds that the law, in the Court’s reading, required “intent or reason to believe that the information to be obtained is to be used to the injury of the United States.” In the words of former military prosecutor John Ford:
Only because the court read the law to require scienter, or bad faith, before a conviction could be sustained was the law constitutional. Otherwise, it would be too difficult for a defendant to know when exactly material related to the national defense. The court made clear that if the law criminalized the simple mishandling of classified information, it would not survive constitutional scrutiny.
Although Comey’s motives for announcing a reopening of the email probe just 11 days before the election and his castigation of Clinton as “extremely careless” in his July 5th press conference are unknown, he and his legal team clearly ran up against settled case law in their investigation: intent, not gross negligence (or “extreme carelessness”), is the standard in this case.
The email scandal, which clouded Clinton’s electoral prospects and may well have determined the outcome of the 2016 presidential race, is, as Yglesias says, a “bullshit scandal.” It’s true that Clinton violated a State Department directive. But she wasn’t trying to hide information, nor was her use of a private email account relevant to possible mishandling of classified information.
The email scandal is a product of bad actors seeking to tarnish a political opponent and a news media perversely incentivized to amplify slurs utilized in this effort. It’s a “scandal” cut from the same cloth as other Clinton “scandals”—Whitewater, Benghazi, and the Clinton Foundation. The Republicans appear to operate from a playbook, based on a sophisticated understanding of social psychology. To bring down a political opponent, they seize on a murky incident or circumstance (e.g., Whitewater, Benghazi, the Clinton Foundation, Clinton’s emails) that appears to show an opponent in a bad light, then investigate the hell out of it. The mere act of investigation plants suspicions in people’s minds while casting Republicans in the role of neutral investigators seeking the truth. And the murkiness of the issue generates an ongoing stream of fodder for investigation, with a pliant news media treating “questions” about the matter as highly newsworthy, meriting headline coverage. People then infer, somewhat reasonably, that there must be something nefarious here, although most couldn’t tell you what. The sheer murkiness of the alleged activities may intensify the negative image of Clinton thus generated, as it leaves to the imagination the task of coloring in the unsavory details—a skill in which the human mind is quite adept.
A key fact: despite several decades of such efforts by Republicans vis-à-vis Hillary Clinton, there is simply no evidence of any wrongdoing ever committed by Clinton. (Many of her critics in office and in the media perhaps couldn’t withstand similar scrutiny.) Let’s contrast that with Trump.
1. In 1973, the Justice Department filed a complaint against Trump Management, an apartment management company in New York City run by Trump and his father, Fred Trump. The complaint alleged that the Trumps violated the Fair Housing Act (part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) by discriminating against prospective tenants based on race. Among the findings: Trump Management executives discouraged rental agents from renting to black people, instructing them to mark applications of minorities with codes such as “No. 9” and “C” (for “colored”); African Americans were often falsely told that Trump-managed complexes had no available apartments; and the overall objective of such efforts was to steer blacks and Puerto Ricans away from properties with mostly white tenants and toward buildings with many minority tenants.
Under a settlement in 1975, Trump Management was prohibited from “discriminating against any person in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale or rental of a dwelling.” The Trumps were also ordered to “thoroughly acquaint themselves personally on a detailed basis” with the Fair Housing Act, to inform employees of their obligations under the Act, and to place ads informing minorities they had an equal opportunity to seek housing at their properties.
2. In 1986 and possibly for some years before, Trump colluded with the Bulgari Jewelry Store in Manhattan in an “empty jewelry box” scam. Trump, that is, would purchase an expensive ring, bracelet, or other item at the Bulgari store, and then, to evade the expensive local and state luxury taxes, order that the piece be “shipped” to an out-of-state address, e.g., in New Jersey. However, the box received at the other end would be empty, Trump having carried the jewelry out of the store himself.
3. In 1992, as described by David Cay Johnston, Trump appealed audits of both his federal tax return and his New York City tax return from 1984—a year in which Trump claimed no income, although he claimed expenses (and thus deductions) of over $600,000. The problem is that Trump provided no documentation—no receipts, no invoices—of these expenses, prompting tax authorities to demand additional tax payments. (Trump lost both appeals.) When shown a photocopy of the federal tax return (the original was never found), Jack Mitnick, a lawyer who prepared Trump’s tax returns for over 20 years, testified that, although it was his signature that appeared on the return, “we [he and his firm] did not” prepare it. Perhaps Trump or someone working for Trump prepared a false return and placed Mitnick’s signature on the return, using a photocopier? As Johnston told the PBS NewsHour, zero income and huge undocumented tax deductions, combined with sworn testimony of Trump’s tax attorney that his signature appeared on a tax return not prepared by him, “are very strong badges of fraud.” And the fact that Trump has committed sales tax fraud—the empty jewelry box scam described above—gives additional credence to these suspicions.
4. In 2013, the Trump Foundation gave $25,000 to a campaign group associated with Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi, who at the time was considering investigating allegations of fraud committed by Trump University. (She decided not to pursue the case.) As it is illegal for a tax-exempt charitable foundation to make political contributions, the payment was illegal, and Trump accordingly paid a $2,500 fine when the gift was exposed by the Washington Post and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in 2016. Although the Trump Foundation did not list the Bondi contribution in its 2013 IRS filings, it did list a contribution for the same amount—$25,000—to a Kansas charity with a name similar to that of Bondi’s political group. As the Post reported, “The prohibited gift was, in effect, replaced with an innocent-sounding but nonexistent donation.”
5. Trump directed as much as $2.3 million of money owed to him as income to his tax-exempt foundation, actions that would be illegal if no taxes were paid on this money. (Since he hasn’t released his tax returns, we cannot know whether he used the foundation to evade income taxes.) Examples include a payment of $150,000 by People Magazine for exclusive use of photos of Trump’s son, a payment of $400,000 by Comedy Central as a fee for Trump’s appearance on The Comedy Central Roast of Donald Trump, and payments of nearly $1.9 million by Richard Ebers—a New York City man who sells “sought-after tickets and one-of-a-kind experiences to wealthy clients”—for various items, including tickets, supplied by Trump or his businesses.
From 2009 onward, the Trump Foundation has been funded exclusively by other people’s money rather than Trump’s own, “an arrangement that experts say is almost unheard of for a family foundation,” according to the Washington Post. As David A. Fahrenthold of the Post  notes, “The gifts begin to answer one of the mysteries surrounding the foundation: Why would other people continue giving to Trump’s charity when Trump himself gave his last recorded donation in 2008?” The apparent answer is that the contributions were largely payments for goods and services rendered. If these contributions were not reported as income, Trump would have paid no taxes on them—a violation of the law. However, for these actions to constitute criminal conduct, mens rea, or intent, is needed: it must be shown that Trump willfully violated the law—a hard case to make.
6. The Trump Foundation has engaged in extensive self-dealing, i.e., illegally using charitable funds to benefit an organization’s owner, donors, or other stakeholders (e.g., family members). The Foundation itself acknowledged self-dealing in 2015 and in previous years in its 2015 tax filing. Some of the better-known instances include:
Trump has also used at least a quarter of a million dollars of Foundation funds to settle lawsuits involving Trump’s for-profit businesses. For instance, in 2007, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, in Palm Beach, Florida, faced $120,000 in fines for violating a local ordnance concerning the height of flagpoles. Palm Beach agreed to waive the fines if Trump would donate $100,000 to a veterans’ charity. Trump did so, but he used Trump Foundation funds rather than his own or those of his club, as was legally required.
