"Now's a good time for a question, right?" wisecracked a journalist from the press scrum, as two chocolatiers flanked the candidate.
The scene was yet another Hillary Clinton campaign photo opportunity, this time at Hub Coffee Roasters in Reno, Nevada, just after she denounced Donald Trump for his association with the online racists of the "alt right." It was, in the words of CNN's Dan Merica, "a great chance to answer questions."
Instead, Clinton, chewing on a sea-salt caramel truffle, gestured grandly to the assembled reporters. "I want you to offer it to all the press, they are so wonderful, so cooperative, so hardworking, they all deserve a piece of chocolate."
"Why not outright call Donald Trump a racist today?" tried one journalist.
"You'll love this, Tim," Clinton barreled on, pointing to a tray of chocolates. "So good. So good. Everybody try one!"
And then she was gone.
Political candidates routinely ignore questions from reporters, but Clinton is a master of the art of refusing to engage with the media except on the most controlled terms. Though she's given some one-on-one interviews, she hasn't submitted to a press conference since a seven-question event in Iowa almost ten months ago. Trump has sucked up all the oxygen in the race thanks to his barn-burning rallies, insane public pronouncements, and thuggish exhortations against the media. Meanwhile, the Democratic nominee has almost receded from view—and with her solid lead in the polls both nationally and in swing states, who's to say Clinton's strategy is wrong?
In truth, her caginess is deeper than mere electoral strategy. Even as Clinton winds her way back toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, her abiding mistrust of the press, refusal to be held accountable, and habit of stonewalling whenever possible adds up to one thing: The woman who will likely be our next president has a transparency problem.
The infamous private email server, which enabled Clinton to skirt record-keeping rules and send emails that wouldn't turn up in Freedom of Information Act records requests, is just the most notable example of Clinton's habit of secrecy. She was the first secretary of state to discard a state.gov address in favor of a secret account, her staff deleted thousands of emails, probably irrevocably, and hackers may have breached her unsecured account. But though all of that may be outrage-inducing, it is Clinton's anomic political handling of the scandal that has been most puzzling.
Given the opportunity to disclose her private email account to Congress in December 2012, Clinton instead ignored congressional questioning about the account's existence, which was then discovered anyway. What followed was a torturous process of extraction in which the emails were released in dribs and drabs for months, culminating in the recovery by the FBI of even more missing emails. "As a result," the New York Times reported this month, "thousands of emails that Mrs. Clinton did not voluntarily turn over to the State Department last year could be released just weeks before the election in November."
A sidestepping of federal record-keeping requirements that culminates in the release of the same records as an "October surprise"—poetic justice, maybe. But it is Clinton's profound good fortune that, first during the primary campaign, and now during the general election, her opponents have been unwilling or unable to exploit her inability to play straight. Bernie Sanders at first refused to make an issue of Clinton's email troubles, and only belatedly decried the murky confluence of the State Department and the Clinton Foundation under her leadership. Donald Trump is a malfunctioning cotton candy machine, too haywire to spin one durable, lasting strand. Given the insanity of the right-wing conspiracy theories about Clinton—she of the cattle futures, the secret Parkinson's, and the Vince Foster murder—it's not hard to see why one might dismiss less wild accusations against her. Released from the specter of an FBI investigation, the message from Clinton on July 31 was breezy and assured: FBI director James Comey "said my answers were truthful."
Unfortunately, that wasn't true. In the hands of a skilled political opponent, Clinton might have been successfully painted as the kind of person with, at best, a shaky relationship to the truth. Instead, Trump spent a good portion of the following week in a public fight with the parents of a dead Muslim American veteran.
Barring a truly unexpected turn, Clinton will be elected having never been seriously and effectively scrutinized by her opponents, nor really engaging with the press.
An Associated Press report last week found that of the 154 private citizens indicated by State Department records to have met with or phoned Secretary Clinton during her first years in Foggy Bottom, over half had donated to the Clinton Foundation: "Combined, the 85 donors contributed as much as $156 million... At least 40 donated more than $100,000 each, and 20 gave more than $1 million."
This was a troubling revelation—if not proof that money buys access to the highest offices of the land, at the very least an indication of how the Clinton Foundation and its donors might taint a Clinton administration. Clinton herself dismissed it as "a lot of smoke and no fire." Yet the State Department has battled the AP in court to to keep Clinton's detailed schedules private until after the election, releasing some, once again, in dribs and drabs. It is not always entirely clear who has even donated to the Clinton Foundation's associated charities—and when a high-profile nonprofit with ties to the highest levels of government takes money from dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and private companies including Blackwater and Swiss banks like UBS, it's entirely reasonable to ask about the motives of people involved. The possibility of money influencing politics is real enough for Bill Clinton to vow to (maybe) stop accepting foreign donations should Hillary be elected. Why then were such donations accepted at all in the years leading up to Hillary Clinton's 2008 presidential bid?
Clinton's defenders often say that the media subjects her and her husband to an unfair level of scrutiny. It is true that, amid the compelling truths of how the Clintons wield power, there exist a host of "Arkansas Project" conspiracy theories, falsehoods, and inventions deployed by the right purely to destroy a hated political adversary. But let's not kid ourselves. Clinton is a former secretary of state who has fomented foreign wars. She is a former senator for Wall Street's home state, dutifully representing its interests. She is married to a former president who has well-documented connections to nearly every other powerful person in the world, connections which have been invaluable to some of the wheeler-dealers listed as major Clinton Foundation donors. With that sort of influence should come a lot of prying eyes.
Maybe if this campaign had played out differently, Clinton's secrecy would have doomed her. But as it stands, barring a truly unexpected turn, Clinton will be elected having never been seriously and effectively scrutinized by her opponents, nor really engaging with the press. In the wake of Barack Obama's devolution into one of the most secretive presidents in history, the ramifications of an emboldened, unaccountable, and opaque Clinton administration will reverberate far beyond a measly basement server in Chappaqua.
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