Transparency Issue Clouds Clinton, Trump Campaigns

Transparency Issue Clouds Clinton, Trump Campaigns
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If Hillary Clinton kept her respiratory illness under wraps too long, and Donald Trump still refuses to reveal his tax returns, which of the presidential nominees pays the higher price with voters on the question of transparency?

On Monday, the answer appeared to be Clinton, much to Democrats’ consternation. Clinton campaign officials admitted during television interviews Monday that the Democratic nominee and her team withheld pertinent information about her illness for three days. They tried to argue, with little evident success, that Trump’s secretiveness, including about his tax returns, made him less transparent than Clinton.

Clinton and Trump each said they would release additional personal medical information this week. The public focus, fair or not, will be on what Clinton failed to disclose, not on how much more she’s disclosed than Trump.

“It’s not health -- it’s stealth that is the problem,” said David Axelrod, who helped Barack Obama win the White House in 2008 by formulating a successful strategy to defeat Clinton during that year’s Democratic primaries, on CNN. Earlier Monday, Axelrod tweeted, “Antibiotics can take care of pneumonia. What's the cure for an unhealthy penchant for privacy that repeatedly creates unnecessary problems?”

Clinton campaign spokesman Brian Fallon denied the candidate has kept additional details about her health a secret. “I can attest that it is the case that there is no other undisclosed condition. The pneumonia is the extent of it,” Fallon told MSNBC.

Clinton herself called into CNN Monday night to downplay her illness.

“I’m feeling so much better, and obviously, I should have gotten some rest sooner. I probably would have been better off if I'd just pulled down my schedule on Friday,” she said.

She also took responsibility for not disclosing her pneumonia earlier.

“If we weren't fast enough, you know, I’ve talked to my staff, we, you know, take responsibility for that.”

Trump relished the rare opportunity to compete on offense this week, and chose to attack Clinton on her “basket of deplorables” characterization of some of his supporters rather than to exploit the issue of her health. The decision underscored the dual opportunities the Trump campaign appears to be seeking this week: to show discipline by wishing Clinton a speedy recovery and to bolster his message portraying his opponent as an out-of-touch “insider” who derides American voters.

Trump has repeatedly questioned Clinton’s “stamina,” and his surrogates have fanned conspiratorial flames about the Democratic nominee’s health. Trump often takes credit for having foreseen events, however somber or sensitive, that support his previous statements about issues and people. But in interviews on Monday morning and at events in Baltimore and Asheville, N.C., the GOP nominee seemed to largely resist the temptation -- although he did raise questions about the diagnosis.

“I hope she gets well soon. I don't know what's going on,” he told “Fox and Friends.” “... I just hope she gets well and gets back on the trail, and we'll be seeing her at the debate.”

During an interview on CNBC, Trump inserted a dose of skepticism. "It's interesting because they say pneumonia, but she was coughing very, very badly a week ago," Trump said. "It's very interesting to see what's going on."

Trump said health is a campaign issue, and noted he had recently undergone a physical and would release “very, very specific numbers” sometime this week. When it comes to health disclosure, though, Trump has been less transparent than Clinton. His physician, Dr. Harold Bornstein, recently admitted that his short letter praising the candidate’s health, released in December, was written in haste. Trump told ABC News last week that he would release his complete medical records.

Clinton Campaign Manager Robby Mook said a physician’s “update” describing the former secretary of state’s medical history and current condition will be released by the campaign this week “so that voters can see everything.” He denied that Clinton has been diagnosed with any medical condition or complications beyond those already disclosed publicly.

But even as both candidates pledge to reveal more about their health, questions remain about the extent of the information they would provide and how they plan to disseminate it, including whether they might make their physicians available for interviews.

John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, set the precedent for health disclosure in modern campaigns. Facing the prospect of becoming the oldest president to be inaugurated for a first term and running against a much younger opponent in Obama, McCain released nearly 1,200 pages of medical records and invited reporters and health experts to examine them.

“Trump will have a hard time putting pressure on [Clinton] since he is the gold standard for lack of transparency,” said Rick Davis, a Republican strategist who managed McCain’s presidential campaign. “That said, Hillary should help herself and make her files and doctors available to the media health experts.”