As Trump has personally contributed nothing to the Trump Foundation since 2008, Trump has in effect used the Foundation as a means of getting other people to pay for things for Trump—whether portraits of himself, an autographed football helmet, a political contribution, or legal settlements. Given that Trump has at the same time directed income payments for goods and services rendered by Trump to the Foundation—money that should have been reported as income and thus taxed, though whether it was is unclear—one can only wonder whether Trump used the Foundation as a vehicle to evade taxes on income, which could then be used to purchase various items that Trump or Melania Trump might want.
Trump could disprove these suspicions by releasing his tax returns.
7. From 2005 through 2010, Trump ran a for-profit learning annex called Trump University. Although the organization claimed to offer “graduate programs, post graduate programs, [and] doctorate programs,” it was unaccredited and hence unable to award degrees, grant course credit or even grade students. An ad for a free 90-minute introductory seminar stated:
He’s the most celebrated entrepreneur on earth… And now he’s ready to share—with Americans like you—the Trump process for investing in today's once-in-a-lifetime real estate market. Come to this FREE introductory class and you'll learn from Donald Trump’s handpicked instructor a systematic method for investing in real estate that anyone can use effectively.
The ad continues: “’I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you’. - Donald Trump”
In fact, Trump did not select the instructors, nor did he have any role in developing the seminar’s content, which, according to a complaint filed as part of a 2013 lawsuit brought by New York attorney general’s office, was developed “in large part by a third-party company that creates and develops materials for an array of motivational speakers and Seminar and timeshare rental companies.”
The free 90-minute seminar, however, was just a teaser whose actual purpose was to enroll attendees in a three-day seminar, costing $1,495. And at the three-day seminar, attendees were in turn encouraged to sign up for an additional “mentorship” program, costing up to $34,995. In an affidavit in a class-action lawsuit brought against Trump University in California, Ronald Schnackenberg, a sales manager for Trump University, stated:
Trump University’s seminars were a scheme involving a constant upsell… The whole goal of the free seminar was to persuade consumers to sign up for the $1,500 seminar…. The whole purpose of the $1,500 seminar was to get people to sign up for the $35,000 Elite seminars. And the whole purpose of the $35,000 Elite seminars was to get people to buy additional books, seminars and products.
During the California class-action suit, more than 400 pages of Trump University “playbooks,” instructing Trump staff in how best to push course packages on prospective enrollees, were released. Trump staff were advised, for example, that
Money is never a reason for not enrolling in Trump University; if they really believe in you and your product, they will find the money. You are not doing any favor [sic] by letting someone use lack of money as an excuse… When you introduce the price, don’t make it sound like you think it’s a lot of money, if you don’t make a big deal out of it they won’t… If they can afford the gold elite [the $34,995 course] don’t allow them to think about doing anything besides the gold elite.
The playbooks also provided Trump University staff with language such as the following to persuade cash-strapped enrollees to purchase the most expensive package, maxing out their credit cards, if necessary:
Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? ... Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts? Those people saw an opportunity, and didn’t make excuses, like what you’re doing now.
Trump University’s former Events Department manager, Corinne Sommer, testified in a sworn deposition:
I believe that Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they could possibly buy on credit. I recall that some consumers showed up who were homeless and could not afford the seminars, yet I overheard Trump University representatives telling them, ‘it’s ok, just max out your credit card’. I also witnessed representatives instructing consumers to charge the course to multiple credit cards if they lacked a high enough limit on one credit card to pay for the seminar.
Schnackenbereg similarly states: “Trump University speakers told students to raise their credit limits so they could be ready to purchase real estate. In fact, the speakers then told students to use their increased credit limits to purchase the next level of Trump University seminar.” His affidavit concludes, “Based upon my personal experience and employment, I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
And what about the quality of the instruction? Did participants, while incurring heavy costs, nevertheless benefit from the program overall? It’s hard to see how. First, the quality of the teaching staff was highly questionable. Of 68 former faculty and staff investigated by the Associated Press, half had “personal bankruptcies, foreclosures, credit card defaults, tax liens or other indicators of significant money troubles prior to teaching Trump University courses,” which, recall, were supposed to promote “wealth building” and “how to invest like a billionaire.” Many of these instructors, the AP reports, “did not have college degrees and were not licensed to broker real estate… At least four had been convicted of felonies.”
And what about the enrollees? Were they satisfied with their courses? Trump has frequently defended Trump University by pointing to a supposed 98 percent approval rating from students. But this is misleading. As noted in the complaint in the class-action lawsuit, Tarla Makaeff v. Trump University, many of the upbeat reviews were completed during the free 90-minute introductory seminars, well before a student would have undergone the course instruction that was the main attraction of Trump University and the subject of complaints in the lawsuits. Also, the reviews were not anonymous, as would be necessary to avoid conflicts of interest.
Among many negative testimonials about Trump University are the following:
Schnackenberg, the sales manager, says in his affidavit, “In my experience, virtually all students who purchased a Trump University seminar were dissatisfied with the program they purchased. To my knowledge, not a single consumer who paid for a Trump University seminar program went on successfully invest in real estate based upon the techniques that were taught.”
The character issue
So, on the one hand, we have a candidate who clearly lacks any of the normal human constraints on lying and exhibits persistent shadiness in his legal dealings. And on the other hand, we have a candidate whose “lying,” such as it is, fits well within the normal bounds of human untruthfulness (indeed, PolitiFact data suggest that she’s one of the most honest politicians to have sought the presidency since 2008) and of whom, despite intense scrutiny over several decades, no evidence has ever emerged of any wrongdoing or corruption.
The aspect of a presidential race known as the “character issue” would thus seem no contest: the overwhelming advantage should go to Clinton. Yet an early September CNN poll found that 50% of voters viewed Trump as “more honest and trustworthy” than Clinton, while just 35% viewed Clinton as the “more honest and trustworthy” of the candidates. Similarly, an ABC News/Washington Post poll in early November (just before the election and just after FBI director Comey reopened the email investigation) found that voters generally viewed Trump as the “more honest and trustworthy” candidate (48% to 38%).
What could possibly explain this? Part of the answer almost certainly lies in visceral factors. Trump gives people—who, of course, know little about how policy and governance work—confidence that he can get things done (save or bring back jobs, for example) through the sheer force of his personality. Additionally, he can also, at times, come across as affable, relatable. Routinely, however, he has bad moments, as when he bragged about groping women on audiotape, incited violence at campaign events, mocked a disabled reporter at a rally, behaved like a highly chauvinistic manner at one of his beauty pageants, or engaged in out-of-control vindictive rants on Twitter. And such personality-revealing proclivities were not unnoticed: during especially bad episodes, his poll numbers dropped precipitously.
But he is a natural on TV—he is a reality TV star; the Apprentice ran for 14 seasons—and he can always use his charisma or (some would say) charm to more or less recoup his losses, at least if he can behave semi-normally for a period of time, as he did in the final week and a-half of the campaign. (His Twitter account was taken away from him in the final days of the campaign, preventing an inadvertent last-moment political suicide). During this time, Trump’s favorable ratings, as aggregated by Pollster.com, rose, hitting an all-time high on Election Day:
Although the higher favorable ratings may be partly attributable to Trump’s television projection capabilities plus the fact that this was a relatively quiescent period for him (no inane tweets or out-of-control rants), also note that his favorability ratings began their ascent (and his unfavorable ratings their descent) around October 28th, the day James Comey sent his letter to Congress. Coincidence?
Hillary Clinton can at times seem fairly cold but also at times quite warm—a seeming mixture of toughness and compassion that some (and perhaps many) may feel makes for a viable commander in chief. But whatever her true personality, there is no doubt that there is a “Gap,” to use Ezra Klein’s term, between the “Hillary” the public perceives—“careful, calculated, cautious,” in Klein’s words—and the actual individual, Hillary Clinton.
