This is why people don't trust Hillary Clinton: Email scandal is a reminder that her guardedness is ultimately self-defeating

Every step of the way, her breaking of the rules and handling of the email flap reeks of one thing: deception

Published May 28, 2016 3:59PM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Randall Hill)
Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Randall Hill)

Perhaps it's because she's been in public life for so long, but Hillary Clinton's mania for secrecy is maddening. She guards her image and her talking points with near-heroic attention. Every statement, every speech, and every gesture feels contrived. Every decision appears driven by an excessive concern for blowback. If given an option, she conceals. When caught, she digs in and denies, denies, denies. Even when the truth is plain to see, she rarely budges.

The latest revelations concerning her private email sever are yet another example of her self-defeating cautiousness. The State Department's Office of Inspector General released a report on Thursday stating that Clinton “did not comply with the department's policies that were implemented in accordance with the Federal Records Act,” and that officials “would not” have approved the arrangement if Clinton had requested it. This contradicts Clinton's repeated claims that her actions didn't violate department rules.

Rather than own it, Clinton's surrogates are equivocating on her behalf, pointing to institutional failures and insisting previous secretaries of State adopted similar measures. The official line seems to be that her use of a private server was “not unique.” But this is half-true. Others, like Colin Powell, kept certain emails private, but not nearly to the degree that Clinton did. Furthermore, cyber security has improved dramatically since Powell's tenure. As The New York Times noted, “the rules made clear by the time she became the nation's top diplomat that using a private server for official business was neither allowed nor encouraged.”

Republicans will overstate the nature of her offenses at the State Department, but there's no doubt she deliberately broke the rules and, consequently, compromised security. The list of false accusations hurled at Clinton is long, but this isn't one of them.

The error in judgment aside, what makes this scandal so exasperating is how unnecessary it is. There was no reason to do this, apart from an obsession with secrecy. Even worse, Clinton had several opportunities to correct course and she refused to do so. She was told, on multiple occasions, to follow protocol in order to minimize security risks; she ignored the warnings. Now her campaign will be interminably weighed down by this story, and that's her fault.

Ironically, Clinton's guardedness is part of the reason her image needs constant care. I've no doubt Clinton is the warm, brilliant woman the people closest to her say she is. But voters don't see that. She's been attacked so brutally for so long that she's become too cautious, too scripted. Many of the Republican-led assaults on Clinton over the years were purely political (think Benghazi), but that's no reason to assume a perpetual defensive crouch. The right-wing hit jobs are unavoidable. If you're Clinton, why let that define you as a politician?

It's not often I agree with David Brooks, but he asked an intelligent question in his column this week: Why is Hillary Clinton so disliked? She's nearly as disliked as Donald Trump, whose unlikability is arguably the most explicable fact in the universe. But Clinton's unpopularity is more complicated. She's an accomplished and tireless public servant who has worked very hard to be liked by the people she serves. So what's the problem?

Brooks comes close to an answer: “At least in her public persona, Clinton gives off an exclusively professional vibe: industrious, calculated, goal-oriented, distrustful. It's hard from the outside to have a sense of her as a person; she is a role.” This is true enough, but I'd emphasize “calculated” and “distrustful.” She appears machine-like because she's so afraid to let the mask slip, to expose herself to any risks whatsoever. There's a certain wisdom in that, but taken too far it becomes an albatross.

The private email server is a direct result of Clinton trying too hard to protect herself. To the uncommitted voter, it looks less like cautiousness and more like deception. And it feeds the narrative that will plague Clinton for the rest of the election: She's untrustworthy and inauthentic.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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