The controversy over Hillary Rodham Clinton's use of a private email account while secretary of State has turned a spotlight on an inevitable question about her expected presidential candidacy: whether Americans trust her.
Clinton has lived in the national public eye for nearly a quarter of a century, and over that time her political opponents have found that issues of trust can serve as powerful weapons against her.
As far back as 1996, when she was first lady, a survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center asked people to offer one-word descriptions of Clinton. The labels most often used by admirers were “strong” and “intelligent,” while opponents most often used “dishonest” and what Pew decorously described as “a derogatory term for women that rhymes with rich.”
The accusation that Clinton can't be trusted or isn't honest has served as a rallying cry for opponents ever since. They've been helped at times by her own actions. Her penchant for control and secrecy — or, as she has put it, a desire to preserve some privacy despite her public career — repeatedly has led Clinton into situations in which many Americans believed she was, at best, skirting rules that others were expected to follow.
The intense partisanship that has divided opinions about Clinton through most of her public career has focused on that part of her personality. A year ago, for example, when she was still perceived by many Americans more as an admired former secretary of State than as a presidential candidate, another Pew survey found widespread agreement that Clinton was “tough.”
But asked whether she was “honest,” Democrats and Republicans differed sharply. More than 80% of Democrats said yes, while only 30% of Republicans agreed. As partisan gaps have widened among American voters, views about Clinton have remained highly polarized.
Given that history, it was only a matter of time before trust came to the fore in the presidential campaign.
Many Democrats say they were resigned to that.
“I think this is just the warmup to everything the Republicans plan to do for the next year. Hillary Clinton is the front-runner not only for the Democratic nomination but in head-to-head races against Republicans,” said Jim Demers, a longtime Democratic activist and prominent Clinton supporter in New Hampshire, the first primary state. “They're aiming their artillery at her early.”
But the fact that the trust issue has surfaced already, and that Clinton and her aides responded slowly, has dismayed many Democrats.
“It hasn't been an encouraging pregame,” said a former official in her husband's administration who supports her candidacy and who, like most high-level Democrats, would criticize her performance only anonymously.
“It's obviously problematic,” the former official said. “People don't really trust the Clintons. They may like them, but they don't trust them. I think she should be in a period of ‘show me' rather than ‘trust me.'”
The debate over Clinton's emails has increased worries among Democrats about the lack of a campaign organization on their side months after Republicans began setting up their operations, and it appears to have accelerated the schedule for Clinton to formally announce her candidacy, probably next month.
In her news conference Tuesday, Clinton said she had decided when she became secretary of State that she would use a private email account as a matter of “convenience” because it meant she could use one account for both personal and work emails and carry a single smartphone. Government employees generally are required to use separate devices to access private and government email accounts.
Last year, she said, when State Department officials asked her and her three immediate predecessors to turn over copies of any work-related emails they had on private accounts, she asked her lawyers to review the roughly 60,000 emails she sent during her tenure — which works out to about 40 per day — and to separate messages related to official business from those that were private.
The review turned up 30,490 work emails, which were printed out and given to the State Department, and 31,830 “private, personal” messages, which were deleted, her aides said in a statement.
Clinton defended her deletion of the personal messages on privacy grounds, couching her argument in terms that seemed aimed at connecting with the voters who may be judging her next year.
“No one wants their personal emails made public, and I think most people understand that and respect that privacy,” she said. The personal messages touched on matters such as her daughter Chelsea's wedding, the funeral of her mother, Dorothy Rodham, and her yoga classes, she said. She did not say why deleting the emails was necessary to keep them private.
Critics immediately fired back, saying Clinton and her aides could have used the opportunity to delete emails that were politically embarrassing or could have provided evidence of wrongdoing.
“We don't get to grade our own papers in life,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the chairman of the special House committee investigating the 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the ambassador.
“She doesn't get to determine what's a public record and what's a personal record. Someone else needs to do that,” Gowdy said Wednesday on MSNBC. He repeated a call for Clinton to allow an outside party to examine the email server at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y.
So far, most Democrats have defended Clinton, although sometimes without huge enthusiasm.
When asked whether White House officials trusted that Clinton had acted appropriately, Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “There is no evidence that's been marshaled thus far to demonstrate that there should be a lack of trust in that regard.”
The lack of criticism within the party eases the way for her nascent campaign to chalk up attacks to Republican partisanship. Polls since the controversy began have shown no erosion in the strong support that likely Democratic primary voters give Clinton, who holds huge leads over potential rivals both nationally and in early primary states.
Among the few Democrats willing to openly criticize her is Richard Harpootlian, the former South Carolina Democratic chairman, who has long been a harsh judge of Clinton.
“The big question now is what did she delete and why did she delete it?” Harpootlian said.
“Given the history, she should be more sensitive than any other American to make sure she is transparent. ‘Trust me' isn't enough. It's amazing to me she calls a press conference 10 days after this … and says, ‘Trust me,'” he added. “I'm sorry, tell me why. Why should we trust you?”
But veteran pollster Andrew Kohut, the founding director of the Pew Survey, said, “‘Trust me' may be sufficient.”
Unless more damaging facts emerge, the email issue is not “likely to evoke a great deal of public reaction,” he said. And, particularly in the case of a figure as well known as Clinton, voters may have decided they can live with something less than perfection.
“Trust still matters,” Kohut said.
“But people will look at a candidate and say on a certain dimension we may not trust them, but they are doing well.”