One approach to filling the Gap is to consider the testimony of those who know her—friends and colleagues. For his article, Klein interviewed “dozens of people who have worked with Clinton in every stage of her career, going back to her time in the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.” The Clinton described to Klein “by people who have worked with her, people I admire, people who understand Washington in ways I never will…is spoken of in superlatives: brilliant, funny, thoughtful, effective. She inspires a rare loyalty in ex-staff, and an unusual protectiveness even among former foes.”
One characteristic of Clinton that crops up repeatedly in Klein’s interviews is that Clinton, in contrast with most politicians, “listens.” That is, Clinton is very good at absorbing and taking seriously the concerns of others, enabling her to build rapport even with some of her fiercest critics. She is also not prone to carrying grudges. Klein writes: “Clinton takes interactions that past foes expect to be the continuation of a bitter, long-running status conflict and turns them into an opportunity to build rapport. It is, according to those who have witnessed it, incredibly disarming.”
The result is a long list of collaborations across the aisle. As described in a 2006 New York Times article, written as Clinton was preparing to run for second senatorial term (quoted by Klein):
“With Representative Tom DeLay it was foster children. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, jumped in with her on a health care initiative, and the Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, was a partner on legislation concerning computerized medical records. The list goes on: Senator Robert Bennett on flag-burning; Senator Rick Santorum on children's exposure to graphic images; Senator John Sununu on S.U.V. taillights; Senator Mike DeWine on asthma.”
If we’re looking for Hillary’s true political self, it’s not hard to find. She is, and long has been—since her abandonment of Goldwater conservatism under the mentorship of her United Methodist minister, Donald Jones, in the 1960s—consistently left-of-center on domestic policy issues. According to Voteview (cited by 538), Clinton’s voting record in her final senatorial term was more liberal than that of 70 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of all members. Her public activities are unmistakably left-of-center in their bent. Out of law school, she worked as a staff attorney and later as board chair with the United Children’s Fund. In 1977, she co-founded Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, a nonprofit that advocates for policies that benefit children and their families. As First Lady of Arkansas, she introduced to her state Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY)—an early Head Start program that involves weekly coaching of parents to help them prepare their young children for school. As First Lady of the United States, she played a “crucial” role, according to Factcheck, in securing passage of State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation and for “pushing outreach efforts to translate the law into reality.” As a Senator, she introduced the Legal Immigrant Children’s Health Improvement Act, enabling states to provide federally funded Medicaid and SCHIP benefits to low-income legal immigrant children and pregnant women.
There is of course much more; this is but a snippet of the total record. If there’s a broad theme that runs through Clinton’s policy work, it’s improving the lives of children.
We can also look at her policy agenda in the presidential race (clearly the most under-covered aspect of the campaign). Few news stories examined the policy agendas of either candidate in detail, but two notable exceptions were a piece in the Huffington Post by Jonathan Cohn and one in Vox by Dylan Matthews. Obviously, any efforts by a President Clinton to enact her policy agenda would hit massive turbulence in Congress. But failure to enact her program wouldn’t be for a lack of vision on Clinton’s part. What would a world of Clinton’s proposed policies look like? Dylan Matthews gives a partial description:
The vast majority of families would be able to send children to public colleges and universities tuition-free. Four-year-olds would have universal access to pre-K, and child care would be massively subsidized so as to cap costs at 10 percent of a family’s income. All workers would get 12 weeks paid family leave and 12 weeks paid medical leave, in case they need to care for a new child, a sick family member, or themselves. The child tax credit would be doubled for families with young children and made available to poor families with little earnings.
Eleven million undocumented immigrants would gain a pathway to citizenship. Medicare would be expanded to people as young as 55, and allowed to negotiate down drug prices with pharmaceutical companies, and every state would have a robust public option. All states would expand Medicaid coverage to anyone living underneath the poverty line, and subsidies for health care on the exchanges would be more generous. The government would cover out-of-pocket health costs through the tax code. Federal money would be able to pay for abortions for people with government-paid insurance. Social Security benefits would increase. The minimum wage would be at least $12, maybe $15 an hour, and firms could unionize through card check rather than having to go through elections.
There would be an injection of $500 billion — $275 billion of which comes from federal coffers — into rebuilding roads, highways, mass transit, airports, seaports, broadband networks, electrical grids, water pipes, and other forms of infrastructure. This would be the largest public works push from the federal government since the building of the interstate highway system in the 1950s. Much of that money would go to directly hiring workers, particularly youth in minority communities. The Clinton campaign estimates that the $500 billion would create about 6.5 million jobs, more than half of which come from public money.
And to pay for it all, the rich would face a top income tax rate of 43.6 percent and a top estate tax rate of 65 percent, each of which is the highest since Ronald Reagan. Investors would face a new tax on financial transactions.
And there’s much more.
Partly because she gave several well-remunerated speeches to Wall Street firms, Clinton has been tagged, particularly on the left, as “close to Wall Street.” But this is perhaps the single gravest misconception there is about Hillary Clinton, who in her policy proposals was nowhere near Wall Street. Clinton would have defended Dodd-Frank against efforts to weaken it; Trump has done the opposite (and has “defanged” Elizabeth Warren’s brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau). She would have closed loopholes in the Volker rule—a law that prevents financial institutions from engaging in hedge fund-style speculative activities using FDIC-insured funds that entitle them to government bail-outs when things go awry. To encourage long-term investment, she would have raised capital gains taxes for top-bracket taxpayers on assets held less than six years. To mitigate the potential for another financial meltdown of 2008 dimensions, she would have charged a “risk fee” to large financial institutions—a fee that would be scaled higher for firms with greater debt and riskier short-term liabilities. Banks would then face higher fees as they become larger and riskier. (On why the latter is a good idea, see Matthew Yglesias in Vox and Tim Worstall in Forbes.) She wanted to increase legal enforcement on Wall Street by holding not only corporations but individuals accountable when laws are broken. And she wanted to impose a tax on certain financial transactions to discourage high-speed trading.
All of this is quite anathema to Wall Street. Policy-wise, the financial sector should be far more enamored of the deregulatory soundings of Trump.
Then there’s climate change, perhaps the single greatest threat facing humankind. Clinton embraced all of Obama’s efforts to fight climate change (the Clean Power Plan, higher fuel efficiency standards for cars, trucks and appliances, delivery on U.S. pledges at the Paris climate conference, etc.) but went beyond Obama in some ways. For example, she would have sought to install half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term, generating enough energy to power every home in the U.S.
There should, quite simply, be no mystery at all about Clinton’s true political self. It would be clear to anyone who bothered to look at her policy agenda or the rich record of her preceding five decades of political life. She has a clear left-of-center ideology and has taken consistent positions on many issues over many years. Indeed, in candidate Clinton, we may have had, as Elizabeth Warren said, “the most progressive agenda [of a presidential candidate] in history.” Yet many prominent (liberal) observers apparently had no idea that Clinton even had a true political self or any real convictions. Here’s Jon Stewart in a conversation with David Axelrod:
What I think about Hillary Clinton is…I imagine a bright woman without the courage of her convictions, because I’m not even sure what they are…that is not to say that she is not preferable to Donald Trump, because at this point I would vote for Mr. T over Donald Trump. But I think she will be in big trouble if she can’t find a way [of presenting her true self?]. And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe a real person doesn’t exist underneath there. I don’t know.
The liberal Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza quotes Stuart favorably and comments:
People struggle to relate to her. She often comes across as inauthentic or lacking a basic core of beliefs. The idea of finding out who the ‘real’ Hillary Clinton is seems far-fetched. Even many people who believe she should be president acknowledge, usually privately, that she is fundamentally unknowable.
And voters were certainly no less in the dark. A Pew Research Center survey, administered two months after the party conventions, found that slightly less than half of voters (48%) said they knew “a lot” about Clinton’s positions on important issues (the number was even lower—41%—for Trump).
What accounts for this blindness of virtually the whole of American society—populace and pundits alike—to Clinton’s quite detailed, well-thought-out policy agenda? A large part of it is that the media focused very little on it. Thomas Patterson, of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, provides a four-part analysis, based on thousands of news statements by CBS, Fox, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, of news media coverage of candidates and issues during the 2016 presidential election. According to Patterson’s data, Clinton’s news coverage breaks down as follows:
As Patterson observes, “If she had a policy agenda, it was not apparent in the news. Her lengthy record of public service also received scant attention.”
As noted above, and as Ezra Klein has observed, Clinton the candidate was plagued by the Gap—the Gap between private and public perceptions of Clinton the person. Looking at Clinton’s history and policy agenda—at actual evidence about Hillary Clinton—is one way of filling the Gap. It requires a little research, but it can be done. Information has never been more easily accessible than now (to obtain the information needed to write this piece, I didn’t have to leave my computer even once). The other way of filling the Gap is through innuendo—insinuations of a dark underside to the Clintons. This is the path taken by Clinton’s political opponents but also, to an alarming degree, the American news media. Although views about the relative “honesty and trustworthiness” of the two candidates fluctuated somewhat during the campaign, the fact that Trump could ever be viewed as “more honest and trustworthy” than Clinton by a plurality of voters says something quite extraordinary about the American news media.
Let’s start with the email coverage. According to an analysis by the Tyndall Report (see also this) issued in late October, since the beginning of the year, the three major networks’ evening news programs devoted 100 minutes of broadcast time to Clinton’s emails and just 32 minutes to all issues combined, where coverage of an issue is defined as taking “a public policy, [outlining] the societal problem that needs to be addressed, [describing] the candidates’ platform positions and proposed solutions, and [evaluating] their efficacy.” By this criterion, issues covered were limited to terrorism, LBGT issues, foreign policy, immigration, policing, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Issues not covered included trade, healthcare, climate change, drugs, poverty, guns, infrastructure, and deficits. (For a graphical display of the disparity between coverage of Clinton’s emails and issues on evening news broadcasts, see this).
The Clinton Foundation “scandals”
The email “scandal,” as Matthew Yglesias has shown, is a “bullshit scandal.” In using a personal email account, Clinton wouldn’t have been trying to hide information, since the use of a private email account wouldn’t have accomplished this, and she would have had easier alternatives. Also, the time-line makes no sense: why would she have turned over all her work-related email before it was even known that she had used a private server? And the charge that she mishandled classified information is a red herring, since it’s not the use of a private email account that’s relevant to the charge but the use of any email account at all (personal or state.gov). And of course, overwhelmingly, Clinton used the appropriate State Department channels for correspondence about classified matters. Many government employees have used private email accounts for work-related correspondence, and (particularly given the vague, frequently shifting and, many would say, overly stringent definitions of “classified” information) classified materials are frequently mishandled.
Nevertheless, in the email episode, one can at least say that Clinton did something wrong. She broke no law, but she did violate a State Department directive. Although rationally, the email “scandal” shouldn’t have been a major issue, let alone determinative of the outcome of a presidential race, it did involve a (minor) misstep by Clinton.
The same cannot be said of the Clinton Foundation “scandals.” Despite an enormous amount of investigatory work by American journalists into any conceivable State Department favoritism of Clinton Foundation donors during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, nothing—no evidence of any wrongdoing or corruption—ever emerged. Indeed, the main story could have been that candidate Clinton passed a kind of ethics check. Serving as Secretary of State while her husband raised millions of dollars from sources around the world creates the potential for conflicts of interest. Yet Clinton evidently behaved ethically.
Although, objectively, the effect of all this reporting on the Clinton Foundation was to absolve Clinton of any wrongdoing or corruption, the effect of it in the public mind was just the opposite. A significant portion of the American news media were gunning for Clinton, and a finding of not guilty was not the narrative they sought to construct.
Let us examine various media efforts in this vein from late August through the first week of September, a period during which Clinton’s poll numbers continued a five-week decline that had begun in early August.
1. In perhaps the most notorious of the “exposés” of State Department “favoritism” toward Clinton Foundation donors, on August 23rd, Stephen Braun and Eileen Sullivan reported in the Associated Press, seemingly quite damningly:
More than half the people outside the government who met with Hillary Clinton while she was secretary of state gave money — either personally or through companies or groups — to the Clinton Foundation. It's an extraordinary proportion indicating her possible ethics challenges if elected president… At least 85 of 154 people from private interests who met or had phone conversations scheduled with Clinton while she led the State Department donated to her family charity or pledged commitments to its international programs, according to a review of State Department calendars released so far to The Associated Press.
There is, however, a problem with Braun and Sullivan’s fraction, 85/154: the denominator, obtained by taking a selective subset of the meetings Clinton held during her first two years in office. As the article says, “The 154 did not include U.S. federal employees or foreign government representatives.” So it includes no foreign government officials, of which Clinton met 1,700, according to ABC, during her time as Secretary of State. It also includes none of the “dozens of civil society leaders, journalists, and others” Clinton routinely met with “on any one of her many foreign trips,” as Matthew Yglesias notes. Thus, the article is extraordinarily misleading about the proportion of meetings Clinton had with Clinton Foundation donors. It’s as if the sample of 154 was purposefully crafted to make it appear, as Mike Pence later falsely claimed, that “more than half of Hillary Clinton's meetings while she was secretary of state were given to major contributors to the Clinton Foundation.” (And a contemporaneous Twitter post by AP, summarizing the Braun and Sullivan article, was even more misleading than the article, stating, without qualification, “More than half those who met Clinton as Cabinet secretary gave money to Clinton Foundation.” The tweet was later deleted.)
The second problem with the story is the actual examples of meetings the article provides, none of which suggest wrongdoing by Clinton. In particular, about a quarter of the article focuses on Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist (and personal friend of the Clintons) who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work on microcredit—lending small amounts of money at low interest rates to new businesses in developing countries. Grameen America, the nonprofit U.S. affiliate of Yunus’s nonprofit Grameen Bank, had collaborated with the Clinton Foundation’s Clinton Global Initiative in the early 2000s in micro-credit projects. The nonprofit, which Yunus chaired, then gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Clinton Foundation in annual fees to attend Clinton Global Initiative meetings, and additionally, Grameen Research, another Grameen arm chaired by Yunus, donated between $25,000 and $50,000 to the Clinton Foundation.
This is the “quid” part of the equation, apparently.
Then, in 2009, when Clinton was Secretary of State, USAID, the State Department's foreign aid arm, began partnering with the Grameen Foundation, a nonprofit charity run by Yunus, in efforts to expand microcredit to other developing countries. USAID provided $2.2 million in loans and grants to the Grameen Foundation during Clinton’s tenure.
