Buried in the 12th paragraph of a New York Times story published five days into the Trump administration came the revelation that even as president, Donald Trump was still using “his old, unsecured Android phone, to the protests of some of his aides.”
The flippancy of the New York Times’ reporting on Trump’s phone, just months removed from the paper’s unrelenting bombardment of stories about Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while secretary of state, was just the first of many signs that the emails obsession from the 2016 presidential campaign wasn’t the result of genuine concern for information security -- from Trump or journalists, alike.
“There was no persuasive evidence of systemic, deliberate mishandling of classified information,” read a report released last week by the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, the email story dominated media coverage, dwarfing any discussion of policy.
In an article published in the Columbia Journalism Review, researcher Duncan J. Watts and economist David M. Rothschild wrote that in the six days following FBI Director James Comey’s October 28 announcement of his decision to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s private email server, The New York Times ran 10 front page stories about Clinton’s emails. Putting that into perspective, the Times ran only 10 front page stories about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.
A Media Matters analysis found that five top newspapers (the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) published a combined 100 articles about or mentioning Clinton’s emails in a single week before the election.
It was a story the campaign was simply unable to shake, thanks in large part to the overwhelming amount of coverage it garnered, whether there was new information to be reported or not. In the minds of voters, Clinton’s emails defined the 2016 campaign.
And as Harvard professor Thomas E. Patterson wrote in September 2016, “Although Clinton’s email issue was clearly deemed important by the media, relatively few stories provided background to help news consumers make sense of the issue -- what harm was caused by her actions, or how common these actions are among elected officials.”
The Trump administration has routinely made clear it doesn’t actually care about information security.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump argued that Clinton could not be trusted with classified information because “it’s going to get revealed.”
In May 2018, Politico reported that Trump uses "a White House cellphone that isn’t equipped with sophisticated security features designed to shield his communications, according to two senior administration officials — a departure from the practice of his predecessors that potentially exposes him to hacking or surveillance.”
In October 2018, The New York Times wrote that American intelligence reports indicated a belief that Chinese and Russian spies have frequently listened in on Trump’s cell phone calls. “White House officials say they can only hope he refrains from discussing classified information when he is on them,” reads the article. Calling him “famously indiscreet,” the Times recalled Trump’s May 2017 Oval Office meeting in which he “shared highly sensitive intelligence passed to the United States by Israel” with Russian officials. Additionally, the article revealed that at some point in 2017, Trump left one of his phones in a golf cart at his Bedminster, New Jersey, club.
In addition to his May 2017 disclosure, which contributed to the U.S. having to extract a top spy based in Russia, Trump also recently tweeted a photo of an Iranian launch pad seemingly taken during a classified intelligence briefing. That photo, Alex Stamos of the Stanford Internet Observatory told Business Insider, may have blown “the cover on a multi-decade, multi-president campaign to disrupt Iranian missile and nuclear development with minimal loss of life.” Responding to criticisms that he released classified information, Trump defended the action by saying, “I released it, which I have the absolute right to do.”
It’s not just Trump, either.
White House adviser Ivanka Trump has used personal email to conduct government business. Her husband and fellow Trump adviser, Jared Kushner, used private email and the messaging application WhatsApp. Additionally, former adviser KT McFarland and former White House strategist Steve Bannon allegedly corresponded through private accounts to discuss the transfer of sensitive nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Aides Stephen Miller, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos all also conducted government business over private email. Most recently, it came to light that Kurt Volker and Gordan Sondland, U.S. envoys for Ukraine and the European Union, respectively, had used their personal phones and WhatsApp to conduct official government business.
And just this morning, Politico reported that the “National Archives and Records Administration has launched an investigation into Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ use of private email for official business.”
In early 2017, Newsweek reported that Kushner, Bannon, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer, and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway had active accounts on the Republican National Committee’s email server. This server, author Nina Burleigh noted, “is the same one the George W. Bush administration was accused of using to evade transparency rules after claiming to have ‘lost’ 22 million emails.” Following the report’s publication, their accounts were deleted.
While media haven’t completely ignored these stories, they certainly haven’t treated them like the five-alarm threat they considered Clinton and her emails
Obviously, we know about the Trump administration's phone and email issues because of reporting, but it's impossible to argue information security has of late been treated with the same gravity it was in 2016.
Earlier this week, New Yorker writer and CNN analyst Jeffrey Toobin made news when he issued a mea culpa about his own role in hammering the Clinton email story. In a follow-up interview with Politico, Toobin expanded on his thoughts:
In his POLITICO interview, Toobin said he doesn’t regret any specific thing he said about Clinton’s email use, but believes the volume of coverage he gave to the issue was disproportionate to its importance. Toobin said the experience shows you “can make mistakes in news coverage without making factual mistakes.”
“I think I got into the trap of false equivalence during the 2016 campaign,” Toobin said. “Comparing Donald Trump’s record of ethical problems with Hillary’s emails lent a misleading impression. And I have to say, I am determined not to do that again to the extent that I can. I am going to try to look at corruption and ethics issues each on their own rather than trying to create some sort of equivalence that isn’t there.”
Toobin’s comments are notable, both because they’re so clear, but also because few prominent journalists or commentators have acknowledged that the Clinton email server story was overhyped and made clear that they’ve learned lessons to apply to future coverage.
It’s still unclear why that particular story dragged on for years, and it’s worth wondering what coverage might have looked like had Clinton’s server never existed. Would there have been an increase in the amount of policy coverage during the campaign, or would the same people who wrote endlessly about emails have simply found another scandal -- real or imagined -- to latch onto in the name of some sense of balance against Trump’s many campaign scandals?
If Clinton’s emails actually mattered, then stories about Trump’s irresponsible use of technology would theoretically be more than one-off articles that get lost in a sea of larger news. Mainstream news outlets allowed Trump and his right-wing media allies to set the media agenda in 2016. Just over a year out from the 2020 election, it’s worth asking whether those same outlets are equipped to learn from the mistakes of 2016, or if they’re going to find a new story to blow up into 2020’s version of the email server.