While Trump faces significant transparency issues of his own -- including his refusal to release his tax returns, which presidential candidates customarily make available -- strategists see the fallout from the Clinton campaign’s mishandling of events over the weekend as an opportunity for the GOP nominee.

“The biggest impediment Clinton has to being elected is trustworthiness, and this is yet another example that Clinton's first instinct is a lack of transparency -- to keep things secret and private,” said Doug Heye, a GOP strategist and former Capitol Hill adviser.

But whether Trump can avoid overreaching on the issue remains to be seen.

“Does he go overboard?” Heye said. “He's been Dr. Jekyll for two days. Because we judge Trump on a curve, it’s been, ‘Wow. Maybe he's pivoted.’ But we know that Mr. Hyde is there. And he's never far away."

This week, the campaign is aiming to keep the candidate’s attention on Clinton’s comment during a fundraiser last week that half of Trump’s supporters are deplorable. The campaign released an ad Monday seizing on the remark, and Trump said Clinton should apologize or leave the race. “No one who has such a low opinion of the American people can ever be elected as their president,” he said in Asheville.

Clinton has retracted her use of the word “half,” but the candidate and the campaign have not backed away from their assessment that Trump has attracted racist and bigoted elements to his campaign. Indeed, the campaign seemed to welcome the opportunity to highlight what it sees as “deplorable” attributes of Trump’s campaign and some of his supporters.

While Clinton deviated from campaign etiquette in criticizing voters, she is also calculating that her view of Trump has support. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released over the weekend found 60 percent of voters think Trump is biased against women and minorities.

"If he’d like to argue against Hillary’s claim that people who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic or Islamophobic are deplorable, we are happy to have that debate,” Deputy Communications Director Christina Reynolds said in a statement.

Clinton spent Monday recuperating at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., with her doctor’s encouragement. She is expected to remain off the campaign trail for a few days. Bill Clinton flew to California as a stand-in for his wife at several big-ticket fundraisers scheduled on Tuesday. He also will campaign for her in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

The former president fielded questions about his wife’s health and issues of transparency during an interview in New York with Charlie Rose, broadcast on CBS News and PBS on Monday.

“She’s doing fine,” Bill Clinton said, identifying the symptoms as dehydration and dizziness, which he said his wife had experienced several times in her life. He did not mention pneumonia. He predicted his wife would return to campaigning this week. “I’ll be lucky to hold her back another day,” he said.

Referring to news reports detailing ties between Clinton Foundation donors and the State Department while his wife was secretary of state, Bill Clinton said, “We’ve been as transparent as we can be … and we’ve been more transparent than any other foundation has ever been asked to be.”

GOP assertions that connections between the foundation and the department amounted to “pay-to-play” relationships have contributed to Hillary Clintons’ swell of PR problems this month. “I have said to the best of my knowledge nobody ever got anything from the State Department because they supported the Clinton Foundation,” Bill Clinton told Rose. 

Hillary Clinton’s surrogates -- including Vice President Joe Biden, running mate Tim Kaine, and Obama’s press secretary -- labored Monday to defend what they described as the Democratic nominee’s grit and her ability to resume the final 56 days of the race.

“She’s been transparent about her health,” Biden told an audience Monday. “Hillary's health is good. … I've had walking pneumonia. What you do, you take antibiotics and you rest a little bit.”

During the interview with CNN Monday night, Clinton took the opportunity to criticize her GOP opponent for not being as transparent as she has been.

“People know more about me than almost anyone in public life. They've got 40 years of my tax returns, tens of thousands of e-mails, a detailed medical letter report, all kinds of personal details,” she said.

“Compare everything you know about me with my opponent. I think it's time he met the same level of disclosure that I have for years. You know, you've got a medical report on me that meets the same standard as Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Donald Trump's doctor said he'd be the healthiest president in history. That's just not even serious. And I’ve released nearly 40 years of tax returns. He hasn't released one.”

She added: “I think it's fair to say we've already met the standard of disclosure of past presidential candidates like Mitt Romney and President Obama. … And we know the least about Donald Trump of any candidate in recent American history. You know virtually nothing about his business entanglements, his foreign investors. You know, it's really past time for him to be held to the same standard, not just as me, but of everybody else who has sought this job.” 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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