This, apparently, is the “quo” part of the equation. Or part of it, at any rate—because in 2011, the Bangladeshi government investigated allegations (later determined to be false by the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation or NORAD) that, in 1996, Yunus helped divert approximately $100 million given to Grameen Bank by NORAD to another Grameen entity, Grameen Kalyan, to evade taxes. Secretary of State Clinton responded to her friend’s troubles by: (1) referring the issue, when it arose in late 2009, to the State Department’s top east Asia expert; (2) discussing it with an East Asia expert in December 2010, when the Bangladeshi government indicated it would launch an inquiry; (3) speaking with Yunus by phone (remember, a personal friend) in March 2011, after the Bangladeshi government started its inquiry; (4) commiserating with Yunus in mid-May 2011, after Yunus was forced to resign from the bank’s board (Clinton wrote in a note, “Sad indeed”); and finally (5) stating in a town hall forum in Dhaka in March 2012 that “we do not want to see any action taken that would in any way undermine or interfere in the operations of the Grameen Bank” (remember, Grameen was a partner of U.S. AID, so any actions against Grameen might adversely affect State Department aid efforts).
What exactly is supposed to be so unsavory here? A Yunus-affiliated organization gave money to the Clinton Foundation in the 2000s, but charitable organizations sometimes give money to other charitable organizations. Millions of dollars changed hands, but no one appears to have lined their pockets. Personal (but also professional) ties may have helped cement the partnership between USAID and the Grameen Foundation in 2009, but Yunus had substantial name recognition (he had won the Nobel Peace prize), and microcredit is seen by many as an effective poverty-fighting tool—so the Grameen Foundation would seem a legitimate organization for USAID to partner with. As Secretary of State, Clinton responded in various ways to her friend’s legal troubles but evidently did nothing to influence the Bangladeshi inquiry (which found against Yunus).
Although the AP story reveals nothing suspicious about Clinton’s conduct, it certainly gives the impression that it does—indeed, that’s its clear purpose. Thus, along with many other news articles that appeared during this period, it added to a narrative that Clinton is mistrustful and possibly even criminal. The Braun and Sullivan article is a low point for U.S. journalism. Painting a dark picture of an individual or group of individuals without any substantive support for that portrayal is the epitome of bad journalism—a brand of journalism normally called “sensationalism.” The latter is exactly what distinguished media organs like the AP must avoid if they wish to be considered professional.
Unfortunately, this was anything but an isolated case.
2. On August 28th, Joseph Tanfani reported in a front-page article in the Los Angeles Times on Gilbert Chagoury, a shady Nigerian billionaire whom the article described as a “prominent example of the nexus between Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the family’s Clinton Foundation.” Nearly everything in the article that has at least a tangential connection to the Clintons can be summarized as follows:
Exactly what the “nexus” between Clinton’s State Department and the Clinton Foundation is supposed to be here is unclear. Chagoury contributed to the Clinton Foundation, but he gave money to many charitable causes and clearly sought to cultivate a reputation for himself as a philanthropist; as the article notes, “His name is on a gallery at the Louvre and a medical school in Lebanon, and he has received awards for his generosity to the Catholic Church and St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.” And during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, Doug Band thought Chagoury might be a good contact for intelligence about Lebanese politics; but a proposed meeting between Chagoury and a U.S. official never occurred. And the State Department has considered land owned by Chagoury as a possible site for a U.S. consulate. But is this a big deal? In any case, it occurred after Clinton’s time as Secretary of State, so how is this supposed to connect to Hillary Clinton?
Otherwise, the article dwells on the considerable shadiness of Chagoury, his brief period on the no-fly list (owing to his association with the Lebanese politician Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group supported by Iran and classified by the U.S. as a terrorist organization), and his difficulties obtaining visas in recent years to enter the U.S.
It’s not that hard to see why Tanfani and the Los Angeles Times would claim to show a “nexus between Hillary Clinton’s State Department and the family’s Clinton Foundation.” If the article had in fact shown such a “nexus,” that would have been a coup for the reporter and the paper. Although the article shows nothing of the kind, it attracted attention, which news media are highly incentivized to seek.
3. On September 1st, Eric Lichtblau, in a front-page article in the New York Times entitled “Emails Raise New Questions About Clinton Foundation Ties to State Dept.,” reported that
A top aide to Hillary Clinton at the State Department agreed to try to obtain a special diplomatic passport for an adviser to former President Bill Clinton in 2009, according to emails released Thursday, raising new questions about whether people tied to the Clinton Foundation received special access at the department.
Referring to this as perhaps the “dumbest” Clinton Foundation “scandal” yet, Matthew Yglesias of Vox provides the relevant context: In March 2009, two American journalists, Euna Lee and Laura Ling, were arrested after crossing into North Korea from China without visas, then sentenced to 12 years of hard labor. In July, arrangements were made for Bill Clinton, acting as a private emissary, to fly to Pyongyang to negotiate the fate of the journalists (who were pardoned on August 5th). Clinton naturally wanted to take staff with him, and on July 27th, Doug Band, who headed an arm of the Clinton Foundation, emailed Huma Abedin, an aid to Hillary Clinton, to request a diplomatic passport for the trip. As Lichtblau notes, “The State Department never issued the passport” because “only department employees and others with diplomatic status are eligible for the special passports, which help envoys facilitate travel, officials said.”
As Yglesias observes, this episode does not—as the title and first paragraph of the article imply—raise “questions” about whether Clinton Foundation staff received special treatment from the State Department. On the contrary, “It answers the question. They didn’t.” No “questions” are raised, and no “shadows” are cast. There’s no scandal or suggestion of a scandal. Such an article, obviously, can only serve to blow smoke where there is no fire.
4. Then a September 5th Washington Post article, by Rosalind S. Helderman and Michelle Ye Hee Lee, cast suspicion on a recommendation made by then-Secretary of State Clinton that a for-profit college company’s representative be included (along with representatives of a community college and a church-based institution) at an August 2009 State Department dinner devoted to higher education—a dinner that gave the for-profit college company, Laureate, a chance to rub shoulders “with leaders from internationally renowned universities for a discussion about the role of higher education in global diplomacy, provided an added level of credibility for the business as it pursued an aggressive expansion strategy overseas, occasionally tangling with foreign regulators.” Clinton recommended inviting the company, she said, because Laureate was “the fastest growing college network in the world” but also, according to the Post, “because the company was started by a businessman, Doug Becker, ‘who Bill likes a lot’, the secretary wrote.” Nine months later, the article notes, “Laureate signed Bill Clinton to a lucrative deal as a consultant and ‘honorary chancellor’, paying him $17.6 million over five years until the contract ended in 2015 as Hillary Clinton launched her campaign for president.”
There is, however, a problem with the insinuation of a quid pro quo here, as observed by Kevin Drum. In the fifth paragraph, the authors note, “There is no evidence that Laureate received special favors from the State Department in direct exchange for hiring Bill Clinton....” Then, in the 26th paragraph, we learn that
Clinton’s contract with Laureate was approved by the State Department’s ethics office, in keeping with an Obama administration agreement with Hillary Clinton that gave the agency the right to review her husband’s outside work during her tenure. An ethics official wrote that he saw ‘no conflict of interest with Laureate or any of their partners’, according to a letter recently released by the conservative group Citizens United, which received it through a public-records request.
There is, in other words, no evidence of any wrongdoing by Clinton. So the article is in effect, as Drum says, another “story about Clinton doing nothing wrong.” Indeed, the story could have had the opposite slant. It could have been about how internal monitoring enabled Clinton and other officials to avoid—with varying degrees of success—appearances of impropriety.
