What's most fascinating about this New York Times story, which ran over the weekend, isn't that it depicts Hillary Clinton as unapologetic and calculating. It's that the Times spoke to at least six sources within her inner circle who helped paint the unflattering portrait, charting Hillary's halting journey from obstinately refusing to apologize to finally issuing an insincere mea culpa as her email scandal continued to spiral. Reporter Maggie Haberman summarized the campaign's dysfunctional internal debate in one tweet:
Many on Clinton's campaign felt they were trapped in a game of press semantics over the word "sorry" http://t.co/4xRsUkgeKn— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) September 11, 2015
They're…not very good at this, are they? The paranoid, arrogant instincts emanate from the very top:
Hillary Rodham Clinton did not want to apologize. For months, when advisers or friends gently suggested she say she was sorry for using a private email address and server while at the State Department, Mrs. Clinton would reply that her actions had been within the law and that the controversy was being manufactured by her political opponents and journalists. Apologizing, she argued, would only legitimize it. On Tuesday, she relented. In an interview with ABC News, Mrs. Clinton said using a private email had been “a mistake,” adding: “I’m sorry about that.” The tortured path to what some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters saw as an overdue and essential step is the story of a presidential campaign in flux, adapting to unanticipated challenges it was not entirely prepared to handle – and of a candidate whose instincts, over a tumultuous lifetime in politics, have repeatedly guided her toward digging in, not giving in, when under attack…Pleas [to apologize] from friends and advisers became more fervent almost a month ago, according to interviews with a half-dozen people with direct knowledge of the discussions, most of whom insisted on anonymity to discuss private conversations.
I can't believe I'm asking this, but did the Clinton camp actively leak this story? Regardless, we now know that Hillary finally softened her stance as her polling position continued to erode, and after her staff presented her with the findings from focus groups they'd conducted on the controversy. (Focus groups are a staple of her campaign, it seems). Even when presented with empirical evidence that a new approach was needed, Mrs. Clinton resisted offering a clear-cut apology over several iterations:
Early the week before Labor Day, the campaign organized two days of focus groups with voters. And on a call with the candidate afterward, a group of her top aides presented Mrs. Clinton with the results: They showed that the cacophony of coverage about her email was drowning out her campaign’s central message...But Mrs. Clinton did not quickly – or easily – arrive at the word “sorry.” In an interview with NBC News on Sept. 4, Mrs. Clinton seemed taken aback when asked if she would apologize to the American people. (So, too, were several of her strategists, who thought the question dramatically overstated the significance of the email controversy.) In the moment, Mrs. Clinton said only that she was sorry if some people were confused by it. On Monday, in an interview with The Associated Press, Mrs. Clinton showed some contrition, but also said she didn’t need to apologize – because her email use “was allowed.” Frustration reached a fever pitch among some of her supporters, who sounded an alarm in calls to Clinton campaign aides.
The most incredible thing about this passage is that Clinton and her top strategists were "taken aback" by pointed questions on the email affair, which they still consider to be a distraction and a footnote. This is political malpractice. Even if Team Hillary launched her campaign holding the mistaken belief that her private, unsecure email server and its tangled nest of ethical, legal, and national security ramifications really was a non-issue, months of heavy coverage should have disabused them of that notion. As the media and Congressional investigators exposed a string of lies Hillary had told about her improper scheme (in additional to court-ordered document releases), the FBI got involved, at the behest of two nonpartisan Inspectors General. Experts say she's violated "clear cut" rules, as the chattering class buzzes over what legal and political consequences may await. There's strong evidence that top secret material was compromised, as well as dozens of classified emails that were classified at the time they were sent and received -- stark departures from the rolling excuses Clinton has offered as previous explanations fall apart. A recent national Quinnipiac poll asked respondents what words came to mind upon hearing the name of various presidential candidates. For Hillary, the top three terms voters listed were "liar," "dishonest" and "untrustworthy." Amid sliding poll numbers, a growing credibility gap, intense media scrutiny, and a federal investigation, the Clinton campaign was caught off guard by challenging questions? That crosses the line from counter-productive insularity into shocking ineptitude. Of course, a simple apology -- especially one surrounded by a blizzard of obfuscation -- misses the point. It doesn't matter whether or not Hillary Clinton is sorry, which she reportedly isn't. What matters is her actual conduct. Last week, journalist Ron Fournier wrote a National Journal column asking, "Sorry For What?" and listing 19 questions Clinton still must answer. A sampling:
1. While apologizing in an ABC interview on Tuesday, you said, “What I had done was allowed; it was aboveboard.” You must know by now that while the State Department allowed the use of home computers in 2009, agency rules required that email be secured. Yours was not. Just nine months into your term, new regulations required that your emails be captured on department servers. You stashed yours on a home-brewed system until Congress found out. Why not admit you violated policy? Why do you keep misleading people?
5. Who authorized the deletion of 31,000 emails from your server? Who carried it out? Were they approved to review and secure classified documents?
6. The public and Congress has no right to see your truly personal email. Do you consider email about your family’s foundation to be personal? Can you guarantee that none of the deleted email involved the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation or its donors?
7. You said you didn’t have time to think about your email system when you started at State, but it appears you put a lot of thought into it. You said you did it for the convenience of having one device, but we found out later you carried at least two. You also said it was for you and President Clinton to email each other, but we now know he has only emailed once in his life. Why can’t we get a straight answer about why you created an unauthorized, unprecedented email infrastructure?
10. You emailed your Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, soliciting a “reply” to your “personal email.” He responded with what is a now classified summary of his discussion with Italy’s foreign minister. Did you not know that type of head-of-state communication is instantly classified? What were you expecting to hear from Mr. Mitchell?
11. Remember getting an email about the mapping of North Korea’s nuclear program, which has since been marked classified? Why didn’t you raise any red flags internally, or do you think this type of information should be legitimately unclassified?
Will Hillary Clinton submit to a detailed interview on these points, preferably under oath? Perhaps she can provide some much-needed answers on these matters, since the aide who set up and maintained her server has decided to plead the fifth. Meanwhile, thick clouds still hang over Hillary's presidential bid. Her prohibitive frontrunner status is now being seriously questioned, as ascendant rival Bernie Sanders has opened up double-digit leads in both Iowa and New Hampshire. And then there's this:
The company that managed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s private e-mail server said it has “no knowledge of the server being wiped,” the strongest indication to date that tens of thousands of e-mails that Clinton has said were deleted could be recovered. Clinton and her advisers have said for months that she deleted her personal correspondence from her time as secretary of state, creating the impression that 31,000 e-mails were gone forever. There is a distinction between e-mails’ being deleted and a server being wiped. If e-mails are deleted or moved from a server, they appear to no longer exist on the device. But experts say, depending on the condition of the server, underlying data can remain on the device, and the e-mails can often be restored.
One of Fournier's questions essentially boiled down to, "what are you hiding?" With the FBI on the case and the now-infamous wipe job appearing less comprehensive than initially thought, we may have answers to that question sooner or later. That prospect alone guarantees that the corrosive drip, drip, drip of this story will stretch ahead for weeks and months to come. No wonder the Democratic establishment is beginning to experience flop sweat. I'll leave you with an early review of Hillary Clinton's new focus-grouped effort to convey warmth and authenticity: