Hillary Clinton — by law, by circumstance, by accident, and by dint of Russian hackers — is the most transparent presidential candidate in modern history. And Donald Trump is the least.
“Clinton has a reputation for secretiveness, and yet she has a robust public record that goes well beyond what we know about Trump,” says Steve Aftergood, head of the Federation of American Scientists’ government secrecy program. “Even her attempts to conceal information, such as emails, have led to unprecedented disclosure. That is not necessarily to her credit, but it is nevertheless a real factor.”
But it doesn’t feel that way. Even as we are drowning in info about Clinton, we feel we know little about her; her reputation for secrecy, for opacity, for inaccessibility persists. And even as we have very little information about Trump’s private dealings, we feel we know much — perhaps too much — about him. The result is a window into the strange ways we judge transparency, openness, and disclosure in American politics.
Clinton’s public record is long, deep, scrutinized, and hacked
Before digging into that confusion, it’s worth simply laying out the facts. We have Hillary Clinton’s full tax returns going back to the year 1977. We have, with varying degrees of completeness, public schedules from her time in the White House, the Senate, the State Department, and her multiple campaigns — you can pick any day of the past 25 years at random and have a pretty good chance of figuring out exactly where Clinton was and what she was doing.
We have lists of her campaign’s donors and her foundation’s donors. We have tens of thousands of emails from her time at the State Department — emails that have received more journalistic scrutiny than those of any Cabinet secretary in history. Thanks to Russian hackers trying to disrupt the US election, we have thousands of her campaign chair’s emails, giving us unprecedented insight into the inner workings of her political operation. We have reams of investigative reports, congressional testimony, and documentary evidence from the inquiries into Whitewater, Benghazi, and Travelgate.
We have Hillary Clinton’s multiple autobiographies, memoirs, and policy books. We have so many independent biographies that I couldn’t come up with an accurate count, but the number of serious efforts to explore Clinton’s past is at least in the dozens, and includes a 650-page investigative effort by Carl Bernstein, one of the reporters who broke Watergate. We also have all the sundry profiles, interviews, features, essays, wire stories, op-eds, and special reports that journalists have done on Clinton since she first entered the Arkansas governor’s mansion in 1978.
Much of this is the byproduct of Clinton living a long, varied life in public service. The daily disclosures mandated by the Senate, by the White House, and by the State Department are far beyond anything asked of private citizens. The length of time Clinton has spent at the top of American politics means her record of disclosure simply goes back much further than Mitt Romney’s did in 2012 or Barack Obama’s did in 2008. Similarly, the intensity and quality of the journalistic inquiry that focuses on top public officials is unique, and Clinton has been at the center of it for an unusually long time.
Trump’s record is thinner, shorter, and protected by secrecy and NDAs
The story with Trump is quite different. We have the three pages from his 1995 tax return that someone leaked to the New York Times. We have the work the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold has done to untangle the strange finances of Trump’s foundation. We have the books Trump has written about himself, and a couple of biographies, which are a mix of celebrity puffery and some tough, revealing work trying to understand his various casino deals. So too with the journalism on Trump, which has only begun to study him as a political figure rather than as a celebrity and real estate magnate. We have his financial disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, in which he claims, in all capital letters, to have “10 BILLION DOLLARS,” but no one believes that document.
The bulk of our national knowledge of Trump has come not from his disclosures but from his management of his own image — from the items he leaked to gossip reporters, the television shows he appeared on, the interviews he gave. Digging beyond that image is difficult because Trump has forced his former associates, and even his former romantic partners, to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Looking toward their possible presidencies, the difference is, if possible, even starker. In September, the Associated Press tallied up the words of policy detail Clinton and Trump have released. “To date, Trump's campaign has posted just seven policy proposals on his website, totaling just over 9,000 words.” By contrast, Clinton’s campaign had put out “65 policy fact sheets, totaling 112,735 words.”
Trump has taken to bragging about the opacity of his agenda, warning that any good negotiator needs to be “unpredictable,” and his constant contradictions and unrealistic proposals have led supporters, like venture capitalist Peter Thiel, to ask that we take Trump “seriously, but not literally” — a request that underscores the Trump campaign’s belief that it’s simply not important to know what their candidate has done in the past or would do in the future.
"She's got people that sit in cubicles writing policy all day. Nothing's ever going to happen. It's just a waste of paper," Trump told Time magazine in June. "My voters don't care and the public doesn't care. They know you're going to do a good job once you're there."
What do we want when we say we want openness?
As John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, notes, Trump is opaque and secretive, but also unusually open with both the public and the press: “It’s straight from his mind to the microphone, or to Twitter in the middle of the night, in a way that’s extraordinary.”
Clinton, by contrast, has lived a life marked by extraordinary amounts of disclosure, transparency, surveillance, investigation, and violations of privacy. She is also — perhaps as a result — inaccessible, careful, and withholding. Many political journalists have the experience of getting a direct callback from Donald Trump in which he ruminates expansively, even recklessly, on whatever questions he’s asked. That doesn’t happen with Clinton. She clearly dislikes talking to the press, and she is cautious and precise in her answers when she does engage, creating the impression that something is being withheld.
There’s an irony to Clinton’s relationship with the press, Aftergood observes. “She tries to keep things secret, and that leads to their ultimate disclosure. People make accusations against her, and the effort to refute them leads to more disclosure.” The result is someone who seems secretive — who perhaps is secretive — but who has ended up divulging more information about her personal life, her political operation, her policy process, her daily schedule, and her financial dealings than any candidate in memory. Yet we react less to the information we get than to her reluctance to release it and her demeanor when she does — we prize the performance of openness more than the openness itself.
We are in the odd place of knowing more about Clinton than we can process but somehow feeling like we know nothing at all. We simultaneously have vast gaps in our knowledge of Trump even as we wonder why he can’t hold anything back. It’s a strange election.