The stepped-up investigation of the Clinton Foundation during this period may be one of the most extraordinary episodes in the history of American journalism. Many of the world’s leading news organizations and some of its most industrious investigative journalists devoted considerable resources to uncovering instances of Clinton State Department favoritism of Clinton Foundation donors and came up empty. Even so, these murky ethical “breeches” were on the minds of voters as the campaign was moving into its final stretch. According to an early September Ipsos/Reuters poll, 46 percent of Americans were “very concerned” about Clinton's use of a personal email account, and 47 percent were “very concerned” about donations from foreign governments or corporations to the Clinton Foundation. In some degree, this breaks down along party lines. However, even among Democrats, 21 percent were “very concerned” about Clinton's emails, and 22 percent were “very concerned” about Clinton Foundation donations.
With regard to the Clinton Foundation, if there is an over-arching story here, it’s that despite the obvious potential for conflicts of interest that exist when a former president establishes a foundation partly for political reasons, no actual ethical breaches apparently occurred. The true story may thus be one of fitness for office, of a capacity to work in an environment that includes ethical lines and not cross them. Instead of playing the story this way, however, the media systematically drew public attention to a series of false negatives—potential ethical breaches that did not occur—while failing to step back and present the overall factual record, evident from a larger perspective. It’s unclear, by contrast, that Clinton’s opponent and now president is even aware that such lines exist.
And what happened to Clinton’s electoral prospects during this period? They declined significantly:
On August 1st, Pollster.com had Clinton at 46.3 percent and Trump at 38.8 percent. By mid-September, it was 43.9% to 41.6%.
The perverse incentives of the American news media
But Clinton’s treatment by the American news media during the period from mid-August through mid-September is part of a larger phenomenon. As noted above, Thomas Patterson, of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard, provides a four-part analysis of news media coverage of candidates and issues during the 2016 presidential election. In the first part, about the “invisible primary”—the year preceding the primaries (most of 2015 up through January of 2016)—he found that “Hillary Clinton had by far the most negative coverage of any candidate” (31% positive to 69% negative over the course of the year). “In 11 of the 12 months, her ‘bad news’ outpaced her ‘good news’, usually by a wide margin, contributing to the increase in her unfavorable poll ratings in 2015.”
(The one (modest) uptick in the tone of Clinton’s coverage occurs in October, a period that included the first Democratic debate (October 13th) and her 11 hours of congressional testimony on Benghazi (October 22nd). In these events, she was widely seen to have performed well.)
During the “invisible primary,” Trump’s coverage was very different. First, despite low initial poll numbers, he received disproportionately heavy coverage (34 percent of news coverage among Republicans; Jeb Bush was second, with 18 percent)—free publicity that provided Trump with an estimated “ad-equivalent” of $55 million, far more than that of any other candidate. Second, his coverage was largely positive. “The volume and tone of the coverage,” Patterson concludes, “helped propel Trump to the top of Republican polls.”
Then in the primary season (January through June 7th), the mostly negative (47% positive to 53% negative) coverage of Clinton continued, while that of Trump changed along with the nature of the race: it was generally positive (53% positive to 47% negative) when the Republican race was still being contested but turned sharply negative (39% positive to 61% negative) when Trump became the presumptive nominee (after Cruz and Kasich had dropped out). During this period, the most positive coverage of any candidate was received by Bernie Sanders (59% positive to 41% negative).
Perhaps the most striking aspect of news coverage in the final, post-convention, leg of the race (from the conventions through the election on November 8th, covered in the fourth part of the Harvard report), as discussed below, is its sheer negativity. The fact that media coverage of Clinton and Trump was about equally negative during this period—during which there were no new major revelations about Clinton—says much about the media’s priorities. For this period was marked by the release of the notorious audio tape on which Trump brags about sexually assaulting women, a revelation followed by a series of accusations by women, many of them credible, that he had engaged in precisely such behavior. Were it not for the audio tape and the allegations against Trump that surfaced in its wake—a genuine scandal of a sort that that the media will legitimately play up—it seems quite likely that Clinton’s coverage would have been more negative than Trump’s during the general election campaign. And remember, Trump, not Clinton, has a record of chronic lying and legal improprieties.
At the root of the bizarre performance of the American news media during the 2016 presidential campaign appears to be set of perverse incentives. Three stand out:
(1) The need to appear neutral, that is, nonpartisan. This gives rise to an epidemic of false equivalence.
(2) The compulsion to cover the campaign as a competitive contest, that is, a “horserace.” This fosters an artificial narrative in which the tone of the coverage of a candidate is largely determined by her or his position in the race.
(3) An incessant tendency to adopt a negative tone in political reporting. This deeply sullies the candidates and U.S. governing institutions generally in the minds of Americans and encourages a deep but facile cynicism even about any positive efforts public officials might make to improve people’s lives.
The problem with these incentives is that they lead to a contrived narrative that systematically distorts public perceptions of the candidates and the issues.
The need to appear neutral
The bottom line for a media organization, we can presume, is to attract readers and viewers. Hence, the style and content of news reporting must, to some degree, cater to public demand. People turn to the news media largely to learn about what is going on in the world, so an appearance of neutrality, of presenting things as they are, is essential to attracting audiences. Different media serve different audiences and hence attract viewers and readers in different ways. In the age of cable and the internet, many news outlets attract adequate niche audiences by adopting certain ideological slants. And in the minds of their audiences, news provided by these outlets may be “fair and balanced.” However, the “distinguished media”—the media that would be seen as news sources “of record”—must generally seem nonpartisan. And that requires treating each candidate’s policy positions and personality traits as essentially equivalent or symmetric, albeit the candidates may come from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Unfortunately, this type of coverage systematically generates a vast amount of false equivalence. To a large degree, it simply doesn’t matter what the major party candidates’ personal characteristics and policy positions are. They will be straightjacketed into a prefabricated narrative in which the candidates are characterized as essentially equivalent but possibly opposite in their perspectives or governing philosophies. Of course, there’s no logical reason why the candidates should be symmetric opposites. It’s quite possible, even likely, that they will objectively differ in numerous ways. One candidate may chronically lie, while the other does not; one may have a history of illegal conduct, while the other does not; one may have largely incoherent, sloganistic policy positions, while the other has practical, detailed ones; one may have no experience in government or policymaking, while the other has decades of it. To systematically shoehorn the candidates into a narrative structure, a key feature of which is that the candidates are opposite but symmetric, is to systematically bias public perceptions.
An appearance of neutrality is also incentivized by pressures “from above.” Both major parties complain, of course, about media coverage. But only one has made animus toward the media a rhetorical staple, with constant carping about “liberal media bias.” To shield themselves, news organizations must bend over backwards to appease conservatives, for example, pretending that there’s a climate change “debate,” reporting what politicians or officials say rather than actual facts (he said/she said type journalism, putting claims supported by evidence on the same plain as claims lacking any such support), booking more Republicans than Democrats on Sunday morning news interview programs, and so on.
The compulsion to cover the campaign as a competitive contest
In addition to perceived neutrality, audiences are attracted by competition. As the popularity of sports attests, competition is a natural focus of human attention. And as people are not strongly interested in policy positions or issues, which are cognitively taxing to grasp, highlighting the competitive aspects of politics is a relatively effective way for media organizations to hook viewers and readers. So it’s not surprising that the media devote more coverage to the “horserace” than to any other aspect of a presidential campaign. Just as competitive developments—movements up by a candidate “gaining ground” or movements down by a candidate “losing ground”—attract readers and viewers, it is natural for reporters to craft their stories as relevant to the relative positions of candidates and for editors and producers to place and pitch stories in ways that emphasize the relevance they may have to the competitive contest. Additionally, the tribal nature of politics—the dominance of partisan affiliation in voting behavior—almost certainly intensifies public interest in the competitive race. Just as people are attuned to how their sports teams perform and their team’s place in the standings, they will often pay at least some attention to news about the relative positions of their favored political candidates.
Horserace coverage is also incentivized by the news media’s need to pose as neutral. Merely reporting the score, after all, is a neutral activity. (Sportscasters are seldom accused of bias.) And by focusing so heavily on the play-by-play call, news outlets can adopt a pretension of seriousness—they are, after all, reporting on something that matters; electoral outcomes have consequences—while avoiding substance, i.e., issues and policy positions, which the media are not well incentivized to cover in depth.
The narrative journalists were constantly seeking to construct around Clinton, the frontrunner throughout the Democratic primaries and the general election campaign, would naturally be the “losing ground” narrative. And since such coverage would typically focus on factors that might “explain” Clinton’s ostensible downward trajectory, this type of narrative is most productive of negative news stories. Sanders’s story, by contrast, better fits the “gaining ground” narrative—hence, his largely upbeat coverage throughout the campaign. The pattern of coverage of Trump, on the other hand, fits both narratives, depending on what period is considered. Hence, the tone of his coverage oscillated predictably, in tandem with his electoral strength.
But the problem with horserace coverage is not merely that it renders politics superficial. It also negatively impacts the outcomes of political contests. Just as hotly contested sporting events attract larger audiences and garner higher TV ratings than less competitive ones, so voters focus more intently on close political contests than on routs. In fact, media organizations have a financial stake in close races. To maximize audience share, it makes sense for editors and producers to employ the “losing ground” narrative when a candidate is up in the polls and the “gaining ground” narrative when a candidate is down in the polls, as Patterson’s data show they in fact do. It’s as if a novelist constructing a storyline says, “I need this to occur at this point to make the narrative more interesting.” What’s problematic is that such plot turns can affect the outcome. The negative gist of the “losing ground” narrative—much of which is devoted to finding “reasons” why the candidate is “losing ground”—will contribute to a negative image of the candidate, harming that candidate’s electoral prospects, while the positive gist of the “gaining ground” narrative will have the opposite effect, enhancing a candidate’s chances. The plot twists thereby engineered may be self-fulfilling prophecies, the ultimate result being a much closer race than would have occurred had the voters been given a less distorted picture of the candidates’ relative degrees of fitness for office and policy views.
The criterion news organizations hide behind in justifying their coverage choices (in covering, say, Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation) is “newsworthiness.” But “newsworthy” is a loaded term, one that has, moreover, been corrupted by the incentives shaping news coverage. One can claim that yet another “exposé” of Clinton State Department favoritism of Clinton Foundation donors is “newsworthy” because it attracts viewers and readers. But the reason it attracts viewers and readers is that it feeds a formulaic plot structure (the “losing ground narrative”) that the news media itself devised. The notion of “newsworthiness” has been severed from the question of whether a news story gives people an accurate view of the world.
The tendency to adopt a negative tone in campaign coverage
Perhaps the most striking aspect of news coverage in the final, post-convention, leg of the race (from the conventions through the election on November 8th, covered in the fourth part of the Harvard report) is its sheer negativity. Removing “horserace” coverage from the analysis, so that the focus is on “policy positions, personal qualities, leadership abilities, ethical standards, and the like,” the news coverage of both candidates was overwhelmingly negative:
One might think the negative tone of most media coverage relates to the nasty tone of the campaign, set by the candidates themselves. But this is not the case. Heavily negative coverage of presidential campaigns dates from the 1980s, with the 2000 election (25% negative to 75% negative) outpacing the overall numbers for 2016 (29% positive to 71% positive).
Moreover, the negative tone of most journalism isn’t confined to electoral politics. As Patterson writes,
In recent years, when immigration has been the subject of news stories, the ratio of negative stories to positive ones has been 5-to-1. In that same period, news reports featuring Muslims have been 6-to-1 negative. News stories about health care policy, most of which centered on the 2010 Affordable Care Act, have been 2-to-1 negative. Although the nation’s economy has steadily improved since the financial crisis of 2008, one would not know that from the tone of news coverage. Since 2010, news stories about the nation’s economy have been 2-to-1 negative over positive.
While the heavily negative tone of most news reporting is neither new nor confined to politics, “an incessant stream of criticism,” Patterson observes, “has a corrosive effect” in that it “needlessly erodes trust in political leaders and institutions and undermines confidence in government and policy.” Is it surprising that being tagged as an “establishment” candidate (a label that works well as a divider, though, like most such labels, it lacks definitive content) is so politically toxic?
What gives rise to the incessant negativity of news coverage? Some supply-side factors may be involved. News organizations may feel that emphasizing the less savory aspects of our world marks them as “serious.” Or perhaps journalism as a career fosters cynicism among its practitioners, impelling them to highlight the “underside” of news events. But there is good evidence that the main driver of the negativity of news is the demand side. In particular, people exhibit “negativity bias,” a tendency to weight negative events more heavily than positive ones. For example, a 1998 study by Ito, Larsen, Smith, and Cacioppo found that the human brain produces greater electrical activity in response to negative stimuli (e.g., a picture of a mutilated face or of a gun pointed at the camera) than positive stimuli (e.g., a picture of a Ferrari or of people enjoying a roller coaster ride). And in a lab experiment, Trussler and Sorokaz found that individuals, faced with a selection of both positive and negative news stories, tended to choose negative and strategic (i.e., “horserace”-style) news frames over positive ones. This is despite the fact that in surveys, people indicate a desire for less negative news coverage. The authors also found that the preference for negative content is stronger for politically-informed respondents than less informed ones. This suggests that media consumers view negative frames as more informative than positive ones—i.e., information is evidently deemed more salient, more informative about the world, if it is negative in tone.
Thus, the overwhelmingly negative tone of news coverage may largely (even entirely) arise from efforts to cater to consumer demand. Given humans’ greater attunement to negative than positive news stories, it is rational for news organizations to feature more of the former than the latter.
One disturbing finding about the “invisible primary” period concerns issue coverage. In issue coverage (or “substantive concerns,” as labelled in the Harvard report), which is a very small portion of overall media coverage (far more minor than the competitive game and the campaign process), we see a good reason why Clinton, although the most policy-oriented candidate in the race, chose not to focus heavily on issues during the campaign.
While the most issue-focused of the candidates (Clinton) received more coverage on issues (28 percent of her overall coverage) than any other candidate, the coverage was overwhelmingly negative. By contrast, the issue coverage of other candidates was mostly positive or neutral. Why? Is the 84 percent of negative issue coverage Clinton received just an aspect of the larger picture, namely, that Clinton received “by far the most negative coverage” of any candidate? Or could it be that Clinton’s policy proposals were liberal and that liberal policies somehow attract the ire of the media more than conservative policies? (Except that Sanders’s policy proposals were often perceived as more liberal than Clinton’s, and yet his policy coverage was mostly positive.) Or could it be that Clinton’s policy proposals were more detailed than those of other candidates, creating a larger target for criticism by a media already predisposed to cover candidates (particularly, frontrunners) negatively? Hard to say, but it is disturbing, since Clinton’s policy proposals were by far the most thoroughly thought-out of those of any candidate. If the sheer detail of Clinton’s policy proposals created a target-rich environment in which the media felt impelled to indulge its proclivity to cover politics negatively, it’s difficult to see that future candidates will have an incentive to make serious policy proposals. It appears that if a candidate takes the prospect of gaining office seriously and accordingly develops many serious, detailed policy proposals designed to help realize the candidate’s vision, that’s a disadvantage, not an advantage, thanks to the way the media filters such proposals to the American public.
Trump’s policy proposals, by contrast, consisted of (1) somehow bringing back jobs—lost mostly to automation—in mining and manufacturing; (2) deporting all non-legal immigrants, thus shrinking the U.S. labor force (which, last I checked, shifts the aggregate supply curve to the left, lowering GDP) and solving a non-problem (net illegal immigration from Mexico has been negative since 2008, as seen here and here); (3) starting a trade war with China (you’d have to look long and hard to find an economist who favors that idea); (4) repealing the Affordable Care Act, most likely ending the health insurance of tens of millions of people; and (5) massive tax cuts for the wealthy, increasing the federal debt by an estimated $6 trillion over ten years. And yet Trump’s coverage on issues was mostly (57%) positive?
Among the most depressing aspects of this story is how so many on the left were misdirected by the media and thought leaders into helping bring about an outcome they surely see as nightmarish. Many progressives seem to have been oblivious that there was a candidate, hidden in plain sight, who largely shared their values on domestic issues. Thus, many votes that would have gone to the only progressive candidate who had a chance of winning but for misgivings about Clinton—being an “establishment” candidate or somehow “shady”—were instead votes that did not go against Trump. Since the percentage of the electorate voting for Trump increases with each non-vote for Clinton, each of Clinton’s non-votes was a partial vote for Trump. Those on the left who chose not to vote or voted for a third-party candidate got what they voted for.
Consider the possible impact of Green party candidate Jill Stein, whose vote totals in several key swing states exceeded Trump’s margin over Clinton. In Michigan, Trump beat Clinton by 10,704 votes, while Stein’s total was 51,463. In Pennsylvania, Trump beat Clinton by 46,765 votes, while Stein’s total 49,678. And in Wisconsin, Trump beat Clinton by 22,177 votes, while Stein’s total was 31,006. Had Clinton won these three states, she would have won the presidency. Of course, not all votes that went to Stein necessarily drew from Clinton, since some Stein supporters may otherwise not have voted at all. And confusion is such in the American electorate that a small number of Stein voters might otherwise have voted for Trump. However, nearly all Stein supporters would have greatly preferred a Clinton to a Trump victory. It is evident that many on the left were deluded into helping bring about the outcome that was their worst nightmare.
Post script Trump's enabler
What brought about the outcome on November 8, 2016—a result that no rational or humane person could have wanted? One might think that in a democracy, electoral outcomes have no specific cause but result from the actions of millions of free-acting individuals. But this presumes that people independently form their opinions of candidates, based on their own analyses of available information about them. In fact, the human mind has a limited capacity to absorb information. And people have little inclination to develop informed beliefs about candidates, instead typically adopting ready-made narratives fashioned by the media or by thought leaders. People adopt such narratives in part because they accept them as part of the general wisdom and so place a certain trust in them. In part, they adopt them for tribal reasons—to believe what other members of their tribes believe and what outsiders do not.
What may have been adaptive in a social environment of close acquaintances and relatives—placing faith in sources of information who are familiar and seem trustworthy—has in the modern era of electronic media reduced politics to a battle between narrative and image mongers. The outcome on November 8, 2016 arose largely from the actions of identifiable classes of individuals perversely incentivized to characterize the candidates in certain ways.
Consider the business community and Republican establishment. In a democracy, the highly class-conscious business community has an incentive to forge a voting faction that can be reliably manipulated into electing representatives who will enact business-friendly legislation. This the business community achieved in recent decades by cynically cultivating a base responsive to signals of tribal solidarity. Trump and the ever more rabidly right-wing roster of elected Republican officials are a product of this strategy. The strategy has its risks, in particular, that the racism and xenophobia that are integral to it can lead to policies that clash with business interests—on immigration and (especially) trade, in the case of Trump. One might also think that the failure to address the economic interests of working class whites could be a political liability. And occasionally, it is. But overwhelmingly, dog whistle politics is a well-oiled machine that gets working-class whites to vote against their economic interests, enabling the GOP to pursue its agenda of tax cuts, deregulation, and cuts to social programs. Indeed, the very economic anxiety that decades of business-friendly legislation has engendered is a cudgel that can be used against immigrants, minorities, and Democrats as scapegoats.
We could thus blame the business class and the Republican establishment for creating the conditions that led to Trump. Except that this is exactly what they wanted. There’s nothing myopic or misguided about a strategy of shepherding an ever more rightist fringe of politicians into power—people who will mouth the vote-getting appeals of tribalism and enact business-friendly legislation when in office. And Trump’s populist soundings aside, Trump has governed largely as a standard Republican, with a bit (or perhaps more than a bit) of craziness thrown in. Trump’s policies—on climate change, judicial appointments, repeal of health care reform, tax cuts, deregulation—largely reflect the GOP agenda. Appealing to the GOP and business leadership to behold what they have wrought and mend their ways and is quite vain.
In apportioning responsibility for an outcome, we must look to agents who, had they acted differently, could have prevented it. In the election of Donald Trump, which agents had this power? There is good evidence that a proximate cause of the outcome on November 8, 2016 was James Comey’s disclosure, in a letter to Congress on October 28th—nine days before the election—that the FBI was reopening the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email. Both state and national polls show a sizeable swing against Clinton and toward Trump after October 28th. And Election Day results diverge sharply, in Trump’s favor, from absentee voting results. It is thus conceivable that this tragic turn in American governance can be pinned, to a significant degree, on the unprofessional conduct of one man. Comey’s announcement, however, wouldn’t have had its effect had the groundwork for it not been laid. And laid it was, by the U.S. media.
The single word most prominently associated with Clinton (or either candidate) throughout the presidential race was, naturally, “email,” as seen, for example, in the famous word clouds, constructed on the basis of interviews Gallup conducted with 30,000 Americans from July to September of 2016. People were asked to describe “what they have read, seen or heard” about each of the candidates over the past two months. The sizes of the words are proportioned to numbers of mentions.
For Clinton, “lie” came in second, while “scandal” and “foundation” (a word with negative connotations in this context) also scored high. By contrast, the words most prominently associated with Trump were “speech,” “president,” and “immigration,” while “lie” is minuscule in Trump’s word cloud. Obviously, the public was primed to respond negatively (toward Clinton) to any mentions of the word “email.” And the fact that Comey’s letter contained no substantive revelations about the email issue was irrelevant. There was, of course, never any substance to the “scandal” in the first place.
Media coverage of the campaign, as we have seen, was strongly governed by perverse incentives, three in particular:
The result was a grossly distorted picture of the candidates in the public mind. Implanting such a image cannot, by any professional standard, be the job of the U.S. media.
The essence of professionalism is reliability to perform a task that non-professionals cannot perform. If I hire a plumber, I have to trust that he will perform the work competently and not succumb to base incentives to do otherwise—perform shoddy work or overcharge me, for example. The media, obviously, play a vital role in a democracy. We rely on it—its most distinguished components, at least—to provide a true picture of the world, one that we lack the resources ourselves to obtain. We rely on the media’s professionalism in fulfilling this task.
No physical law entails that the top two presidential contenders must be equally morally disreputable. If a candidate whose public life has been largely focused on improving the lives of children runs against a transparent grifter, it shouldn’t be surprising to find moral differences between them. And we should be able to rely on a professional media—again, the most distinguished components of it, at least—to faithfully convey those differences, not systematically fudge them. A news editor who merits the title “professional” should present news about presidential candidates that enables us to gain a true picture of their relative merits and demerits. Prominent executive editors—Dean Baquet of the New York Times, Martin Baron of the Washington Post, and Gerard Baker of the Wall Street Journal, to name a few—might consider whether they merit that title.
Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson